Today, Moritz and Theo are two healthy and happy beagles living with their adoring owners, Sarah and Mike Klitzing. But their lives haven’t always been this good.
“We don’t know what was given to them, we don't know anything about what happened before the day we met them,” said Sarah Klitzing, who took part in the beagles’ rescue in 2020, after they had spent seven years in a local research laboratory.
Mike Klitzing remembers the first day Moritz left the lab. “We had to go in and carry him out and set him down on the grass, which is probably the first time he'd ever stepped on grass before,” he said.
Nationwide, nearly 60,000 beagles each year are bred and used specifically in animal research, testing and experimentation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“They generally like to be handled and so that's kind of weaponized against them because they will cause the least amount of problems for the people doing the testing,” Mike Klitzing said.
Recently, however, advocates and others have shined the spotlight on the treatment of beagles in labs. Specifically, San Diego-based pharmaceutical company Crinetics has faced scrutiny for contracting with Inotiv, a contract research organization (CRO) in Indiana that is performing toxicology studies on 80 beagle puppies.
"The docile nature of beagles is what makes them the victim here,” said Kathleen Conlee, a former animal researcher, who is now vice president of Animal Research Issues with the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society conducted a seven month investigation at the Inotiv lab in Mount Vernon, a city in southwestern Indiana, and produced undercover video. Conlee told KPBS about a particularly wrenching part of the video involving a dog named Riley.
"The veterinarian was called to come in because of how bad of a condition he was in and wasn't able to make it because of personal reasons so the animal suffered all night on the floor just moaning and groaning," Conlee said. "I've worked on this issue for a really long time. I've seen a lot of disturbing videos, but just hearing that animal groaning like that — I've never heard anything so awful."
"I've worked on this issue for a really long time. I've seen a lot of disturbing videos, but just hearing that animal groaning like that — I've never heard anything so awful."
The Humane Society said as many as 32 of the dogs have already been euthanized, and the organization is asking for the rest to be released for adoption at the end of the study this year.
Inotiv has disputed the allegations and insists the Mount Vernon facility is operating within the law.
“Inotiv complies with all applicable federal, state and local regulations, as well as the Animal Welfare Act, and, at our Indiana and Maryland facilities, is accredited by AAALAC, the Association for the Accreditation and Assessment of Laboratory Animal Care International,” the company said in a statement it released in May.
Meanwhile, an Inotiv subsidiary in Virginia, agreed as part of a settlement to relinquish approximately 4,000 beagles after allegations of multiple welfare violations. Some of those dogs have been brought to San Diego for adoption.
Officials at Crinetics would not agree to an interview with KPBS, but said in a statement that the euthanizing of some dogs can’t be avoided due to requirements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“The unfortunate reality is until the FDA and other international regulatory bodies change their study requirements, there are no scientific alternatives allowed by the regulatory bodies today,” the Crinetics statement said.
The FDA refused to comment specifically about the Crinetics study, but said in a statement to KPBS that euthanasia is not required after study completion unless it is necessary to examine tissue.
Nonetheless, advocates backed with a petition of more than 250,000 signatures continue to protest outside Inotiv’s Indiana facility and are calling for the beagles to be released for adoption.
“They blocked the doors, they’re not letting us in,” said a protester in a video posted to the Humane Society's Facebook page. “But hopefully they heard our voices.”
Taking note in Congress
Their voices are being heard in the halls of Congress. In May, a bipartisan coalition of 167 lawmakers from 32 states signed a letter to Crinetics and Inotiv, asking for the beagles to be released instead of euthanized.
Also, 14 states now have laws mandating that dogs involved in laboratory research be made available for adoption, once they are no longer needed for research. In 2019, 32 beagles were rescued from Charles River Laboratory in Michigan. One of those Beagles, named Teddy, inspired an adoption bill in that state called Teddy’s Law.
While these laws help stop the killing of dogs in the name of science, the use of dogs in laboratories remains common.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a search tool on its website to find annual reports which indicate which species are used by each lab, and how many of the animals were in studies involving pain, distress, or pain-relieving drugs.
KPBS observed the exterior of three San Diego labs that reported using dogs. The buildings are mostly nondescript and many are located in business parks.
Brian Martin has worked for five years as a lab technician at one local lab. He says the animals used by the company, which KPBS agreed not to name, are well cared for.
“I know what I'm doing, the animal is going to be okay. If somebody else is doing it, they might not have as much care for the animals as we do,” Martin said.
He said some of the dogs have been there for seven or eight years before they are adopted into homes, sometimes by the laboratory's own clients.
“I know what I'm doing, the animal is going to be okay. If somebody else is doing it, they might not have as much care for the animals as we do."
Are animal studies necessary?
Throughout history, animals have been used in research, playing a major role in the way we find safe treatments to ease human suffering and prolong our lives.
“Well, we're not rats, it's quite clear. But, there are biological parallels between species,” said Dr. Tony Yaksh, professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology at University of California, San Diego.
He says the COVID-19 vaccines are perfect examples of how researchers determined their safety by using animals in preclinical trials.
“It was done with the idea that a tremendous amount of work had been done with the animal models to in fact show that there were no adverse events,” Yaksh said.
But, are animals the only option in the year 2022? A growing number of experts are saying "no," especially when it comes to companion animals, like dogs.
The FDA, in a statement to KPBS, said: “It is important to select an appropriate model … Sometimes the best model for a study is a dog model.”
However, Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a neurologist, public health specialist and a former FDA medical officer, said the FDA does not have a regulation that requires animals to be killed for drug development
“For those dogs that are still safe, are still alive, are still healthy, there is no regulation that prevents them from being adopted out,” Akhtar said. She went on to say that 90% to 95% of all drugs and vaccines that are found to be safe and effective in animals end up failing in human trials.
But Dr. Joseph Garner, a professor of comparative medicine at Stanford University, says the issue is more nuanced.
”The vast majority of drugs entering human trials fail, but for other reasons,” he said. “In a perfect world where every animal experiment translates, you would still only have a success rate of about 25%."
“I deeply believe that we can improve the translation of animal results into humans,” Garner said. “But, at the end of the day, there are just certain things that you have to do in animals, but we can reduce the number enormously.”
Congress is poised to make it easier for the FDA to allow more non-animal options. The FDA Modernization Act of 2021 aims to allow for more alternative methods like cell-based assays, organ chips and computer models. It passed the House in June and is now before the Senate.
“It doesn't take away animal testing, but it allows drug developers to start using more modern, human relevant testing methods, in place of animal testing,” Akhtar said.
Dr. Tony Yaksh, UCSD professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology, said failure is just part of science, and if pharmaceutical companies could replace, reduce, and refine animal testing, they would be inclined to do it, especially from a financial standpoint.
“We produced an animal that is hardwired to love us and has no choice but to love us.”
“Researchers, scientists, people in drug development, they're not stupid,” Yaksh said. “If you can show a better way to do it, bring it on because I promise you people will be beating your door down.”
Dr. Lawrence Hansen, a UC San Diego pathologist, said ethics should still trump financial considerations.
"It seems particularly egregious to use dogs for animal research, for vivisection animal research, because dogs and humans have a history that goes back 15,000 years of what is essentially selective breeding,” said Hansen, who made a point to say he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of UC San Diego.
“We produced an animal that is hardwired to love us and has no choice but to love us,” Hansen said.
For Hansen, who has protested the use of dog testing at UC San Diego since 2003, the issue is personal.
“I killed one dog in a physiology lab when I was in medical school, and I tortured slowly to death another dog when I was in a surgery clerkship where they wanted us to practice surgical techniques on dogs,” he said “It is a karmic debt that I can’t pay back.”