Animals Start New Lives After Time in the Lab

Scientists and others have been opening their homes to research animals after the studies conclude, with legislation in some states now mandating adoption.

By Ashley Yeager | March 16, 2018

Venus and Mercury, two Swedish Briard dogs, found a loving home with Penn researchers Jean Bennett and Albert Maguire after participating in a study to develop a gene therapy for a human form of blindness.PEGGY PETERSON PHOTOGRAPHYLouie is a redbone coonhound. He’s almost four years old and loves to play and chew on bones, just like most other dogs. But unlike his neighborhood pals, Louie’s back story is pretty unique. He used to live in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and was part of a study to examine the physiology of asthma.

“He was such a nice dog,” says Bob Adams, head of research animal resources at JHU. The pup was a little over a year old when his time in the asthma study was over. “I took a picture of him and sent it to my wife and said, ‘What do you think?’ and she said, ‘Sure.’ . . . So I adopted Louie.”

Louie’s move from the lab to the home life is an example of a long-standing tradition of adoption among scientists and vets, who often try to rehome research animals once the lab work is done.

JHU’s first lab animal was adopted in 1983. “At least, that’s the earliest one I have paperwork for,” Adams says. “We’ve been doing this for a long time.” So have other institutions. An informal survey conducted in 2014 by Cindy Buckmaster, a molecular physiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, revealed that research labs across the country and in Canada have been adopting out lab animals on a regular basis, some for decades.

The adoptions don’t just involve dogs and cats, either. They include ferrets, guinea pigs, chinchillas, mini pigs, livestock, rodents, amphibians, and even fish, Buckmaster tells The Scientist.

Despite the common practice of rehoming lab animals, animal rights activists and lawmakers say institutions still aren’t doing enough.

The push for mandatory adoptions

At JHU, the research protocol that university scientists use for approval of animal studies actually states that lab animals that do not need to be euthanized should be considered for adoption. “We address it right up front,” Adams says. “We ask an investigator, ‘If you don’t need to euthanize it, have you made plans for it?’” Many universities have similar policies in place, and more are working to develop such adoption protocols with help from Buckmaster and Homes for Animal Heroes, an organization she developed to rehome research animals, mainly dogs.

Many of the adoptions are private, Buckmaster notes, with vets, vet techs, researchers, or lab assistants taking the animals home. At some institutions, members of the public are invited to adopt former research animals. Buckmaster says these opportunities can sometimes negatively affect the labs because animal rights groups have publicized such adoptions to advocate against animal research.

There were concerns that the genes used in the therapy could somehow enter the environment and become dangerous to the public. Once Bennett showed this could not happen, Venus and Mercury were hers.

In 2013, an organization called the Beagle Freedom Project (BFP), now renamed the Rescue + Freedom Project, held what it called its first East Coast Rescue—adopting two beagles from a vet tech school in Pennsylvania that had been rehoming animals to the public for nearly 30 years. In this case, the adoption coordinator at the institution wanted the two dogs to go home together because they were very close to one another.

Within a week of the adoption, BFP posted a video and page on its website claiming that the dogs had health issues from poor treatment (an assertion that Buckmaster disputes). Shannon Keith, president of the Rescue + Freedom Project, defends her organization’s work as helping dogs and cats live a full life after the lab. “We were innovative in the way that we did things. We did the rescue then educated the public [on animals in lab research] through the happy endings, instead of shock value of horrific images of animals in a laboratory,” she tells The Scientist. Researchers “tell us they’d rather kill [the animals] than give them to us because they don’t want the public to know that dogs and cats are being tested on,” she continues. “We shook things up back in 2010 when we started. We made this public.”

Since then, the Rescue + Freedom Project began to push for state-level legislation to require adoptions when an animal’s time in the lab is up. The goal is “not to interfere with the research because we knew that would be a sure-fire loser, but to just say, ‘Hey, when you’re done, it’s going to be mandatory to release [the animals] to a 501(c)(3) rescue organization so they can have a second chance at life,’” Keith says.

According to the National Association for Biomedical Research, as of November 2017, six states have passed such legislation. Similar bills are pending in four and failed to pass in five.

Although Buckmaster and Keith share the desire to see more lab animal adoptions, Buckmaster considers the Rescue + Freedom Project’s tactics exploitative, noting that the two beagles in BFP’s East Coast Rescue ended up split apart and living in two different states.

Adams, too, is concerned that the ulterior motive of the project is to push for the end of animal research. (Among BFP’s former leaders was a convicted felon who served six years in federal prison for harassing researchers.) “If we could do without animal-based research that would be a good thing,” he says, “but at present, animal-based research is essential for advancing our knowledge.”

Red tape

Not every animal is eligible for adoption after a research project, and scientists sometimes have to jump through hoops to get permission to take them home or adopt them out. Take the case of ophthalmology researchers Jean Bennett and Albert Maguire of the University of Pennsylvania who adopted Venus and Mercury—Swedish Briard dogs that the researchers had used to test an experimental gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a human disease that causes degeneration of the retina. Based on successful experiments in dogs, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the gene therapy for clinical trials in humans in December 2017.

Mercury and Venus had a congenital condition that mimics LCA, and the experimental gene therapy partially restored their sight. Bennett recalls that when Venus, the mother of Mercury and the majority of the study animals, came to the lab she couldn’t see at all and was easily startled. “She was so sweet but fearful of everything,” Bennett says. “If you touched her, she’d freak out.”

As Bennett spent more time with Venus, she could tell the dog loved her, and she loved the dog. “I wanted to reward her,” she says. Venus had given so much to science, and she deserved a life where she could enjoy the sight—seeing squirrels and trees that were previously obscured—she’d regained through the study, Bennett says.

