In the lawn of a villa on Bengaluru’s outskirts, snuffling around the plants, racing to the gate every time someone new comes in, wanting their long ears scratched is a pack of beagles. It’s difficult to tell looking at them that until not long ago, these beagles were terrified creatures in solitary cages in labs, where they were tested with drugs every day. They would have been puppies when they were put in the cages, with little stimuli, not even sunlight, let alone company — canine or human — and many with their vocal chords removed.
These beagles, gambolling with a pair of excitable dachshunds in the garden, are among nearly 400 lucky dogs released from labs around the country and rehomed methodically by Freagles of India (FoI).
It was in early 2016 that Chinthana Gopinath called her friend Awanti Agarwala to ask if the latter would like to be part of a challenging project: handling the release of a batch of beagles from a laboratory. A change in Indian law had mandated the release of lab animals after one cycle of testing; India is the first country with such a law.
Gopinath was a volunteer with Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), a Bengaluru NGO that works for animal welfare, which had long campaigned for the release of lab animals. She herself had adopted a beagle from a 2012 release and named her Sasha. As was common with dogs used in labs, Sasha had had her vocal cords removed. Gopinath started a project called Speak For Sasha that campaigned against animal testing.
Agarwala was an animal lover too, who, despite a busy corporate job, would help animals in distress whatever the time of day or night. So when her friend called, she didn’t think twice: “Wow, this is what dreams are made of!” she told Gopinath.
The women knew from past experience that some processes were necessary when rehabilitating rescued animals: screening prospective adopters, post-adoption checks, even taking back animals from less-than-ideal homes. They also knew, from their observations of Sasha and other lab beagles, that these dogs had some special needs.
“These are purpose-bred animals,” Agarwala says. “They are bred for traits like docility and submissiveness.” Beagles are used because they are amiable animals, but also because they are small and easy to stack. “Labradors are as friendly, but can you imagine a 45 kg animal stacked in a cage?” Indian laboratories used to import beagles from breeders in the U.S. and the U.K., and cheaper dogs from China, but now some of them have licences to breed in India.
Pups would be separated from their mothers at around four to six months, and put into solitary 3’x2’ cages from which they would not see other dogs, or even hear them if their vocal chords had been removed. Until the change in the law, the beagles would spend their whole life like this.
They would be euthanised after they ceased to be useful, or to have their bodies examined for effects of chemicals or treatments.
In India, testing cosmetics on animals is banned, but not pharmaceuticals and some agro products. “If it’s pharmaceutical testing, it’s for every disease you can think of,” Agarwala explains. “They’ll induce the disease or induce something like a brain seizure. Mostly for beagles it’s the toxicity of a drug on a healthy specimen. For instance, if it is for a heart ailment, they will implant stents and put a chemical in, start increasing the dose, and draw eight to 10 blood samples a day to check its effects. Most of the dogs that came to us are probably tested for cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart medicines.”
When the released dogs first step warily out of their travelling cages, they have come from a temperature-controlled sanitised laboratory, and everything they encounter is new, strange, and frightening.
Natasha Chandy, a canine behaviourist who worked with Gopinath to help Sasha adjust to the new world, says dogs don’t usually cope well with changed routines after they are two years old; the lab-released dogs are older, at least five. With the lack of adequate stimuli from their environment, many may develop aberrant behaviours like constant pacing and eating their own excreta, she says. “The release is a big jolt to their physiology as well as mindset. They are under-confident, anxious, they don’t know anything: what soil or grass or stones or leaves or sunlight are, what a bowl or a collar is, how to not eat anything that is not kibble. The instinctive reaction is usually fear; the behaviour is freezing, submitting.” Rehab is not easy. It involves a gentle, phased exposure to the world, lots of patience while socialising them, and frequent setbacks.
Chandy is one of the small group of volunteers that Gopinath and Agarwala assembled. In 2016 when they formed, the group received 242 beagles in several batches. They evolved and documented all the processes they had developed to socialise the animals and prepare them for lives with families. They used their personal networks and social media to find adopters, and every one of the dogs found homes.
In April 2017, they registered Freagles of India as a trust. Gopinath and Agarwala are the trustees; with a core group of volunteers, Smitha Suri, Reena Chengappa, Nita Mahurkar, Garima Gupta, and Ajay Panekar, aside from Chandy, the behaviourist. Despite their name, their remit is all lab-released animals, Agarwala says, whether a mouse or a horse.
By the end of 2017, FoI had rehabilitated 350 beagles and became the go-to team for any releases from labs. This year, they received 20 dogs released from a lab in Gujarat and 13 from Hyderabad.
The team is conscious that FoI must grow. While they have found homes for all their dogs in Bengaluru, they worry about running out of people who are willing to adopt and meet the standards they have set. A start has been made, with adopters in other cities now being trained in the processes they have developed. The recent Gujarat releases, for instance, are being handled by a team in Ahmedabad trained by FoI. They hope to have their own shelter rather than scramble to find space in commercial kennels.
Suri, on whose lawn I am standing, watching the beagles prance around, tells me she and her husband chose to move to a home with a garden mainly to have space for their own dogs and the fosters they often host till they find homes. What does she get out of it, I ask. The beagles, she says, have something that begs you to learn from them. “When they come out [of the labs], you see the fear in their eyes, their behaviour. But yet they try, they move forward. These beagles teach you to move on, deal with what life throws at you.”