They had names. They had toys, treats, belly rubs and wagging tails.
But that all ended the day they were scooped up, sold off and transported like cargo to a destination where their names were irrelevant. They were given numbers, poked, prodded, cut open, used…and then discarded.
Over the years, credible allegations were raised that some animals acquired from “random source” (or Class B) dealers for use in experimentation had in fact been lost companion animals, animals who had been acquired fraudulently, or worse, family pets stolen from backyards.
For the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which had relied upon Class B dogs for experimentation, the uncertain origin and difficulty of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in effectively monitoring Class B dealers to ensure the animals they provided were not being acquired illegally were problematic. Additionally, the animals’ “random” natures meant that accurate medical histories and family backgrounds were all but non-existent—lessening their value to researchers.
For these reasons, in March of 2011, the NIH announced a plan to stop using dogs from Class B dealers for their research. And while the announcement was hailed with great excitement by some animal advocates, NAVS expressed concern that the NIH’s plan was not all it seemed.
This decision was perceived by many as a step forward in reducing the number of dogs used in federally-funded research. Abandoning Class B dealers as a source of animals was also seen as a positive step, given these dealers’ unscrupulous history.
NAVS, however, took notice that the NIH already planned a pilot program “to develop a USDA-licensed commercial Class A vendor to breed dogs possessing the same characteristics as those previously acquired from USDA Class B dealers, namely large, mature, socialized outbred hounds or mongrels.”
Was undertaking a new breeding program aimed at producing even more dogs whose lives would be spent entirely in research laboratories a step forward in advancing better, more humane science?
FOIAs Fill in the Blanks
The NIH’s decision to end the use of Class B dogs was made in response to the 2009 report Scientific and Humane Issues in the Use of Random Source Dogs and Cats in Research, which noted that it was not necessary to obtain random source animals from Class B dealers because they could be obtained from other sources, including Class A dealers. The key to this recommendation was a statement that “they represent an important but relatively small asset to biomedical research.”
In an effort to learn more about the NIH’s initiative to obtain Class B-like dogs from Class A dealers, NAVS filed multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to provide greater transparency regarding the situation. Specifically, we requested information about the NIH’s program to discover who the Class A vendor was, how many dogs would be obtained, the kind of research that would be conducted with the dogs, and what the cost would be to taxpayers.
From the FOIA requests that were completed (some are still pending), NAVS learned that Covance Research Products was awarded the contract to breed dogs for the NIH pilot program. According to the contract, Covance was to “furnish canines/dogs that have been bred/raised for biomedical research, with the following characteristics: mature (at least one year of age), large (approximately 20- 35 kg.), short haired, barrel-chested, out-bred hounds or mongrels that are socialized (tolerant of human interaction) and tractable (tolerant of handling without fear).” The contract specified that most dogs would be one to two years old, of a foxhound or hound cross type body conformation and size, and would come with health records corresponding to the USDA number tattooed in their ear. The contract also indicated that the number of animals purchased would initially be small and increase over the period of the 4-year pilot program.
According to the documentation NAVS obtained, the NIH specified they were requesting tractable and mature dogs because “(1) when instruments are placed in young animals they are likely to move and be displaced as the animals grow and mature, and, (2) immature and poor social behavior in young animals makes utilization of those animals more difficult in research protocols requiring handling and other interventions. Additionally, the blood volume of small, immature animals severely limits the amount of blood that can be sampled for chronic longitudinal hemodynamic and neurohormonal studies.”
NIH-supported studies that have most commonly used dogs with “random-source” characteristics have been those involving cardiovascular and transplant research, in addition to diabetes studies and studies of the skeletal system, among others.
The $4,000 Dog
Results from our FOIA request concerning the number and price of dogs were less straightforward. After reviewing multiple documents, from initial contract proposals and business plans and then amended contract provisions, it was difficult to pin down exactly how much was being spent on dogs, on the transport of dogs and on other expenses not listed on the delivery forms.
A summary document stated that from March 2011 through March 2014, 599 “crossbred hounds” were purchased by the NIH from Covance for use in research. Based on the initial contract information provided, this would have resulted in a cost of $1,570,707 over three years, at an average cost of $2,622 per dog. However, additional contract amendments increased the cost of the three-year contract to $2,478,228, resulting in an average cost of $4,137 per dog.
The lack of transparency in the NIH’s response to our direct questions about the number of dogs involved in the program and the cost of breeding them under the contract with Covance makes it difficult to determine the accuracy of these numbers. Despite receiving nearly 100 pages of documents, there was only one place in the original project plan that indicates the number of dogs that were to be bred and delivered to the NIH during the first three years of the project.
With the initial pilot program now over, it is uncertain what the future will be for this program. It appears, however, that the number of dogs will continue to rise, as will the cost to the taxpayers footing the bill. The cost of the contract already doubled from its initial projection for the 2013-14 performance period, and that is likely to continue in the future.
NAVS is continuing to analyze the information received via FOIAs, as well as collecting additional information from the NIH, while working on the next step—proposing a strategy to replace the use of dogs in research instead of breeding more dogs who will spend their lives suffering in research laboratories.
Follow NAVS’ efforts to bring about greater accountability and transparency and to end the waste of both animal lives and taxpayer dollars. Visit www.navs.org to sign up for news and action alerts.