To take the dogs home, however, Bennett had to get approval from numerous UPenn officials, including the provost. There were concerns that the genes used in the therapy could somehow enter the environment and become dangerous to the public. Once Bennett showed this could not happen, Venus and Mercury were hers. And since then, she has not heard of a problem adopting research animals at the university, she says. Her daughter later adopted a dog bred for a different study.

“They’ve all had happy, regular lives,” Bennett says.

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You



Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo


March 19, 2018

Kudos to whoever managed to get this misleading PR printed here. There is something particularly distasteful about "science writers" and purportedly science-focused magazines and journals dishing out straight-up propaganda. 

Identifying Cindy Buckmaster as a molecular physiologist at Baylor College of Medicine is technically accurate but wildly deceptive. A more honest association and germane to this article's subject is the fact that she is the chair of Americans for Medical Progress, an organization Source Watch says is, "an industry-funded organization and front group for the pharmaceutical, animal testing and breeding industries. AMP runs media campaigns targeting animal rights, welfare and health advocacy groups."

The notion that it is common practice to "rehome" animals used in the labs flies in the face of the commonly mentioned "humane euthanaisia" in sientifific papers' materials and methods sections. It is Buckmaster's job to soft-pedal vivisection.

If I recall correctly, Buckmaster's ironically titled "Homes for Animal Heroes," was invented specifically to interfere with BFP's efforts to legally mandate the effort to find homes for dogs no longer wanted by a lab.

An article filled with so much falsity and obvious propaganda should never be published in a respectable science magazine or even on its website.

Avatar of: EthanHarris


Posts: 1

March 20, 2018

A simple literature search reveals that Cindy Buckmaster conducted experiments on primates at the NIMH, along with Elisabeth Murray, where six monkeys had their skulls cut open and a neurotoxic acid was injected into their brains. Some of the monekys had nine separate injection sites in their brains, causing elevated heart rates and seizures. Then, three of the monkeys were killed so their brains could be removed. In another experiment, 16 monkeys were kept isolated in stainless steel cages, then they had portions of their heads drilled into and a portion of their brain vacuumed out. And now we're supposed to believe she is an authority on how to best care for animals? Give me a break.

Avatar of: Jim Newman

Jim Newman

Posts: 1

April 23, 2018

The commenters above have all the right in the world to be against animal studies. However, I have a proposal for “Just passing through” and “Ethan Harris.” If you are opposed to research, why not debate the science and ethics? Instead, what we hear above is personal attacks on Dr. Buckmaster and the reporter who wrote the article.  Also, it’s odd that you choose to criticize Dr. Buckmaster so heavily because a lot of her work is focused on promoting compassion and respect for animals, in addition to validating our bonds with them. 


A few other notes: 


Some clarification on Dr Buckmaster's title: She has a faculty appointment in the Department of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics in the Baylor College of Medicine. She has a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior from Stony Brook. She has also conducted research and published papers. She currently serves as the Director for the Center for Comparative Medicine at Baylor.  


In addition to her day job, Dr. Buckmaster is the unpaid chair of Americans for Medical Progress, which is a temporary position and again, unpaid.


Americans for Medical Progress is a nonprofit biomedical research advocacy group that supports the responsible use of animals in research. You can quote Source Watch and make the organization sound sinister if you want….but Source Watch is a Wiki that anyone can edit…not exactly a trusted source, completely free from bias.


As for Dr. Buckmaster’s research, here are the facts.


She studied the parts of the brain involved in learning and memory and used selective lesioning techniques and memory games to determine the function of the hippocampal formation in the primate brain. The work helps us understand how the brain supports memory…and fails to do so with aging and disease; e.g., Alzheimer’s. 

Avatar of: robdphilly


Posts: 1

April 30, 2018

I agree with Jim Newman.  People have a right to be against animal research, but the arguments should be kept to the science and ethics, not personal attacks. Which is the favorite tactic of the more extreme activists who like to target and terrorize individual researchers and their families.

To be honest, I don't understand how people can be against animal research. I love animals, but I also recognize that without their sacrifice we'd still be in the dark ages medically. Anyone against animal research who wants to stick to their ethics shoudln't take any modern medications because they've been developed and tested using animals. Next time they have a serious infection or disease, their ethics would require them to let it run its course and hope for the best (though it might be wise for them to maker their final arrangements). That goes for their loved ones, too. If their kid is dying and drugs can save them, are they going to let the kid die because those drugs were developed through the sacrifice of animals? It comes down to what you believe is more important - the life of an animal or a person. Again, I think all life is precious and I even hate killng bugs, but at the end of the day if someone I love is dying, I'm going to choose their life over that of a research animal.

The bottom line is you can't be against animal research and for medical progress. Not with our current technology. I sincerely hope someday we are able to stop using animals and can rely on computer and non-living models, but we're just not there yet. So for those against animal research, I encourage you to do what you can to promote the development of these models, but that doesn't require you to also try to halt current research that is helping people lead better and healthier lives.

As for rehoming animals, most major institutions already do this voluntarily when it's warranted. If the animal is able to be adopted out no one wants to see it euthanized. Unfortunately the nature of some studies requires animasl to be put down, or results in them being unable to be adopted. But despite what the animal rights activists would like you to believe, scientists by and large are not callous, insensitive monsters who don't care about or even delight in killing animals. So when you talk about propaganda, realize the activists are just as bad, and in many cases, worse, than the respectable publications.

Popular Now

  1. How to Separate the Science From the (Jerk) Scientist
  2. Could a Dose of Sunshine Make You Smarter?
  3. Prevalent Form of Childhood Leukemia May Be Preventable
  4. Conservation Biologist Ben Collen Dies of Bone Cancer