From the Leash to the Laboratory

Medical-research institutions draw on a thriving black market in stolen and fraudulently obtained pets
Zohar Lazar

IF you're driving south on Missouri Highway 67 into Poplar Bluff, past acres of strip malls, a sharp left at Route 53 takes you into hardscrabble country, a place of violence and squalor in the southeastern part of the state. I made the drive on a saunalike morning in early August, reaching the Poplar Bluff Sale Barn around seven o'clock. Vendors had been arriving since dawn. On most days of the week livestock sales are held in the corrugated-tin auction barn. But Friday is Trade and Sale Day. Merchants were setting up folding tables under colorful umbrellas on the barn's dusty four-acre lot, across from the Gospel Rescue Mission and a dilapidated farmhouse hemmed in by the skeletons of junked cars. Some of the merchants were hawking homemade jams; others offered "emu juice" -- a supposedly medicinal broth -- or shotguns. Still others were "puppy-mill" breeders selling allegedly purebred dogs for $10 or $20 each.

But the big money, one vendor told me, is in the dogs sold to suppliers to medical-research labs. She pointed to the back lot, which was crowded with campers, station wagons, and pickups with license plates from Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. A number of the vehicles were fitted with "dog cabs," containing six or eight dogs crammed into small wooden crates. A red cattle trailer was packed with purebreds and mixed breeds. Men sweating under feed caps were pulling dogs out by their legs or muzzles. Many of the dogs were emaciated, their bellies swollen from worms or other parasites, their coats matted with their own feces and urine. The scene was hauntingly quiet. When a dog did bark, it was reproached with a swift kick.

Around eight-thirty a nondescript white van pulled onto the lot. The driver -- a registered dog dealer, licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- swung open the loading doors, revealing dozens of empty metal cages. About a hundred dogs were for sale on the lot. Soon sellers were clustered around the dealer's van. The day's trading had begun.

High-volume dealers like this one keep an inventory of 500 to 700 dogs in their kennels at any given time. They are supposed to buy dogs only from sellers who raised the animals themselves or bought them from "random sources" -- people who can prove that they raised them. Although USDA regulations call for dealers to obtain certain information from each seller, including a description of the animal being sold, many dealers will accept simply the seller's name, address, and signature as proof of ownership. "Hell, they don't raise those dogs," said a grizzled coon hunter who was observing the proceedings. "Some of them, they just pick up the dogs off the street and sell 'em. Make good money, too."

POPLAR Bluff sits in the heart of dog-dealing country. The Midwest's interstates and local roads are conduits for a vast network that transports stolen dogs from virtually every state for sale at trade days like this one. The number of dogs that go missing each year under suspicious circumstances has been conservatively estimated by shelters and pounds, animal-protection organizations, and veterinarians to be in the hundreds of thousands. Puppy-mill breeders and the organizers of dog fights buy their share, but the animals also end up as subjects in the biomedical-research industry, which pays top dollar. Although it is impossible to know how many dogs this is, Patricia Jensen, then a former USDA assistant secretary, testified in 1996 that "one of the most egregious problems in research" is the "introduction of stolen and fraudulently acquired pets into the process."

The clients who contribute to this trade include reputable medical schools across the country, where dogs are used in cardiovascular, bone, orthopedic, urological, burn, and dental research, in ballistics tests, in radiation and drug studies, and for dissection in physiology labs. Although federal law specifically prohibits the sale of stolen dogs, the agency charged with enforcing it -- the USDA, through the Animal Care program of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) -- has taken little effective action. And congressional initiatives, including virtually all attempts to pass stronger legislation, have failed.

The system for acquiring dogs for medical research is based on a complicated hierarchy, in which accountability is diffused. The system has remained largely the same since 1966, when Congress passed what soon became known as the Animal Welfare Act. The act set standards of treatment for medical-research animals and stipulated that labs can acquire them only from dealers who have been licensed by the Secretary of Agriculture -- a provision directly aimed at preventing the sale of stolen pets to labs. The USDA was not eager to assume responsibility for enforcing the act. When Congress proposed appointing the USDA to do so, the agency tried to be relieved of the duty; in a letter to Congress the Secretary of Agriculture suggested that an agency "more directly concerned" with the pet-theft issue should be considered for the task. That argument failed.

Any adult citizen of the United States, even a convicted felon, can acquire a USDA license to sell dogs to research institutions. There are two kinds of dealer licenses. Class A dealers, according to the broad terms of the act, breed dogs for sale. When they buy from Class A dealers, institutions have some assurance that they are buying dogs intended from the outset for research. But many institutions buy their dogs from both Class A and Class B dealers; the dogs sold by Class B dealers are less expensive and may offer a broader range of research subjects. This is where most problems lie.

Presented by

Judith Reitman is the author of several books, including Stolen for Profit (1993) and Bad Blood (1996).

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