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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Freeing the beagles of Bengaluru
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Freeing the beagles of Bengaluru

The story behind the largest release of lab beagles in the world in Bengaluruand the people who made it possible

A lab-rescued beagle at the Hotel for Dogs, Bengaluru. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/MintPremium
A lab-rescued beagle at the Hotel for Dogs, Bengaluru. Photographs by Hemant Mishra/Mint

Snapshot 1.

It’s Monday. Baskar Ceri, managing director of Apna Technologies & Solutions, is leaving for work. As his wife Gigi Mathews sees him off, she notices the three dogs lined up in the pen that runs the length of their house: The full-size Great Dane and German Shepherd flanking the relatively tiny beagle, which had joined their family just over a week ago. The two bigger dogs, Bella and Gautam, respectively, seem to have appointed themselves protectors of Eliza, a laboratory-bred beagle. It’s a scene as matter-of-fact as it is touching.

Snapshot 2.

On the same day, in another part of Bengaluru, another small beagle—newly christened Gunda—spots an open door and gives his three-week-old adoptive family the slip. The runaway triggers the most intensive dog-hunt the city has ever seen, with scores of volunteers spending early mornings, late evenings and any hours they can spare in between following leads from a kebab-shop owner and a home-owner who fed the beagle several kilometres and days apart, besides multiple passers-by and local residents.

These scenarios, of course, are the desired and undesired ends of the story of the beagles. On the one hand, a loving forever-home, where members—canine and human—accept damage and idiosyncrasy with unarticulated equanimity. On the other, work-in-progress towards that end because “there is no alternative".

The beginnings of their story are far more difficult to pinpoint.

Does it begin, for instance, on the Saturday when families drive for hours, literally, to an adoption camp on the outer fringes of Sarjapur?

Or does it begin the previous Monday, when crates and crates of traumatized beagles are unloaded from a truck?

Or does it begin years earlier in the innards of a laboratory, where beagles are born and bred in conditions that few are privy to and fewer are willing to discuss?

Or does it begin, really, in India’s laws, which make little distinction between a rat and a dog in matters of testing for drug toxicity?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. Using animals for testing new medicines or other products for human consumers is one of those problematic areas that even the most developed societies grapple with today though some countries—including those that form the European Union—have cracked down on such tests for cosmetics. India became the first Asian country to ban animal testing for cosmetics within its borders in 2013; the next year, it banned import of cosmetics that have been tested on animals elsewhere.

The last bit, actually, is key to the issue: Manufacturers in countries across the world bypass their own animal-cruelty laws by outsourcing tests elsewhere; it is frequently cheaper as well. In India, because toxicity testing for pesticides and drugs is legal, companies—pharmaceutical firms, chemical companies and garden-variety contractors—can breed animals such as dogs for tests, be it for products for the domestic market or for businesses located abroad. Sustained campaigns by various animal welfare organizations, however, have gradually brought enormous pressure to bear on breeding labs. Coupled with recently introduced nuances in governing laws, they have encouraged laboratories—at least 14 or 15, spread across India, are licensed to purpose-breed dogs—to release their stocks.

Why dogs though? And why beagles? A paper titled Use Of Animals In Scientific Research, published by the Indian Council for Medical Research in 2000, states categorically: “Toxicological studies, specially those performed on rodents and beagle dogs are the essential link between the pre-clinical phase and clinical development of the drug molecule."

A small-sized dog “probably developed in Elizabethan times by crossing between the harrier and ancient English hounds", a beagle’s personality is “affectionate, cheerful, clean, tranquil and pleasing with a harmonious voice", according to Simon & Schuster’s Guide To Dogs.

“The size and the temperament of beagles make it the preferred dog for laboratories," says Shiranee Pereira, co-founder of People for Animals, Chennai. “They are a very sober, non-aggressive breed, which makes it easy for the handlers to inject or feed them the substances under study." Plus lab beagles have usually been bred in confined conditions for 10-12 generations. Any hound-like quality their ancestors may have possessed—their sense of smell made them prized hunting dogs—has long been tricked out of them.

*****

On a Monday morning in June, all is still in the wide open expanse that is the Hotel for Dogs, Bengaluru. Set up by cricketer-turned-entrepreneur Shravan Krishnan after he discovered the dismal condition of existing canine boarding houses in Chennai in 2014, the Sarjapur branch of the Hotel for Dogs has offered its facilities to the animal welfare non-profit, Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, or Cupa, as it is better known.

