Thursday 19 October 2017

Watch: Freed Beagles prove there's life after the laboratory

John McGhee with Carol Photo: David Conachy
John McGhee with Carol Photo: David Conachy
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Carol has terrible manners. She throws herself at me by way of greeting. She shoves her head deep inside my handbag and snorts around in there for ages. Apparently, she has a taste for fine leather wallets but my bag disappoints. She puts her head on my knee and sighs. I scratch her ear. So cute, I think, until she opens her jaws wide, hacks up an almighty cough and blasts it into my face.

What's to forgive? This time last year, she lived 24/7 in a concrete indoor pen in a sterile laboratory in Co Mayo where veterinary products were routinely tested on her. When the laboratory closed last summer, it was feared that Carol and around 650-odd Beagles and cats bred for scientific purposes would be destroyed. But the animal welfare charity, the ISPCA, intervened and persuaded the facility to rehome them.

The first batch of Beagles arrived, shivering and confused, at the ISPCA's animal centre in Longford in December. How would these incubated creatures - who had never been outdoors, never connected with humans, never even walked on grass - fare in the outside world?

It turns out there is life after the laboratory, and a pampered one at that.

On that wet December night, there was no more cowering a creature amongst that first batch of Beagles than the yet-to-be-named Carol.

She huddled at the back of her cage for days but did not escape the notice of John McGhee, one of the first volunteers to adopt a retired lab dog.

He said: "There were a few lively fellas to the forefront looking for attention but I had heard about a small, shy girl.

"They said, 'Oh, she's not selling herself very well. She's in there skulking in the darkness, you can barely see her'. I said, 'I'm taking her'.

John McGhee with Carol Photo: David Conachy
John McGhee with Carol Photo: David Conachy

"I wanted to nurture her into a lively, happy dog, which wasn't much of a challenge, to be honest."

It took patience, though.

John took Carol home on January 13, a cold, snowy night. She was 18 months old. One of the ISPCA staff had to carry her to the car. She threw up on the journey home. John put her on the couch and went to upstairs to bed. When he checked on her, he found her standing bewildered in the middle of the floor. "She was standing in the darkness, didn't know what to do, she was looking all around, her feet planted to the ground," he said. He put her back on the couch, but she resumed her statue-like position when he'd gone. It made him wonder about her previous life ­- "I am assuming it's because she was used to a clinical environment".

Over the next few days, John took Carol everywhere with him. She refused to eat and drink and clamped her tail between her legs. He squirted water into her mouth to keep her hydrated.

After a week, Carol gave in. John had left her alone in the car with dog food and treats. And when he returned, she'd scoffed the lot. The thaw had set in.

From having no concept of affection, she now sleeps on a pillow beside John, his other dog, Ben, relegated to the bottom of the bed.

"It took a while for her to nuzzle into me. Now she won't let me out her sight," he says, scooping her up in his arms like a baby and planting a kiss on her nose.

The ISPCA won't identify the facility the animals came from. We know it is owned by US multinational Charles River Laboratories, in Glenamoy. Mayo County Council recorded 619 dogs at the facility in 2015, but there were 350 when it shut last year.

Isabel Kidd (12) with Potter Photo: Gerry Mooney
Isabel Kidd (12) with Potter Photo: Gerry Mooney

A company spokesperson admitted dogs were euthanised during the course of research but added that the plant has an "exceptionally positive" inspection record for its attention to the health and welfare of its animals.

The process of releasing the animals for rehoming was uncharted territory, negotiated between the ISPCA and Charles River over several months. The animals are released in manageable batches of around 40 a month to the country's two biggest animal charities, Dogs Trust and the ISPCA.

So far, 188 Beagles and 179 cats have been released and rehomed. Around 159 Beagles and 118 cats remain at the plant. As the laboratory has shut down, the animals are no longer subjected to tests, are allowed outdoors and are being trained and socialised. They will be released before the end of the year.

A great unknown was how the incubated animals would adjust to the outside world. So far, the rehoming project has worked. Eva Ellis, manager of the ISPCA, said none of dogs or cats have had to be returned to the charity ­- perhaps because potential adoptees must be experienced dog people who preferably own a dog already from whom the Beagles can learn.

Love and affection goes a long way, too. Paula Kidd, who lives in Greystones, Co Wicklow, with her family, adopted Potter in February. On his first day in his new home, he urinated everywhere and eventually found himself a corner to hide away in. When the family gathered to watch television that evening, everyone relaxed, nobody moving, and he crept out of his hidey hole and on to the large armchair beside Paula. The armchair became Potter's after that.

It took a while for dog and humans to understand one another. Paula described Potter's temperament in the early days as "low profile" and dulled down.

He never sought interaction and twice took fright and bolted. Other dogs look their owners in the eye to make a connection. Paula noticed that Potter never lifted his gaze above her knee level and seemed ignorant of the concept of affection.

"He didn't look for it," she said. "He wouldn't even have known that we could give him affection."

A turning point came on the beach, where the family sometimes took him to let him off the lead.

One day, he ran from the beach up to the promenade and temporarily lost sight of his family. Passers-by later told Paula her dog had been crying and whimpering. When Paula's daughter, Isabel (12), called out, he literally jumped off the promenade with delight. Paula said: "That was when we realised that he really connected with us."

Potter is still getting used to the world. He barks at the light streaming in the Velux window at certain times of the day and "worries" when a dark cloud comes in quickly. Paula added: "He loves meeting other dogs, but he is still learning how to play. He's a 'labour of love', but without the 'labour'. I love him. He is perfect. He just melted in."

But Potter does have one vice. Sometimes he sneaks into Isabel's room, steals a teddy bear and hides it. He doesn't chew it to bits right away. He allows Paula to see he has taken it, and if she lets him keep it, he gets stuck in.

Eva has paid tribute to "all the wonderful adoptees". She said: "It is hugely rewarding to see the dogs doing what normal dogs do. But the story's not over. The aim is that the remaining dogs and cats will be released by the end of the year, and we will be looking for homes for all of them."

Sunday Independent

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