CHEYENNE – Following the closure of a Virginia facility that bred beagles for medical research, more than 200 of these dogs found a second chance in tiny Hartville, Wyoming.
Kindness Ranch Animal Sanctuary is a 14-employee organization located on nearly 1,200 acres in the southeastern part of the state. Its mission is “to provide a sanctuary and place of rehabilitation for animals who have been used in laboratory research,” according to its website. This safe harbor for dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, goats, sheep and rabbits is completely funded through private donations, according to its executive director, John Ramer.
Of the more than 200 beagles that found an intermediate home at Kindness Ranch at some point in the past eight months, just 36 have yet to be adopted, Ramer said in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle this week.
In July, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that 4,000 beagles would be surrendered from a Virginia breeding facility run by Envigo, a company that provides animals for medical testing.
The U.S., in May, had filed suit against Envigo, alleging numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act at its Cumberland, Virginia, breeding facility. The DOJ alleged that the facility was “failing to provide humane care and treatment to the thousands of beagles” there, according to a news release from the agency.
Legal action to try and remove the beagles from the site was “Based on past violations identified during inspections by the Department of Agriculture and evidence of extensive, ongoing AWA violations obtained during a multi-day criminal search warrant executed at the Cumberland facility,” the DOJ said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, apparently sparked this federal action through an undercover investigation that began in 2021.
In the July 15 consent decree in a federal court in Virginia, Envigo agreed to release all of the beagles still at the Virginia facility to the Humane Society of the United States. Envigo also agreed to no longer engage in activity at the Virginia facility requiring an AWA license.
The Humane Society had 60 days to coordinate the dogs’ removal from the site. On Sept. 1, the animal welfare organization issued a “mission accomplished” statement, saying the last group of beagles had been removed from the Envigo breeding facility.
Kindness Ranch is one of more than 120 animal rescue organizations and shelters in the U.S. – and the only one in Wyoming – that took in some of the beagles and placed them for adoption.
Coordinating the rescues
Ramer said Kindness Ranch was one of the first organizations involved in the Envigo rescue. A call from a friend back in February began the process, as that friend’s organization primarily facilitated fosters and couldn’t take in the 150 beagles that were initially released from the Virginia facility.
The Wyoming sanctuary coordinated transportation with California organization Priceless Pet Rescue. A month later, they went back and got another 150, “and we thought that that was going to be the end of it,” Ramer said.
As hundreds, and then thousands, of dogs needed to be picked up from the Envigo facility, Ramer and another employee began calling around to other shelters and rescues to find out who could take in the dogs.
“That became incredibly overwhelming, and that was when the Humane Society of the United States and the Department of Justice stepped in,” Ramer said. “Their lawyers worked with Envigo’s lawyers, and they came to a compromise on how the release would look, how long we would have, and they started to do the vetting process of finding other qualified rescues.”
Kindness Ranch had a hand in about 1,000 beagle placements with other rescue facilities “that went on to successful adoptions,” Ramer said.
Ramer began working at the sanctuary about four years ago after managing a primate sanctuary in Florida. Kindness Ranch, he said, “enveloped everything that I liked about sanctuaries all over the world.” While working with dogs was a key part of wanting to work there, he also likes that it’s rural, and that full-time staff members live on-site with the animals.
“There’s an inclusive group of people that are always available for care of the animals, which, in my head, kind of sets the gold standard for care,” Ramer said.
Ramer said the organization typically gets 30 to 40 adoption applications each month. In the first two weeks that media began covering the rescue, they received more than 700.
“The celebrity nature of the Envigo rescue was really eye-opening for a lot of people, that this small group of people in Hartville, Wyoming, we led the entire nationwide movement,” he said. “We received communications from the likes of Sharon Osbourne, Ariana Grande, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his wife – a lot of celebrities jumped on and started to share our stuff on Instagram and whatnot, and that helped with a lot of donations.”
