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.”
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.