Advocates seek homes for research dogs and cats

Katie Lannan/SHNS file photo/State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, center, of Gloucester eyes Gumdrop, a 9-week old pitbull-type puppy, as a pet protection bill was signed into law. Now Tarr is sponsoring a bill that would require companies that use dogs and cats for research to offer them for adoption.

 

BOSTON — Thousands of cats and dogs used in medical research are eventually euthanized, according to animal advocates who for years have lobbied the scientific community to instead find homes for them.

A proposal filed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, would now require companies that use dogs and cats for research to do just that. The Gloucester Republican said the state has a "moral imperative" to ensure the adoption of animals that have helped to pioneer cures for deadly diseases.

"These are animals that are making a tremendous sacrifice so that our lives can be saved," Tarr told members of the Legislature's Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture at a hearing on Tuesday. "We owe them the opportunity, when their service is complete, to have the chance for the life that others animals in our society have."

Tarr's proposal, called the "Beagle Bill" because corporate breeders and research labs tend to prefer that breed, includes safeguards that animals must be "suitable for adoption" and not have a disease or behavior that would be harmful to families.

Tarr said he revised the legislation to include provisions that would allow "groundbreaking, life-saving medical research that happens in Massachusetts to continue without being impeded." He said the updated language of the bill, filed late Tuesday, emerged from discussions with the medical research community and animal welfare groups.

James O'Reilly, president of the Massachusetts Society for Medical Research, says scientists already offer some animals for adoption, in some cases to the researchers who've worked with them in the laboratory.

He said a concern is that some animals just aren't suitable for adoption.

"There are instances where animals have medical, behavioral and temperamental characteristics that may not make them good candidates for adoption," he said.

Because of that, the industry wants to require that a laboratory veterinarian sign off on a research animal's suitability.

O'Reilly said despite activists' claims that animals aren't useful to medical research, many top discoveries wouldn't be possible without them. "In 98 of the last 103 Nobel Prizes for physiology and medicine, the winners did their pre-clinical work with animals," he said.

Dogs, in particular, are helpful in the search for new gene therapies — even a possible cure — for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a debilitating cluster of diseases which mostly affects boys and typically is fatal before the age of 30, O'Reilly said.

"There's a lot of promise in that field right now, which is providing hope for families that have had to go through this," he said. "This is so urgent because there's no cure."

Federal law requires the ethical treatment of animals used in research and testing, but doesn't spell out what happens to them afterward, according to animal welfare groups.

At least 11 states, including Connecticut and New York, require research animals to be offered for adoption, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Stephanie Harris, with the Animal Legal Defense League, said 60,000 dogs and 20,000 cats nationally are used in product testing and research facilities each year.

In Massachusetts, which is home to some of the top medical research facilities in the country, approximately 8,000 dogs are used every year in research.

"There are a number of laboratories that have instituted successful adoption programs for dogs, cats and other animals, including some facilities in Massachusetts," she said.

Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said there are hundreds of state-certified shelters to accommodate them.

"We know that many, including ourselves at the MSPCA, would be willing to work with the research facilities to find these animals homes," she told the panel on Tuesday.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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