POTOMAC, Md. – Madison sported a new pink collar. Franklin sauntered toward the sound of a whistle to nibble chicken out of a welcoming hand. Jay lapped water from a bowl and explored the landscape of a sunny back yard.
Seven beagles and their human families enjoyed the pleasures of a warm afternoon and a good belly rub for the dogs on Monday in Potomac, Md. But for the beagles, according to the woman responsible for bringing them there, this seemingly ordinary afternoon was the first time they had felt sunshine or set foot on green grass.
The beagles came from a laboratory in Virginia, where they were used as test subjects for pharmaceutical or product research. Through an organization called Beagle Freedom Project, they were released Monday to foster families.
“This is the industry’s dirty little secret. … They don’t want people to know dogs are being tested, period,” said Shannon Keith, founder and president of the two-year-old organization.
In fact, the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report on animal testing said that of the 1.1 million animals used as research subjects in the United States, almost 65,000 are dogs. That’s far fewer than the number of primates and rodents, but far more than many dog lovers would guess.
Of those dogs, most are beagles, said Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States. The dogs are valued as research subjects because of their docile nature.
The USDA requires that laboratory dogs get daily exercise, Conlee said, but it is normally done indoors.
Conlee and Keith said such dogs are usually killed when they are no longer useful to the lab. But Keith’s organization has been persuading one lab at a time to give the dogs to foster families rather than euthanize them. She takes credit for 125 releases so far, including Monday’s seven from a lab she would not name.
The families who took the beagles home from Potomac came from as far away as New York and New Hampshire. All already own dogs, and all were interviewed to make sure they were up to the task of caring for animals that, as Keith put it, need to learn how to be dogs.
But the beagles won’t be barking. Keith said their vocal cords were cut in the lab.
Beagle Freedom Project will pay for the dogs’ veterinary care, food, beds and other supplies throughout their two to eight months in foster homes. Then either the foster family or another family will adopt the dogs permanently.
On Monday, it was up to the eager foster families to pick their dogs.
“We like a basket case,” Dennis Paquet said in explaining why he and his wife, Jen, picked Franklin, who had a crooked tail and had recently been shaved for surgery.
No one knew exactly what tests the dogs had undergone, but they looked mostly healthy.
Gail Thomssen, who was taking home a fourth dog to add to a menagerie that already includes a three-legged dog and two rescue dogs, said the beagles’ coarse coats and odor suggested a poor diet. And she noted that her new beagle let her cradle him in her arms like a baby, which her beagle at home would resist.
“They’re really craving that human touch and that love,” she said, her shirt coated with dog hair.