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Sunday 22 September 2019

Watch: Beagles bred as lab guinea pigs take first faltering steps to freedom in Ireland

Last week, 10 dogs and 12 cats born into a life of lab tests were released into ISPCA care. Maeve Sheehan was there to greet them

Eva Ellis, manager of the ISPCA Longford centre, with some of the beagles Picture: Frank McGrath
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

We are standing in a muddy yard in Longford in the damp gloom last Tuesday, waiting for the arrival of some very special guests. Shortly before 4.30pm, an ISPCA van sweeps in. The back door swings open and several pairs of liquid brown eyes peer out from stacked cages. They're what we've been waiting for: 10 confused beagles shivering and crouching, smelling of excrement and vomit, on the cusp of a new life.

We coo. The dogs gaze back dolefully. One quivering creature squeezes himself as far back in his cage as he can, as though trying to disappear. Only one is brave enough to put his curious snout through the mesh of his cage, tail wagging.

Most have soiled themselves or thrown up on the three-hour journey from the medical research facility in Mayo that has released them to the care of the ISPCA's national animal centre. The travel sickness is normal, according to Eva Ellis, who manages the centre.

Not only have these dogs never been in a car before; they have never set paw outside the confines of the medical research facility where they were born and reared in concrete kennels in a controlled, indoor environment of 20 degrees, so that veterinary products for the domestic market could be tested on them.

Maeve Sheehan welcomes the dogs Picture: Tony Gavin
Maeve Sheehan welcomes the dogs Picture: Tony Gavin

Likewise, they have never experienced sun, rain, wind or snow. This soft drizzly December evening marks their first exposure to Ireland's elements.

The beagles have come from the Charles River Laboratory, a US multinational with a plant in Glenamoy, although the ISPCA has declined to identify the facility. Dogs and cats were bred on site primarily for testing veterinary products, but in recent years animal campaigners have staged protests there. Earlier this year, Charles River announced that it was closing its Glenamoy facility and releasing the 350 dogs and almost 300 cats that remained onsite into the care of the ISPCA and Dogs Trust.

After weeks of preparations and negotiations - under the auspices of the Health Products Regulatory Authority - 30 dogs and 12 cats were transferred to the two animal welfare groups last Tuesday. Dogs Trust took 20 dogs while the cats and 10 dogs went to the ISPCA.

The 600 or so animals that remain at the facility will follow over the coming weeks and months.

The agreement between the research facility and the animal welfare organisations is unique in this country. Both Dogs Trust and the ISPCA hope that this project will set a precedent with other facilities here that use animals for testing.

It remains to be seen how the animals, bred in captivity, will adapt to the outside world and they will be monitored closely as they take tentative steps into their new lives. This lot shivering in the ISPCA vans on a damp Tuesday evening are the pioneers.

"It is a special day," said Eva. "They are absolutely delighted and they are delightful little dogs."

But there is work to do. The dogs and cats must be introduced to their new home. The cats are carried from the van in their cages. The beagles are carried one by one from the van to their new pen in the arms of ISPCA staff Kelley Hynes and Neil Leonard. They are carried because they have never been walked on a lead before, or even had a collar around their necks - another thing they will have to get used to.

These beagles are aged one and two years and were kennel mates at the research facility. When the last of the beagles is carried in to join his pals, the other dogs crowd around to greet him.

Most of them seem delighted with their new digs. They sniff furiously around the pen, noses to the ground and tails aloft.

Some of them slide around like puppies on the shiny tiled floor - a surface that's totally new to them. One dog discovers a fleece blanket in a corner and pads it gingerly with his hesitant paw before eventually settling himself on it.

When we humans invade their space, bellies are proffered for scratching and ears for tugging while one astute fellow crawls onto Eva's lap and stays there. Two or three hide themselves away in corners, shivering. These ones just need time to adapt, says Eva. "They have a lot to learn."

Two of the new arrivals Photo: Frank McGrath
Two of the new arrivals Photo: Frank McGrath

The dogs and cats come to the ISPCA without names. They were identified by number at the research facility.

"That will be one of our tasks, to find them names," says Eva. Being the festive season, they end up being called Carol, Gloria, Dancer, Dazzler and Ebenezer.

In their past lives dedicated to research, the dogs lived in a quite sterile environment, in concrete pens, 10 hours of light and 14 of darkness every day. But they had small runs to exercise in and toys to play with.

Neil Leonard and Kelley Hynes with two of the cats Photo: Frank McGrath
Neil Leonard and Kelley Hynes with two of the cats Photo: Frank McGrath

"What we will do is, we will monitor them, we will assess them and split them up with other dogs so they are not dependent on each other and they will learn independence of their siblings or kennel mates, as they are introduced to other dogs," adds Eva.

The dogs will be gradually introduced to other breeds. All beagles, these dogs have never met another dog that is not like them, but they will eventually be matched up with confident, happy animals that they can learn from.

They will also be introduced to collars, harnesses and leads in preparation for their first 'walkies'. The pleasures that lie ahead include their maiden hike through the forests that surround the ISPCA centre.

But that's at least a week away. "That is going to be a lot for them to learn and to observe and to get their little heads around. But it's all positive," says Eva.

In the feline zone, meanwhile, the cats are getting their heads around their terrace of glass houses equipped with slides, poles and toys and some luxurious-looking fabric.

They too are a little the worse for wear from their first car journey, and after casting curious eyes around their new abode, settle in to clean their soiled fur.

The ISPCA and Dogs Trust plan to find homes for all 650 or so retired lab animals. Most of the cats are expected to be rehomed in the UK with the help of the Cat Protection Society. The ISPCA hopes to find new homes for the beagles in Ireland.

Preparing the animals for a life of domestic bliss is another challenge. They have never clapped eyes on a sofa or a vacuum cleaner. As part of their transition therapy, the research facility worked with the ISPCA to recreate a typical human living space, complete with a large mirror so the animals can get used to seeing their own reflection, tables, chairs, a blaring television, a washing machine and even a rubbish bin.

The research facility was "very co-operative with us", says Eva, following ISPCA guidelines to try to socialise the animals.

It is hoped that they will be ready for rehoming after Christmas. Given their unique background, potential adopters must meet the ISPCA's strict criteria.

"Love and care is not enough. We need experience and patience and willingness to invest time and other resources into training and the highest standards of care," adds Eva.

In a statement this weekend, an ISPCA spokesperson listed the requirements: "We will need not only loving and caring homes for these animals but also experienced and patient owners.

"Hence we will be seeking experienced dog and cat owners, ideally owners with previous experience in adopting a rescue puppy/dog or a kitten/cat.

"In cases of dog adoption, we will prefer adopters with an existing confident house dog as the retired dogs have always been in the company of other dogs.

"We want to make it clear that we may not be able to rehome these dogs or cats to families with young children or busy households.

"Adopters will have to be willing to invest time into providing their new pet with the best standards of care including correct training and socialising where necessary," the statement says.

We leave the cats and dogs to bed in at the ISPCA centre on what is the first night of the rest of their lives.

Later we learn that the beagles threw a crazy party. Staff came around the next morning to find they had monstered all the toys and ripped the fleecy blankets to shreds.

By Friday they were pulling tinsel off the Christmas tree. Go guys.

They've done their bit for caninehood and catdom. We reckon they have earned a blowout. Happy Christmas.

Sunday Independent

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