Next time you brush your teeth or make a Botox appointment, think of Snoopy, the Peanuts dog who sleeps atop his wee red house and dances with unabashed glee at suppertime. Snoopy is a beagle, which is exactly the breed that many labs prefer when conducting dental/medical research testing. Thankfully, beagles have won a new champion in Shannon Keith, an LA-based animal rights lawyer and founder of the newly established Beagle Freedom Foundation.
Just over a month old, the foundation aims to rescue and find homes for beagles used in laboratory research, meanwhile encouraging labs to release their animals instead of destroying them. It began in early December when Shannon received a tip that a nearby testing lab would be willing to release a dozen dogs to people who sought homes for them. (Because of the holidays, lab workers didn't wanted to stay and care for them so the dogs were slated for destruction.) Shannon and her crew could only take on two dogs (the other 10 went to a similar foundation) with just 24-hours notice.
"Not only is this a horrific practice, but is also wasteful in so many ways. Often the experiments that these dogs were subjected to have not concluded, and the new batch coming in will need to start from scratch."
--Shannon Keith, SFGate.com
I chatted with Shannon by phone, hoping to learn more about her noble mission. For fear of ruining the relationship and the informal arrangement with the research lab, Shannon opted not to disclose the name of the facility. "I will say it's a well respected university in Northern California," she said. Evidently, the lab tests for medical products that are currently on the market.
This heart-tugging video shows Shannon and her friends picking up the pups and introducing them to the world. In their previous lab life, they'd never been petted, breathed fresh air or romped around on grass but their inherent 'dogginess' soon kicks in. Check it out:
It's a happy ending for the two beagles, Freedom (1.5 yrs. old) and Bigsby (2.5 yrs. old), who have both found forever homes, but there were psychological challenges. Both dogs have "kitty friends" that are helping with their adaptation to home life but Shannon says it's still a long road for Bigsby.
"Both are progressing quite well but Bigsby is still timid and quite afraid. Sounds from the faucet, air conditioner, heater, fridge, stairs - everything we take for granted - they are deathly afraid of. And, it’s hard for them to communicate because they can’t make a sound," said Shannon. The dogs were "debarked" as pups so as not to disturb lab workers and yes, that's as horrible as it sounds -- their vocal chords were removed.
To get around this problem, one owner has a doorknob bell and is training the dog to hit the bell when he wants to go outside. "They both love people. They greet everyone with kisses and love," Shannon said. "It’s quite amazing to see the trust they have in people."
These are exactly the people-pleasing personality traits that make beagles so popular with the research industry. Widely known as docile, trusting and forgiving, beagles apparently "adapt well" to living in a cage and are inexpensive to feed. Labs usually buy the dogs in bulk from commercial breeders (for about $750 per animal) who specifically breed for those same trusting qualities. This makes the dogs the breed-of-choice for testing pharmaceuticals, household products and cosmetics.
For Shannon, animal rights isn't just a hobby, it's her day job and her passion. As an criminal defense attorney in Studio City, California, Shannon fights for animals and their human rescuers. In 2004, Shannon co-founded the nonprofit animal advocacy group, Animal Rescue, Media & Education (ARME), which utilizes the media to educate the masses on animal rights.
"I started it because I was doing a lot of rescue work and getting frustrated. We were doing the ‘clean-up’ and not stopping the problem at its roots. With ARME, we aim to use media as an educational tool to show people what’s going on with these animals because they really just don't know. The mainstream media doesn’t want to show people what’s going on because so many shows on television are being sponsored by companies like Proctor & Gamble, a company that does a lot of the testing and buys a lot of advertising. They (media companies) don’t want to piss them off."
So, Shannon picked her own camera and made two award-winning documentaries, Behind the Mask, about people that risk their lives to rescue animals (Tagline: "The first "fun" animal rights movie!"), and Skin Trade, about the fur and fashion industry.
But despite all the information available by people like Shannon, animal testing is more prevalent than most people think, and the biggest thing one can do is to address this problem is to buy products that clearly state on the label: "Not tested on animals" or "Cruelty Free." The list of companies that still test on animals proves shocking. PETA offers a great online guide for shopping here. Also, check out these handy iPhone apps.
Oddly enough, the FDA does not require animal testing on cosmetics or household goods, yet the practice persists in the US. The tests primarily address general toxicity, eye and skin irritancy, phototoxicity (toxicity triggered by ultraviolet light) and something called mutagenicity. Both Bigsby and Freedom had calloused veins on their front legs from having their blood taken up to 11 times a week.
Across the pond, Europe has made some progress in changing attitudes; cosmetic testing on animals is banned in the Netherlands, Belgium, and the UK. And in 2002, the European Union (EU) agreed to phase in a near-total ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics throughout the EU and to ban all cosmetics-related animal testing going forward. France, the home of the world's largest cosmetics company, L'Oreal, is fighting this ban (shiny) tooth and (manicured) nail, even bringing the matter to the European Court of Justice.
I also spoke to Kathy Guillermo, VP of Laboratory Investigations for PETA, who provided a startling statistic:
"The tests on animals aren't even conclusive. 92 percent of tests on animals fail on humans. That's a nine out of ten failure rate."
"Of course, none of it makes sense to us. Animals simply don't make good models for human beings. Sure, we can cure cancer in mice but not in people."
Guillermo went on to explain that this statistic was released by the FDA itself and "speaks to the stunning testament of failure in animal testing."
Most researchers tend to agree with Guillermo and new technologies are being considered to replace animal testing. Some credit must be given to L'Oreal who funded a study to develop a chip that could potentially replace the need for some animal testing:
"Technology allowing cosmetic makers to test for allergic reactions to their products without controversial animal trials is in the works and could be in use by next year. The technology developed by Hurel Corp., with funding from cosmetics maker L'Oreal, is designed to replace tests on mice and guinea pigs used to predict skin reactions from drugs and cosmetics. The device uses laboratory-grown human skin cells to simulate the body's allergic response to foreign chemicals. Preliminary experiments show promise, but rigorous tests are still needed to determine the technology's accuracy.The standard method for testing allergic reactions involves applying chemicals to the ears of mice, which are later killed and dissected for study."
--"Technology Aims To Replace Animal Testing", Associated Press, Matthew Perrone, 1/14/11
This is welcome news but I still have to ask: Does lipstick really need to be applied to the eyeball of a bunny to prove it an eye irritant? Are animals suffering needlessly when common sense might work just as well? If I am able to buy "Cruelty Free" face moisturizer at Target (Alba is my brand of choice), then why do other moisturizers still need animal testing? My simplistic view may be naive but it's worth asking such questions.
Meanwhile, Shannon expects another fire-alarm call later this month when the lab releases more beagles. If you live in the SoCal region and are interested in adoption, please give Shannon a call.
BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz
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