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Updated: December 8, 2013 11:47 IST

Break the chains

SRIYA NARAYANAN
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Priya Ramakrishnan with her beagle, Lucky, who was rescued from Advinus Labs, Chennai. Photo Courtesy: Eshita Prasanna
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Priya Ramakrishnan with her beagle, Lucky, who was rescued from Advinus Labs, Chennai. Photo Courtesy: Eshita Prasanna

In dark and dingy research labs, beagles long for freedom. The writer maps their arduous journey.

Kevin Junior is your typical beagle; a wide-eyed optimist. Like Snoopy in Charles Schulz’s comic strip “Peanuts”, real-life beagles too have an affectionate nature that makes them prime targets for exploitation. They are used the world over in research labs where they undergo maddening isolation and cruelty in the name of medical research or cosmetics testing.

Kevin Junior too lived in one such lab until he was rescued by the Beagle Freedom Project, an American non-profit organisation. His owner, Kevin Chase, Director of Operations at the project, describes the bleak living conditions of these “test subjects”. “They’re in stainless steel cages in lab rooms with concrete floors. There are no windows… no overhead lights. They can’t see the other dogs around them. They live in these conditions for years on end. The only interaction they have is when they’re taken out of the cage to be poisoned or experimented on. It’s internalised trauma and emotional suffering; it’s a prison.”

Today, Junior enjoys his freedom by coming to work with his owner, and taking naps in the office chair or play-breaks in the nearby park, all the while inspiring him and his colleagues to lobby harder against animal experimentation.

The Beagle Freedom Project first became widely known when its founder Shannon Keith, a filmmaker and animal rights lawyer, released a documentary featuring two terrified, rescued beagle pups seeing sunlight and grass for the first time. The heart-rending video went viral on YouTube, generating international interest in the effects of animal testing.

The Beagle Freedom Project’s primary argument against animal experimentation, apart from the ethical angle, is its ineffectiveness. They list the abysmal statistics related to animal testing — over 1,06,000 people die yearly from drugs that are declared “safe” after animal testing. And less than two per cent of human illnesses (1.16 per cent) are ever seen in animals.

Further, nine out of 10 drugs fail in clinical studies due to unreliability of animal models.

Other non-profit organisations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine observe that in vitro tests such as using lab-grown human cells and tissues are a humane alternative, with the benefit of a significantly higher accuracy rate. “(There is) solid and growing evidence that animal experimentation contributes little or nothing to human health, and that genetic differences are explanatory for this discrepancy”, says Dr John Pippin, cardiologist, award-winning professor and researcher of heart disease.

Chase explains that they are opposed to any animal being used in testing, be it a mouse or a chimp, but have chosen to begin with dogs as they find that people who may have never considered the rights of animals before will find it easier to identify with one that they already share a home with. The project has also rescued rabbits, pigs, cats and mongrels from labs.

In December last year, 70 beagles were rescued from Bangalore-based Advinus Therapeutics after being bred in Beijing and illegally transported here for research.

Following media attention and a relentless campaign by animal welfare groups that pointed to violations in the laboratory’s documentation, they were freed and handed over to adoptive families through local shelters. The night they were rescued, the puppies were released into a garden area at Animal Welfare Board member Chinny Krishna’s residence. Dizzy from their first brush with fresh air, they ran in circles, tripped over their own paws and rushed into rescuers’ arms. One of them found a home with Priya Ramakrishnan who’d been closely following the story in the papers. “All the way from China to India, and then two months of quarantine in darkness,” she says of her puppy’s arduous journey, adding that a veterinary exam showed that the pup had been weaned from her mother almost immediately after birth, leading to low immunity levels. She was also a victim of de-barking, where the animal’s vocal cords are severed to silence them. “Fortunately, they were cut only partially. So even though she can’t bark like other dogs, she is getting better,” she says. “She was so timid that she was afraid of sunlight and hid under the sofa.”

One year and a high-nutrient diet later, she reports with relief that her young dog loves people and sunshine, and keeps her entertained with incorrigible mischief-making.

Her beagle is called Lucky but last year this time, she and her fellow prisoners had no names only the IDs tattooed inside their ears. Priya lifts her pet’s ear and reads out with some difficulty: “66EE808” — a permanent alphanumeric reminder of the gruesome fate she escaped.

Link to the video of beagles’ first steps into freedom — http://goo.gl/sM28R5 (or search for “Beagle Freedom Project — Our First Rescue”)

List of cruelty-free companies by brand/product type — www.caringconsumer.com

Website of the Beagle Freedom Project — www.beaglefreedom project.org

Website of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — www.pcrm.org

For more information, kevin@beaglefreedom project.org

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