A Cupa ambulance enters through the high iron gate and backs into a barricaded run. The tailgate comes down and the stench hits you almost like a wall. Regardless, four or five volunteers get to work quickly, silently. This is the fifth time they’re doing this in as many weeks and they are now adept at keeping their emotions under control.

Within minutes, 17 crates are lined up under the cloudy open sky. And then, at some unspoken signal, Cupa volunteers Chinthana Gopinath and Awanti Agarwala set to work simultaneously, unlocking the mesh doors and swinging them open. Watching from the sidelines, I see a few black noses emerge first, followed by lolling pink tongues and scared eyes, floppy ears and, finally, the entire length of the tan-white-black bodies, tails tucked between their legs. Some take a little longer than others but, in under 5 minutes, 16 beagles are running about the pen. The 17th hunkers down, refusing to budge, till Gopinath and Agarwala gently tilt forward the crate and then, when the dog shrinks back further into his sanctuary, reach in and coax him out. For a few terrified seconds, he hugs the crate and then joins the others, pacing relentlessly around the pen, the clink-clink of 17 metal number tags against metal chain-linked collars the only sound in the spacious enclosure.

Chinthana Gopinath (left) and Awanti Agarwala giving the dogs a cuddle.
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Chinthana Gopinath (left) and Awanti Agarwala giving the dogs a cuddle.

It’s the first time in their lives—they are between two and five years of age, an equitable mix of genders—that the beagles have spent any length of time under the open sky or encountered packed earth or green grass. The silence that envelops them as they pace is eerie.

*****

Five days later, the Hotel for Dogs campus in Sarjapur wears a festive air. A couple of shamianas block off the direct rays of the sun. The beagles have a free run in the area bound by a wire fence, supervised by volunteers in grey tees reading “I can’t keep calm, I have 156 beagles". On Thursday, each of the beagles was groomed thoroughly—they are sterilized by a Cupa vet just ahead of their release from the lab but, unlike dogs we are accustomed to, be it at home or on the street, lab beagles have no aversion to their own poop and pee and they usually arrive with traces of both on their paws and in their coats.

Chinthana Gopinath handing out treats on adoption day.
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Chinthana Gopinath handing out treats on adoption day.

Families mill around, with one member often restraining a pet on a leash on the outer side of the fence, while others, especially the children, try to bond with one beagle and then another, facing the impossible task of picking one to take home. The dogs are still pacing the compound and they still don’t meet your eye, but today each of them wears either a bright red or green collar—in addition to the metal tags—and they submit to a sure touch; some even seem to welcome it. One positions himself sideways in front of me, not rejecting my ministrations, encouraging them only by not moving away, but his eyes are far away, ears perked up, aquiline nose in the wind, his tense but still beautiful lines carrying a faint echo of his hunting ancestry.

A boy bonds with a beagle at an adoption camp.
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A boy bonds with a beagle at an adoption camp.

Under the shamiana, the Ceri family is bonding with Dog No.484. “Siddharth, my brother, was in one corner of the ground and I was in another. I really liked this one dog but it was a male and we wanted a girl. Then 484 came up to Siddharth and, a little later, left him and came up to me," says Priyanka. “That’s how we decided on Eliza."

Just days earlier, while scrolling through her mother Gigi’s Facebook feed, the 11-year-old had chanced upon an adopt-a-beagle post. “We were in the car, going somewhere, when I read about the 156 beagles. And I said I wanted a beagle for my birthday—which is not till 24 July—and everyone agreed instantly," says Priyanka. “Only my grandfather needed a bit of convincing, but I told him I would look after the dog, and he came around too."

Familiar with a rescued beagle adopted three months earlier by a friend of Gigi’s, and armed with information provided by the Cupa volunteers, the Ceris were somewhat apprehensive when they brought Eliza home. “For the first couple of days, we were hovering around her constantly—oh see, her eyes are shut, oh, her nose is wet or dry—until we realized that this was stressing out both us and the dog," says Gigi, a chartered accountant currently spending her sabbatical working on India’s first Sanskrit-language animation film. “And then we saw how comfortable Eliza was with Gauti and Bella in the run outside."

“Yes, she’s happiest outside," chimes in Siddharth, 13. “Eliza’s tail disappears between her legs as soon as she comes indoors." Priyanka, who was envisioning a house-dog who would be romping on her bed, however, is handling her disappointment in a most mature manner. “Whatever makes her happy, this is about her," she says.

