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Regulation From the Leash to the Laboratory

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

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

by Judith Reitman

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

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From the archives:

"The Truth About Dogs," by Stephen Budiansky (July, 1999)
Recent explorations into the field of canine genetics are changing the way we think about man's best friend -- "man's best parasite" may be more like it -- and could help us repair the damage done by a century of inbreeding

"So Long to Bad Dogs," by Mark Derr (May, 1997)
Animal behaviorism is an infant science, but it has dramatically changed the way many dog owners understand their animals.

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Links to related material on other Web sites.

In Defense of Animals Campaigns: Pet Theft
A section of the In Defense of Animals Web site -- "working to protect the rights, welfare, and habitats of animals" -- devoted to the problem of pet theft.

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.

Class B dealers are permitted to buy dogs from unlicensed sellers, known as "bunchers," as long as the bunchers can prove that they bred and raised the animals on their own premises or obtained them from someone who did. This restriction is aimed at ensuring that each dog can be traced to a legitimate owner -- that the animals are not stolen or obtained through fraudulent means. But for it to be enforceable dealers must keep and make available accurate records, and bunchers must give them accurate information. In its 1998 annual report to Congress, APHIS claimed that it was able to trace the original owners of more than 90 percent of the dogs sold for research. However, this number was derived by extrapolating from a very small sample. A random selection of inspection reports pertaining to five of the largest dealers shows that all have had record-keeping violations. Over the years there have been dealers who have not even allowed inspectors on their property. In any given year as many as forty bunchers may supply a single high-volume dealer. For those unconcerned with the law, dogs are easy enough to come by. Bunchers may cruise neighborhood streets, picking up any dogs they encounter. They may obtain unclaimed dogs from veterinary clinics by offering to find homes for them, and may answer "free to good home" ads placed by owners trying to find someone to care for dogs they can no longer keep. Often a buncher answering such an ad brings along a child, in order to create a convincing picture of a welcoming home.

The price structure that has evolved puts certain breeds particularly at risk. The most valuable dogs are Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and shepherd mixes, Dalmatians, spaniels, golden retrievers, hounds, and border collies. Sometimes called "serum dogs," owing to backwoods folklore that a serum made from the blood of these dogs could cure cancer, they are prized by labs because they have large chests, which make them preferred subjects for cardiovascular research. Labs will pay a dealer as much as $800 apiece for them (the dealer has paid the buncher about $25 apiece). Serum dogs are generally guaranteed to remain alive for seven to ten days after purchase. Less-desirable breeds and mixes are sold by the pound, as "junk dogs" (usually guaranteed to live for a week) or "acute dogs" (guaranteed for only forty-eight hours).

DAN Hannes, the sheriff of Cedar County, Iowa, dreads the spring. "That's when pet thieves come around," he says. The peak dog-stealing season extends through summer, with thefts occurring in state after state throughout the South and the Midwest. In August of 1998, during the Iowa State Fair, in Des Moines, some 350 dogs from the area were reported missing. Last summer an animal-welfare society in southeastern Missouri got calls about more than 200 missing dogs. Two years ago in Carroll County, Mississippi, several enraged hunters drove into a buncher's encampment, where they found their missing hounds; the hunters rammed the buncher's fence with their trucks and seized their dogs. Other Mississippi residents have found their dogs chained in bunchers' and dealers' kennels and at local trade days. "If you have a pet missing, the Ripley Trade and Sale Day is a good place to look," says Pete Samples, a criminal investigator with the police department of Ripley, in northern Mississippi, where one of the largest dog-trading events in the country is held. Last January more than 120 large purebred dogs were reported missing in southwestern Michigan. Vans purporting to represent an "animal-management service" had been seen cruising neighborhoods there. Similar vans have been associated with missing-pet episodes in Maryland and Alabama.

APHIS has broad authority to stop such thefts, by requiring dog dealers to comply with the law. It can assess and collect hefty fines and notify the sheriff's office about animals that are believed to be stolen. The agency is required by law to inspect and monitor kennels to ensure that the animals have been legally acquired. It is responsible for requesting the prosecution of any dealer who has stolen and sold a dog to a research facility, and is empowered to bring an injunction against any dealer it believes to be trading in stolen pets. However, the agency has taken few productive measures to halt the abuses. "We cannot be the on-site police," says Ron DeHaven, the deputy administrator of APHIS. "We can't be at every facility every day to make sure they are adhering to the regulations." It is difficult to prove that animals have been obtained through theft or fraud, DeHaven argues; the agency can usually prove only that dealers are keeping inaccurate or improper records.

In those instances when APHIS has gone after a dealer for record-keeping violations (a process that can take years, during which time the dealer may remain in business), it has generally reduced the penalties outlined by law, holding closed-door administrative hearings and allowing the dealers to stipulate to fines that are just a small fraction of what the Animal Welfare Act permits.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


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

Illustration by Zohar Lazar.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; From the Leash to the Laboratory - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 17-21.