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Beagles bred at two Dane County facilities go to labs around the country


Get your research dogs here

Noah Phillips
03/05/2015

Ridglan Farms keeps a low profile. Located 10 minutes outside of Mount Horeb on a desolate county road, the farm sits on a gentle hill, hidden by a long row of evergreens. Only the silo and a glimpse of the pale blue warehouse are visible from the road. If you didn't know any better, it could easily be mistaken for a dairy farm.

That's how Jim Burns, president and co-owner of Ridglan Farms, likes it.
"What we do isn't accepted by the general public as a positive thing," says Burns. "But we're completely legal, and we do everything we can to take care of the animals."

Ridglan Farms breeds beagles for research. In 2014, it housed 3,733 beagles, 622 of which were experimented upon in some fashion at the farm itself, according to Burns. Its breeding colony consists of around 750 bitches and 70 studs.

The vast majority of Ridglan Farms' beagles are sold as puppies to research institutions, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The mission of the company, according to its website, is "to provide purpose-bred beagles for research that increases scientific knowledge and exceeds the expectation of the scientific community."

Ridglan Farms was founded in 1966, the year the Animal Welfare Act was signed into federal law. The push for the bill followed revelations that dog and cat dealers had been selling stolen pets to laboratories. The act put stringent regulations in place, requiring laboratories to document exactly where they obtained animals for research. Burns says it was about this time that beagles became the standard dog used in drug treatment studies.

Ridglan has grown over the years, and its reach extends far beyond Wisconsin. Though it provides dogs to overseas labs, most of its customers now come from the States, since post-9/11 security measures have made transport of live cargo more expensive. Burns says Ridglan Farms nets $2.5 million annually and has 15 employees.

Ridglan Farms is one of the top three research beagle breeders in the country, according to Burns as well as Kevin Chase at the Beagle Freedom Project, an arm of the advocacy group Animal Rescue, Media and Education that raises awareness of the plight of research beagles and is opposed to animal research. Only Covance, a transnational drug development corporation with a location in Madison, and Marshall Farms, based in upstate New York, produce more dogs for research.

In Dane County, Ridglan Farms and Covance Laboratories are part of a largely hidden local economy of research animal breeders.

"You don't love doing it," says Burns, "but that's the business."

Perfect dogs wanted

The view of Ridglan by satellite shows a complex more sprawling than what can be seen from West Blue Mounds Road. There are three long, narrow, warehouse-looking buildings, a smattering of smaller structures, what looks like an enclosed grassy area and what seems to be a slurry pit.

According to Ridglan Farms' website, there are 16 whelping rooms with 20 individual whelping kennels per room, with four separate nurseries, each housing 200-300 puppies ages 2-4 months, and two grower barns, with dogs ranging in age from 4 to 18 months old. Burns says breeding females are kept two to a cage until they become pregnant, when dietary concerns prompt relocation to separate cages. Bitches average 1.7 litters per year and between four to five puppies per litter. Puppies with irreversible problems are culled.
"Customers only want dogs with no defects, who are perfect," says Burns.
According to the company, newborn puppies follow a strict schedule of disinfections, vaccinations and socialization. After six weeks the dogs are tattooed with identification numbers on their right ears, removed from their whelping kennel and housed with three other puppies in a nursery kennel. They stay there until they are 16 weeks old, when they are moved either to a two-dog pen or "group housing," which holds up to 10 dogs. They stay there until they are shipped to a buyer, by air or cargo transport.

Beagles are the most commonly bred dogs for use in biomedical studies, according to the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences that "supports the responsible use of animals in research."

Chase and Burns confirm this. Chase says that beagles are desired due to their temperament -- "they're very docile, people-pleasing and forgiving" -- and size. "They're easy to care for and move."

Ridglan Farms keeps detailed records on the genetic anomalies of their dogs, and can exploit this data for their customers. According to the "Research Services" page on their website, they "have an extensive historical data base for reproductive performance, pedigrees, hematology/blood chemistry, and genetic anomalies which can be utilized for your research purposes."

This is standard practice, says Chase, adding that animal research breeders can "preprogram" their dogs to be predisposed to certain ailments, such as enlarged hearts, circulatory problems or cataracts, depending on the needs of the study. These dogs don't come cheap. The industry standard for research beagles is $600-$900 per dog, according to the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research.

'Big need'


Raised on a farm, Burns was encouraged by his grandfather to become a veterinarian.

"We didn't have as many choices in my day," says Burns.

A dog owner himself, Burns says he remembers his first day of veterinary school, when he had to dissect a dog that looked just like his childhood pet.
"That's something you just have to do," he says.

Burns joined Ridglan Farms in 1968, only two years after its incorporation.

"I was kind of interested in getting into [beagle breeding] because I saw that there was a big need," says Burns, noting that demand grew for standardized canine research subjects after passage of the Animal Welfare Act. Back in the 1960s, Ridglan Farms had more than a dozen competitors. But only three now remain. Burns estimates that Ridglan has about 10% of the market share in research beagles nationally, with the rest split evenly between Covance and Marshall Farms.