Gigi Mathews, Siddharth and Priyanka with Eliza.
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Gigi Mathews, Siddharth and Priyanka with Eliza.

“With Gauti and Bella, I think Eliza’s learning to be a dog," says Gigi, who grew up with dogs. “Of course, we’re learning as we’re going along as well. For instance, the volunteers had advised us to give her Pedigree, a commercial brand of dog food, for the first few months. But Eliza didn’t seem to like it at all—but she gobbled up the chicken and rice that the other two eat. Also, she doesn’t like the leash so it’s tough to take her out for a walk. But we aren’t letting these things worry us too much. The one thing we do keep an eye out for are locked gates: We don’t want her to run away."

*****

Long before Eliza though, there was Sasha. And before Sasha, there was Betty.

“I’d been working with animals for a long time, but the first time I brought lab-bred beagles home, it changed my life," says Pereira, on the phone from Chennai. “Betty, Benjamin, Babe, Bartholomew and Barney—they had been only numbers in the lab till November 2012, when they were released from a lab in Bengaluru along with 25 others. They were all more than 10 years of age but these five weren’t picked during the adoption drives. So I just piled them into my car and drove back to Chennai.

“All I knew about Betty was what the lab said: ‘Beagle No.1,114, born on 28th April 2002’. The pups she had given birth to, year after year, had been taken away from her and used for toxic experiments. She was hyper-vigilant, distrustful and fearful of the human touch. A lemon tree in my garden was her refuge: Every sudden noise and movement would send her scuttling to its shade. Sarah and Winsa, two abandoned dogs I had taken in, helped her come out of her cocoon, but she survived just over four months with me: I remember her heartbreaking yowls just before she passed away, it seemed to me she was mourning her lost puppies one last time. Betty strengthened my resolve to stop the abuse of dogs in laboratories."

In 2013, as a member of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), constituted under the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (animal welfare division), Pereira pushed for limiting the use and length of captivity of lab dogs. A five-member sub-committee worked on the guidelines, which were ratified in August last year; the notification went out to all dog-holding establishments in the country in October.

It read: “The guidelines are based on the premise that animals in laboratories undergo psychological, physiological and physical trauma, not just from the interventions made on them, but also from solitary confinement, lack of natural conditions, caging, handling and absence of appropriate social interaction."

“It was a huge victory for me," says Pereira simply. “Whereas earlier labs could use and reuse dogs till the end of their life and release them if they wished to when they were no longer useful, the new rules cap their incarceration to a maximum of three years. It could be far less if the dog shows any signs of ill-health in that period. Reuse is conditional on CPCSEA approval. Earlier, a dog would be tested on for a week, rested for three days and put through the cycle again. Now a washout period of at least three months is mandatory. Dogs used for breeding— like my Betty—have to be rehabilitated after five whelping cycles."

*****

For the past few months, the CPCSEA has been acting as a nodal agency for the release of lab-bred dogs, coordinating between laboratories and animal welfare organizations. “They got in touch with us in February, when 64 beagles (all aged between 7 and 9 and thus well beyond the three-year permitted lab life) were to be released from a Bengaluru-based lab," says Sandhya Madappa, who has been working with Cupa for 18 years. “We’d just got over with the process of their adoption when word came of the imminent release of 156 more."

The sheer numbers—the largest single release of laboratory beagles anywhere in the world—necessitated an overhaul of processes to a level rarely seen in voluntary work. The Hotel for Dogs, which had offered its facilities free of charge for the February batch, was persuaded to accept a basic fee that covered its costs (the releasing lab reimburses all costs of rehabilitation). And Gopinath, who had been working with Cupa and was closely involved with the February placements, began formulating a remarkable tech-supported template that called on hundreds of volunteer hours, unforeseen levels of screenings and post-adoption follow-ups and was, in a way, a natural progression of a commitment that began with Sasha.

“It was early 2013. I’d been sitting on the fringes of Cupa, watching the work they did but not very sure where I could plug in," says Gopinath. “Around that time, Cupa was in charge of rehabilitating 102 beagles rescued by People for Animals from a pharma lab in Bengaluru. I was in their office to take photos of the beagles when one dog—the number 8699640 was tattooed in her ear—crawled into my lap. She had been adopted and returned to Cupa because no one then really knew how to handle these dogs. And though we already had one dog, Calvin, and no thoughts of another, I couldn’t leave Sasha behind."