As temperatures drop in the coming months, some of the most important donations will be items for keeping animals warm, like heated mats or blankets. The sanctuary is also always looking for enrichment activities and toys for the animals. An Amazon wishlist can be found at tinyurl.com/kindnessranch-amazon, and one for Chewy is at tinyurl.com/kindnessranch-chewy.
Beagles are often used in medical research because of their size and disposition, Ramer said.
“They’re super, super forgiving, incredibly affectionate, and they’re eager to please,” he said. “They have a high resiliency to pain and discomfort. Regardless of how bad of a day that they had, if you throw a handful of kibble in front of them, they’ll usually still eat.” Dogs’ biology is also very similar to humans, leading to them being used in things like heart valve and cornea research.
More than a century ago, researchers began the search for a “standard” dog for use in laboratories, according to an August column in The Washington Post by Brad Bolman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, beagles were used in research into radiation and longevity at universities across the U.S., Bolman wrote. Stronger drug testing standards established in the 1960s led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to essentially endorse the beagle as the standard testing link between rodents and humans, according to the researcher.
In his column, Bolman asserts that these dogs’ “sacrifices helped unveil secrets of the atom, demonstrate that cigarettes cause cancer and develop new vaccines, and taught us what we know today about how to care for dogs.”
But many animal welfare groups object to the use of dogs and other species in laboratory testing – especially when numerous deficiencies are found in breeding facilities that supply these researchers with animals, as the DOJ says was the case with Envigo.
The WTE could not reach Envigo for comment. The company told Science.org in November 2021 that “The highest quality of animal welfare is a core value of our company and is central to our business.” Envigo told that publication that, over the past five years, it had spent $3 million on “extensive upgrades and facility improvements” to the Cumberland facility.
“While the USDA inspections reflected that we have improvements to make, we had previously initiated and are continuing to take the necessary corrective actions for all issues outlined in the reports,” Envigo’s statement continued.
‘Never touched grass’
Kelly Thornton of Sheridan knows what it’s like to live with an under-socialized beagle. She and her family adopted Ryder, a now-2-year-old beagle, from Kindness Ranch in March.
Ryder – named Lyria at the sanctuary – was rescued from a facility in Florida that bred dogs for medical research, Thornton said, similar to the Envigo facility in Virginia.
Thornton’s family has two other beagles they’d previously purchased as puppies. Bringing home Ryder was different than bringing home their other dogs, she said.
“Ryder is a puppy in an adult body with no social skills, no puppy experience, so she has to learn all those puppy things,” Thornton said. The family has had to work to gain Ryder’s trust, and to teach her things like how to play with toys.
“We have to unmold and remold with her, which is a trial, and it takes a lot of patience,” Thornton said. Still, she wouldn’t change a thing about Ryder.
The beagles from the Envigo facility “weren’t traumatized physically or mentally from going through laboratory research,” Ramer said. “They were mostly just incredibly under-socialized, with the unfortunate fact that they didn’t have the staff (at Envigo) to work with the dogs and actually handle them. These beagles had never had a positive or negative experience with a human.”
After being picked up from the facility, beagles that went to Kindness Ranch went through health screenings and spent about a week in an intake area. The beagles would then go live in the homes of on-site caregivers at the sanctuary, learning how to live with humans.
“These beagles have never touched grass before,” Ramer said. “They’ve never heard music, TV, the sound of a blender, the sound of a vacuum.”
Ramer said the sanctuary received the last 20 dogs about two weeks ago from the Envigo facility in Virginia. Dogs are typically put up for adoption after they’ve been at Kindness for 30 days.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ramer ended up adopting one of the Envigo dogs. Early in the seizure effort, he was handed a male beagle – the first of the 4,000 to leave the breeding facility. He would name the dog Uno.
“It just happened so quick and almost sterile, and I looked at his dog in the eyes, and I was like, ‘You have no idea how special you are,’” Ramer said.