He says that the number of research dogs in general is going down, though the demand for beagle production has remained at roughly 50,000 per year for the last 30 years.

But that could change. "Looking forward, when stem cell testing is approved by the FDA, I think it will eliminate the use of a lot of beagles." Supercomputers, too, will have an impact on the use of animals in research, Burns says.

While that might prove bad for business, it will be good for the public, he says. "It will be better for research, and it will save a lot of money on drug development."

A stressful life

But the industry isn't dead yet. According to USDA records, there are more than 67,000 dogs used in laboratories today across the country. Wisconsin is home to 7,196 of these dogs, more than any other state.

In 2014, the UW used 195 dogs in its research facilities, according to Eric Sandgren, director of the university's Research Animal Resources Center. Covance's Madison branch, by comparison, had 3,953 in 2013, according to an annual report filed with the USDA. While the UW does maintain an active breeding colony of non-human primates and other animals, it purchases the vast majority of its dogs from Class A breeders such as Ridglan Farms and Covance, according to Sandgren and veterinary records.

The journey from breeding facility to laboratory can cause substantial stress for the dogs, many of whom are still puppies when they are shipped to their destinations. The research environment itself will likely offer no relief.

"Common procedures and situations that can elicit fear or anxiety in laboratory dogs include cage changing, removal from a stable social group, modification of established maintenance routines, transportation, confinement in a strange setting, restraint, procedural manipulations (e.g., injections, dosing, sampling techniques), wearing equipment (e.g., jackets), introduction to new people or conspecifics, and association with a previous negative experience," according to the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research. Stress, adds the institute, may have a confounding impact, causing "variability in studies for which pharmacological or physiological data are gathered."

According to Burns, university laboratories are often in basements, while private labs might be located in sprawling multi-floor complexes all devoted to animal research. Burns says the most important aspect of an animal lab is that it must be easily cleaned -- floors are usually epoxy-coated concrete, the walls are often cinderblock, and the lighting fluorescent.

Chase says in private facilities, the lucky dogs will live in a two-animal kennel. Otherwise, they'll likely live in their own stainless steel cage. "The flooring on them is typically slatted so their excrement and pee can slip through, the cages are stacked two high," says Chase. Burns confirms this description, calling dog cages "stainless steel marvels."

Chase says that he and others involved in rescue efforts have also found that beagles are surgically "debarked" to mitigate stress to the animals and their caretakers. Sandgren says this is not the case for beagles at UW, and Burns says that only around 10% of Ridglan Farm's dogs undergo the operation.

The studies

Well-known products tested on beagles are Viagra, Botox and Splenda. In many cases, animal trials are actually required by the Food and Drug Administration before they can be approved for use on humans.

"In testing they don't just give them what you and I would take," says Chase. "They give them the maximum dosage possible to see at what level they cardiac arrest, their vision or mobility is impaired, or their heart rate fluctuates -- they're trying to find the threshold."

This description fits several studies obtained by Isthmus, including one from 1998 in Indiana where two beagles from Ridglan Farms were given increasing doses of anesthetic until they died. The pair of beagles survived a dose of 20 milligrams but were found dead one hour after receiving a dose of 40 milligrams.

"Based on the results of this study," wrote its authors in An Acute Subcutaneous Toxicity Study in Beagle Dogs, "the maximum tolerated dose of [the anesthetic] IQB-9302 when given subcutaneously to adult beagle dogs can be estimated to be more than 20.0 mg/kg but less than 40.0 mg/kg."
Covance did not return calls from Isthmus or provide any details related to their research with dogs. Details of UW experiments with beagles, however, are available.

One biomedical study at UW focused on diagnosing compartment syndrome through monitoring glucose levels in beagles. Compartment syndrome, usually the result of bleeding or swelling from an injury, occurs from a build-up of pressure inside an enclosed space in the body.

An article on the study, published in 2014 by an assistant professor in the UW's School of Medicine and Public Health, appeared in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care.

According to the paper, 12 adult beagles were used because muscles in their hind legs were conducive to monitoring. "All animals had at least 48 hours" to become acclimated to the research facility. The beagles were anesthetized and prepped, and their back legs were shaved and secured. Researchers then created "compartment syndrome" through infusion of a chemical called "Ringer's solution."

Two weeks after the surgery, all the beagles were euthanized and their relevant back leg muscles were harvested for analysis.

Euthanasia is a common fate for research beagles and other research animals. Often it is so their remains can be analyzed -- something called histological analysis -- or because their health has been compromised. Considered a necessary evil in lab research circles, the animals are usually put down with anesthesia or sedation.

"We all love animals, and these animals are treated very well," says Burns of fellow breeders and animal researchers. "When they do leave this earth, they're euthanized in a very humane way."