Just as Gautam and Bella would mentor Eliza three years later, Calvin became Sasha’s role model, teaching her to climb stairs, play with a toy, accept a cuddle. One day, when her ball was stuck under a chair, Sasha tried to bark like Calvin—but, Gopinath realized, the sound was a faint imitation of a bark: Sasha’s vocal chords had been snipped in the lab to minimize noisy protests during experiments for drug toxicity.

For Gopinath, this evidence of human cruelty was a turning point, a discovery that coupled her fierce compassion with the sheer determination to ensure a better future for lab-bred dogs. Her Facebook page “Speak for Sasha" is an active forum with more than 2,650 followers and the beagle herself has become the poster girl for ill-treated animals across the community.

As word of the upcoming release of 156 beagles spread across social media, hashtagged #freagles, Gopinath and her team of five volunteers, including canine behaviourist Natasha Chandy, instituted a tough screening process that began with a questionnaire on a Google spreadsheet. “With the February lot, we had applications on emails but it made for a lot of work at our end. The Google questionnaire streamlined the process tremendously," says Gopinath.

While beagles have always been a popular breed as a choice for a pet—American cartoonist Charles Schulz’s Snoopy is said to be “the world’s most famous beagle"—the appeal of the 156 was further augmented by the lab’s claim that they had never been tested on. “We received 2,500-plus applications," says Smitha Suri, who worked with Gopinath on screening and counselling prospective adopters. “After a preliminary check, we call the applicant and chat also with the primary caregiver, in the vernacular if necessary, ask for a plan of the house—and even photos and site visits sometimes—and explain the challenges upfront. Our strike rate is not high but dishearteningly, about 40% of the approved applicants don’t turn up on the appointed day; they don’t even inform us."

Besides matching applicant to dog, tipping them on expected behaviour patterns and being on call with a projected 156 families, the team stays alert for the odd runaway. In the space of a week, there were three such cases—including Gunda—necessitating day and night searches, plastering the localities concerned with posters and raising reward money.

“These dogs do have a tendency to bolt," says Suri. “See, they have never lived in a domestic environment and when they don’t find anything familiar around them and they see an open door, they are likely to make a run for it. But it is imperative they be found (two of the three missing dogs were traced in a matter of hours) as they run many risks. Unlike street dogs, lab-bred beagles have never learnt to forage for food. Street dogs are also extremely territorial, so they may attack a stranger beagle. Besides, of course, there may be vehicular accidents. There’s little chance of them being picked up by breeders—beagles are a prized breed but it’s well-known that all the lab beagles are sterilized—and they may be sheltered by good people, but unless we know, there’s no closure for us."

Closure, for Pereira, will come only when authorities across the board recognize the futility of using dogs for testing in labs. “There’s just a 2% incremental knowledge between tests on rats and on dogs," says Pereira, citing a 2013 British study. “Balance that with our knowledge of dogs as sentient creatures with proven cognitive abilities."

There’s no contest, really.

THE ABC OF A LAB BEAGLE

Know the pet before you want one

First-time pet parents often make the best homes for these dogs because lab beagles, as animal welfare activists emphasize, are like no dogs you know, so unlearning is involved. A few of their traits as outlined by canine behaviourist Natasha Chandy:

u Ceaseless pacing, going round in circles, rocking from side to side, licking their paws. All expressions of stress.

u Obsessive mounting. A stress or boredom-reliever. Also because the only time a lab beagle is exposed to another dog is when they are forced to mate.

u Soiling their living space. Puppies learn from their mothers to poop and pee away from where they sleep. Since lab beagles are taken away from their mothers very early—and also because they are confined to their cages round-the-clock—they do not develop this instinct.

u Eating their own poop, which may be how they were punished in the lab. It could also be the fallout of a desire to keep their space clean, or because they were not fed properly.

u They may not bark or eat or allow human contact for days or even weeks. Ditto for eye contact.

u Bolting. Because they have never been in a domestic environment, it is instinctive for them to seek familiarity. If a door—or a balcony—offers them a way out, they will take it.

If that sounds discouraging, hear Chandy again: “These dogs are so hardy, so willing to accept change, they keep our energies high. But yes, they are a huge emotional investment and a lifelong commitment. Adopting a lab beagle is one of the hardest things anyone can do—and one of the most rewarding as well."

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Published: 01 Jul 2016, 08:04 AM IST
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