These beagles once institutionalised in a research facility learnt the meaning of fun and happiness during rehabilitation at HUHA.
On the 30th of November 2011, New Zealanders reeled as they settled in to watch the first in a series of exclusive reports on the TV3 Campbell Live Show. But no one expected what came next.
Backed into a corner, wide-eyed and visibly shaking, the word “institutionalized” is a fair description of a beagle freshly released from the Valley Animal Research Centre (VARC).
Year upon year, living on concrete in the breeding facility if they were lucky, or upon slatted steel cage floors in the VARC research building if they were not. Hundreds of purpose bred beagles suffered a life of bare minimum at the hands of researchers.
You don’t have to physically abuse a domestic animal to cause it long term emotional damage. Just deny them anything more than their basic needs; freedom to display natural behaviours, enrichment and allowing no access to the outside world. You could be left with a confused animal without social or coping skills.
We knew that anti vivisection activists had been protesting for years outside the two Valley Animal Research Centres. We had even heard a whisper that due to the marriage breakup of the VARC directors, both facilities (Hastings and Himatangi) had closed down. But we had no idea that when the doors shut over a year ago, no one had negotiated freedom for the remaining beagles in the dilapidating facilities. We were horrified to think that when the vivisection stopped and the doors were shut, the animals were ultimately left and forgotten.
Advertised on Trade Me and sold as pets to unsuspecting and uninformed families, while receiving only minimal care from one of VARC’s directors, was a recipe for disaster for these dogs. Not to mention extremely unfair on the families who thought they were adopting an uncomplicated, fun, socialable family pet.
When we received a call that the beagles were being inappropriately kept and sold on to underprepared families, we hopped on the HUHA truck and headed for Hastings.
The Campbell Live team had invited HUHA to be waiting in the wings as they approached one of the VARC Directors. There were concerns that by approaching them, she could ignite a “clean up” at the closed facility. So HUHA stood by ready to negotiate a safe outcome for the 30 – 40 dogs still in the facility.
We were so surprised by the Director’s erratic and strange behavior. We negotiated for hours, and in fact after she staunchly refused to release the dogs on that first meeting, we continued to communicate and drove to Hastings twice more before finally we were allowed to come away with the initial seven dogs.
Meanwhile Campbell Live’s story of unsocialised research dogs being sold to unsuspecting families took an unexpected turn for the worse.
Natasha Utting from Campbell Live was visibly distressed as she showed NZ viewers a pit of individually wrapped puppy carcasses found at the far end of the VARC Himatangi site. As she gagged to breathe, and tears welled in her eyes, New Zealanders were transfixed to their televisions in disbelief.
The next day a letter sent to Campbell Live from VARC’s lawyers stated that the decaying bodies were those of possums, but an independent veterinary report was to prove the VARC lawyers wrong.
To make matters even more distressing, official files and reports taken from the Valley Animal Research Centre confirmed what many had being wondering. VARC Directors had clearly stated on a 60Minutes program in 2007 that the animals they tested upon were kept “happy, healthy and free of pain”. The official VARC website even states that “None of these projects has involved the harm or death to any dog”. However, the uncovered official documents revealed that in a 2010 trial that lasted 336 days, 33 beagles had undergone surgery at VARC to have the cruciate ligament in their knee ruptured. The documents stated that during the trial only some of the dogs received varying amounts of pain relief and by the end of the trial all 33 dogs had been euthanized and their knee joints dissected and studied.
We have been working hard at HUHA to do right by the 16 Beagles we have librated from VARC to date. 13 are already doing well in fabulous new homes; we have three more homes pending the adoption process. And hopefully will have secured another 5 dogs by the end of this week. Although we won’t give up until all of the dogs are safely away from the VARC environment, we are getting closer and closer to our goal.
(*****NB Since writing this article we liberated 30 beagles and they are all wonderfully safe and thriving in their carefully chosen new family homes:0)
These dogs are sensitive, gentle souls that when given love, gentle guidance and lots of patience are capable of adapting to life as wonderful and often surprisingly animated family members.
But the key to this remarkable transition we have found, is empowering the new owners with the knowledge of where their new family member has come from and what they have been through.
Most people you ask will say they had no idea that animals were tested on in New Zealand. But the fact is that invasive animal testing has been carried out for decades in several of New Zealand’s Universities, Hospitals, AGG Research Centers, large multinational companies and privately run companies like VARC the animal research centre in this story.
It is common place if you know where to look, but the question we are now asking ourselves is, is it really necessary and is it acceptable?