Social bonds

Patricia McConnell is a Ph.D.-certified applied animal behaviorist and UW adjunct professor who has spent a lifetime studying and working with dogs. She is not uniformly opposed to using dogs for research, but is concerned that there are no federal requirements for protecting their psychological wellbeing, as there are for primates under the Animal Welfare Act.

"Dogs are animals who have formed this extreme social bond with us," says McConnell. "They are extremely social, highly intelligent and very emotional." Environmental change, social interaction and intellectual enrichment are all vital for dogs to be healthy and well adjusted, she says.

McConnell says that the regulations governing animal care in laboratories focus on external conditions such as air flow, cleanliness and the location of food storage.

"But an animal can have a shiny coat and no external signs of illness or injury and still be suffering [emotionally], says McConnell, who was an organizing member of the UW's Forum for Animal Research Ethics.

"If this research is so helpful to humans," she adds, "then these dogs deserve to be treated exceptionally well, and I'm not sure that we're doing that in all cases."

While Sandgren could not provide details on UW studies involving dogs, he says that most of the university's beagles have access to chew toys and are taken on walks. As many as possible are also adopted after completion of the study. Of the thousands of active protocols in the UW's animal research program, 42 use dogs, he says. Sandgren notes that environmental controls that might deny a dog exercise or enrichment must be specifically accounted for in a research protocol.

McConnell acknowledges that some studies require rigorous control of the dogs' exposure to the outside world.

"[Researchers] put a massive amount of time and money into the study, and I totally get them not wanting to compromise that," she says. "But the fact of the matter is that you just have to balance ethics and having a good medical model that you can generalize to the population."

Sandgren says that the special relationship humans have with dogs has a nuanced impact on the studies researchers undertake at UW. It likely lowers, he says, the number of studies dogs are used for and increases the numbers of dogs that are adopted out. Sandgren says the bond also reminds all animal caretakers of the stakes of their work.

"Look at how most people deal with rats," says Sandgren, noting the small rodents are widely reviled. "If that's the sense that you have of that species, it's logical to think that you may act differently than if you know them as individual members of a species or have them as pets."

"You can get used to something like performing animal research on rats and not really think about it," adds Sandgren. "The fact that we have that bond with dogs helps us to extend our thinking about bonds with animals to other species, too, and that's an important thing."

Adoption

Chase estimates that around one out of every 10 research dogs survives to be healthy and safe enough for adoption.

"It's a small amount, but it's an important amount," he says. To date the Beagle Freedom Project has facilitated the adoption of 400 animals, 300 of them beagles. His group works directly with animal caretakers at research institutions, which often decide whether animals will be adopted out or euthanized.

Sandgren is open to the idea. "I don't see any problem with making any sort of an arrangement with reasonable people who have the animal's interests in mind to find a way to increase the percent of dogs or cats, or mice and rats or any species, that are adopted out," he says. "Anything that can make that more likely I think is good, provided, again, that it's in the animal's interest."

To increase the likelihood of animal adoption from research institutions, the Beagle Freedom Project has lobbied successfully for the "Beagle Freedom Bill" in five states, including Minnesota. The legislation varies by state, but in most cases it requires publicly funded research institutions to "at least give a local shelter a call" when an adoptable dog becomes available. Without that simple gesture, says Chase, many dogs will be killed unnecessarily.

Chase says it is unlikely his group will try to push a bill in Wisconsin, given Republican control of the state Legislature, but hopes to lobby for national passage of a similar law after the 2016 elections.

"These are businesses or universities; they operate on a budget," says Chase. "If that dog is no longer needed for a study, and that kennel space has to be filled with a new dog to be put into another study, they have to get rid of the dog they don't need anymore. Usually the standard operating procedure is to euthanize them."

"The taxpayers have paid $600 for that dog," adds Chase. "We want that dog back."

Scotty was one dog the taxpayers got back.

Named after Scott Dibble, the state senator who sponsored the Beagle Freedom Bill in Minnesota, Scotty is a 4-year-old beagle who was adopted through the group.

"We were all gathered at a local place [in Minneapolis]," remembers Linda Denker. "The van pulls up and they bring the dogs out one by one into this big open area, and named them and put their collars on them. A lot of the dogs ran and played with each other, but Scotty kind of stuck to himself, and was a little bit more timid than the rest of them."

Denker's heart went out to Scotty at once, and she brought him home.
"The first night here, he was a little scared, and he slept right on the bed between us," remembers Denker. Scotty was agitated and didn't know how to play. But soon Scotty began to adjust to his new life.

"Every single morning, he gets up, and he looks around, and he's just got this look of unbridled joy."

But on the inside of his left ear, Scotty still bears the green tattooed identification number he was given as a puppy by his breeders. Although Denker doesn't know what was done to Scotty, what laboratory he came from, or even where he was bred, she is proud that she was able to welcome a former research beagle into her home.

"Once they've worked in those labs all those years," she says, "they deserve a chance to be a dog."

Editors note: This story was changed to reflect Patricia McConnell's views that federal regulations guide the environmental conditions for research beagles, but do not necessarily address emotional health.

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