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Making pets out of laboratory beagles

Between release and adoption, 64 beagles released from a laboratory in Bangalore learn how to become dogs

Bengaluru: On the eve of the first batch of adoptions of laboratory beagles on February 6, 2016, a CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action) volunteer wonders aloud if she should sneak in her crotchety old beagle into the lot in exchange for a “fresh” (read: more congenial) one. It’s the kind of droll humour you can have at the cost of a loved, cherished, pampered, old companion.

A dog chooses five-year-old Kimberly Fiahlo. The family adopted a pair which they name Xena and Thor. Pics/Mitali Parekh
A dog chooses five-year-old Kimberly Fiahlo. The family adopted a pair which they name Xena and Thor. Pics/Mitali Parekh

The 64 beagles released over two weeks from a Bengaluru-based laboratory are not cherished members of a family. Yet. They have no names; only serial numbers on aluminum tags on metal chains around their neck. Sometimes these are tattooed on the insides of their ears.

Adopters sit around for hours (looming scares the dogs) waiting for a beagle to choose them
Adopters sit around for hours (looming scares the dogs) waiting for a beagle to choose them

The laboratory near Tumkur, 71 km from the country’s IT capital, manufactures pesticides and the beagles would have been used for testing the toxicity of the chemicals that go into the product.

A pet dog wouldn’t sit so close to excreta, but a lab dog is forced to poop in confinement
A pet dog wouldn’t sit so close to excreta, but a lab dog is forced to poop in confinement

However, the factory adopted a policy to end animal testing and has been releasing the animals it was holding for adoptions. Over three years, they have released more than 160 beagles.

Mounting is a stress and excitement reaction. It’s possible that the only time these males met another dog was during breeding
Mounting is a stress and excitement reaction. It’s possible that the only time these males met another dog was during breeding

“They chose to do the ethical thing,” says Sandhya Madappa, a trustee at the Bengaluru-based CUPA. “Three years ago, they released 102 dogs that had been tested on. This batch was not tested on — it might have been used for breeding or was being held for future projects.” Prior to the release, the laboratory bore the cost of neutering and spaying all the 64.

The holding of this batch has been four to nine years long. The papers show that they have been in captivity since birth. They would have been kept in small cages where they would pee and poop and were fed the cheapest dog food.

When the dogs are released, for the first time from their cages, not all of them rush out. Some sit in their cages, in their own vomit, urine or faeces — a stress reaction to two hours of travel it took for them to get to Hotel for Dogs at Sarjapur Road. The gravel, free space, unfettered movement and standing humans are all a stressful situation. The ones that step out, run around in circles, pacing, panting, drooling, peeing and mounting in excitement. “The only freedom some of them may have experienced,” says Chinthana Gopinath, “would have been during breeding. Thus, mounting could be the only way they know how to interact with other dogs.”

Chinthana (36) is one of the volunteers, along with Sanjana Madappa (27) and Anoopa Anand (34), who is overseeing the rehabilitation and adoption of 64 such beagles over two weeks. For three weeks leading up to the release of the beagles, they have been sifting and counselling potential parents.

As the beagles arrive, their role is to slowly win their trust. These are beings with acute PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). For hours each day, the volunteers sit down and gently cajole the pooches to approach them. They caress their chins, stroke their backs and hold eye contact. In five hours, serial number 1349 goes from an old, old man who would stop at a four feet distance from humans to a soliciting old man, going up on hind legs to ask for a caress. 859032 paws Chinthana when she stops petting her; 1638 picks up a toy to play with, something no other dog has done; and 1758 growls at dogs who come close to his human.

Serial number 8592707 is effervescent from the minute she’s out of the cage. She coaxes shy dogs out of their carriers, goes up to the ones cowering in the corner and steps in to resolve scuffles. 1714 is nervous in enclosed spaces and the onset of cataract has left him partially blind. 8699500 startles easily. At six years, 8950580 is the youngest of the lot. She’s nicknamed Meena Kumari for her extreme sulking. She is poured from one volunteer’s hand to the other, petted constantly. It’s a dramatic gesture that could have developed as a defensive mechanism. 1758 plasters himself on the floor when a human approaches. Since food is the only enrichment they had, their responses could have been to overeat out of boredom like 8700613, whose spine curves from the weight of her stomach; or lose the will to eat, like 1800 who is malnourished.

The dogs are two years older than expected to be, which causes half of the potential adopters to drop out. Parents have been warned not to expect happy puppies to bound towards them. They see old, white, damaged, reclusive dogs who are not toilet trained, don’t respond to leashes or treats. Their skin is dry and the fur is coarse. There’s dense tartar on their teeth from the lack of chewy nutrition such as bones or vegetables. Lack of exercise has left them with no muscle tone, limps and bow legs. They pee in their water bowls and many bolt from houses.

Chinthana’s first advice to parents is to remove the word “normal” from their dictionary. “I tell them to just let the dogs be,” she says. “Sometimes the dogs don’t poop for the first few days, or just sleep for days. You can’t hug or kiss them too much. They have lived in a sterile condition all their lives and are more susceptible to infections. They don’t recognise other kinds of food, but they also flower with mental stimulation.” To prove this point, one of the adopted dogs watched the cat eat cat food and gave it a try.

The adopters are patient. They come from Chennai, Mysore and Mangalore, and sit for hours in the shade, hoping a dog will choose them. Ajay Palekar, a former parent, came down from Pune to help with the rehabilitation process. He speaks to the potential parents, soothing queries. Other former parents are battling the urge to take home a companion.

The dogs walk up, sniff around. Some are more obvious in their hints — 8701181 plonks himself down on five-year-old Kimberly Fiahlo’s lap as soon as she sits down. The family has driven from Chennai to adopt two dogs. Their seven-year-old Doofus “went on top” last year. Asked if they worry about exposing their daughter to another death, given these dogs are over seven years old, and Pooja Fiahlo says, “I was inconsolable, but she said, ‘Mama, he’s gone to the stars, he will become a puppy and come back to you. Why are you crying?”

Those whom the dogs don’t find, are gently asked to consider the shy dogs in a corner. “These develop very differently in a family atmosphere — they may become more social than the others,” says Sanjana. The volunteers also advise on which dogs would not get along with others, or those who will do better if there is another pet to teach them how to be a dog.

Twenty out of 34 dogs were adopted on February 6. Some need more help, like the guy who snaps when picked up, or the girl with a teat inflammation that hangs near the ground. Thirty slots have been given up by the boarding facility Hotel For Dogs for accommodating the dogs for rehabilitation until adoption.

8592707 and 8701181 become Xena and Thor. Before stepping out for a bit, Kimberly warns everyone cooing over Thor. “That’s my dog. You can play with him for some time, but he’s mine.”

No Kimberly, you are his.

Why the beagle
The beagle is a 2,000-year-old breed of dog, with ‘purer’ genetics that can withstand and give better results for testing. They are small, shorthaired, making them convenient for stacking in a laboratory space. They are docile and remain non-aggressive even after extreme stress

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