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.

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.

In a handful of instances APHIS has gathered enough proof of theft or so-called theft by deception to have dealers brought to criminal court. Even court-ordered penalties have typically not been severe. A case in point: APHIS placed an Oregon dealer, Betty Davis, and her husband under surveillance for fourteen months starting in December of 1994. During that time the couple sold ninety dogs to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, and the Los Angeles VA Medical Center. APHIS did not request a restraining order against the Davises, however. DeHaven told me that when the research institutions learned of the investigation, they "immediately ceased buying animals from [the Davises], so in essence [their] business stopped early in that two-year period." But court records show that the Davises continued buying and selling dogs until February of 1996, when the surveillance ended. Federal prosecutors subsequently filed charges. The Davises were indicted on eight counts, including defrauding the government and conspiring to obtain dogs through misrepresentation and deception -- from "free to good home" ads and veterinary clinics and off the streets. The matter was settled last year by a plea bargain, in which Betty Davis pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of conspiracy. The remaining counts of the indictment were dropped. The Davises were sentenced to just four to six months of detention in their own home. They were fined a total of $379.31-$354.31 to reimburse one research facility for returning some animals, and $25 for conspiracy.

A look at how APHIS handles dealer violations of all types may be instructive. "I have seen many instances where APHIS program officials are dismissing violation cases without the benefit of any investigation," one senior investigator, complaining of an "erosion of enforcement" within the agency, wrote in an internal memo in 1995. According to a 1995 report by the Office of the Inspector General, which oversees USDA practices, the fines collected by the agency during the previous year were no more than $300 per facility -- minimal amounts considering that many dealers report gross incomes of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Dealers view these fines as a "cost of doing business," the OIG concluded. "If we are talking about a small business and we are not putting them out of business, then any monetary penalties that we impose limit their ability to provide adequate care to the animals," DeHaven says.

In its 1998 report to Congress, APHIS boasted that its "stringent enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act" had helped to reduce the number of Class B dealers selling dogs for research from 104 in 1993 to thirty-three in 1998 (there are currently twenty-eight). Just as relevant, though, is the number of bunchers supplying these dealers -- a statistic the report does not give. However, in 1996 Michael Dunn, an assistant secretary for marketing at the USDA, told Congress that during the previous year the agency had searched for as many as 1,800 suppliers who were providing dogs to dealers, then forty in number. Furthermore, although there is a regulation that limits to twenty-four the number of dogs a buncher can sell each year, this is easy to get around. If dealers identify bunchers as "employees," those bunchers can legally obtain as many dogs for those dealers as their trucks can carry.

The USDA's leniency may reflect long-standing allegiances. APHIS has historically regarded institutions and their suppliers as its constituency. A 1995 Animal Care newsletter stated, "We exist to support our clients," referring to animal-welfare licensees. Top APHIS officials frequently go directly from the service to employment in the medical-research industry. For instance, James Glosser, the administrator of APHIS from 1988 to 1991, was subsequently hired as the assistant dean of veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis. Conflicts of interest exist at lower levels of the agency as well. One former APHIS veterinarian told me, "Some inspectors talk about getting into dog dealing as good business when they retire." Others don't wait for retirement: at least two inspectors have themselves run breeding operations -- in one case a substandard one -- even while employed by APHIS to monitor kennels.

Conscientious inspectors can't count on the agency's support. Some enforcement officers who have been relocated believe they were moved because of their zeal. Others -- for example, Marshall Smith, a former enforcement officer, who worked for the agency for almost twenty years -- tell of being ostracized for seeking punitive action against dealers.

Legislative action to halt pet trafficking has so far failed. In 1988 Senator Wendell Ford, of Kentucky, whose son's hound had been stolen, introduced the Pet Theft Act, which was intended to prohibit dealers from buying dogs and cats at trade days and increased the penalties for repeated pet theft violations. The act was defeated, owing in large part to opposition from the USDA and the National Association for Biomedical Research, a powerful lobbying organization, which argued that the bill would "inhibit research."

In October of 1993 Representatives George Brown and Charlie Rose, of California, sent a petition to the USDA, co-signed by twenty-seven of their colleagues, accusing the agency of "dereliction [of] duty" in the face of "evidence ... that USDA licensed animal dealers routinely buy and sell stolen family pets."In 1996 Representative John Fox, of Pennsylvania, introduced the Family Pet Protection Act, but this, too, was vigorously opposed by the NABR. In January of 1997 Representative Charles Canady, of Florida, introduced the Pet Safety and Protection Act, which was aimed at eliminating the entire random-source category. That bill did not make it out of committee; Canady reintroduced it last year.

In response to congressional outcries the USDA mounted a series of stolen-dog task forces. Their investigations resulted in little action. Two inspectors from a 1990 task force told me that when they examined the records of the leading midwestern dealers, they discovered rampant fraud. Dealers were listing suppliers who had long been dead, who did not exist, or who were obtaining animals from "free to good home" ads. The inspectors outlined these abuses in their reports. But instead of fining the dealers and revoking their licenses, the agency concluded that there was no evidence of pet theft and offered to license a large number of area bunchers as dealers. As for trade days, the agency deemed that they could be markets for "individuals desiring a quality pet." In 1993, on the heels of the Brown-Rose petition, the USDA initiated another task force. According to Marshall Smith, the task force was quietly disbanded, with no action having been taken, even though there was indisputable evidence that dealers were falsifying records and breaking the law. The USDA commissioned yet another task force in 1994. This time dealers were not even questioned about their sources. Smith, who participated in several task forces, speaks of the agency's "selective enforcement-case after case against dealers dismissed, and violators relicensed with barely a slap on the wrist." He describes the agency as having a "profound disdain for the Animal Welfare Act, for the public, and for Congress." The USDA "provides a safe haven for criminals," Smith says.

The USDA and APHIS repeatedly point to their "concerted efforts" to address pet theft. For example, in a statement issued last February 13, in honor of Pet Theft Awareness Day, Michael Dunn spoke of the agency's firm stand on pet theft and its "significant progress in stopping the trafficking in stolen animals." The agency argues that its enforcement abilities, however, are limited by inadequate staff and funds. It maintains that most stolen dogs go to puppy-mill breeders or dog-fight organizers and that the likelihood of a stolen pet's being used in research is "remote." Nonetheless, the APHIS Web site advises pet owners whose animals are missing to get in touch with animal dealers and research facilities in their area -- an implicit acknowledgment that pets may end up there.

ARE research institutions aware that they may be buying former pets? Dogs bearing tattoos and subcutaneous microchips -- unmistakable forms of identification -- were found in the kennel supplying the Universities of Iowa and Michigan. "I worry about the sources all the time, but we rely on enforcement by the USDA and on the integrity of the dealer," says John Harkness, who oversees the animals used in teaching at Mississippi State University. Harkness told me that he has tried tracing the origins of some of the university lab's dogs from dealers' records, "but it gets very murky." John Young, a lab-animal veterinarian at Cedars-Sinai, has also tried tracing the origins of animals he has bought. He says that he was given false information by Class B dealers and their bunchers, however, and that his lab was a "victim" of dealers who were obtaining animals through illegal means. As a result, Cedars-Sinai stopped buying from Class B dealers in 1995.

Other lab directors I spoke with readily acknowledged the poor health of the dogs they buy (several described receiving sick, dying, and dead dogs from suppliers to whom they nonetheless remain loyal), but were less forthcoming on the topic of pet theft. Some admitted knowing of record-keeping violations on the part of their dealers, but they appear to turn a blind eye, regarding the problem as a matter solely for the USDA. For example, the University of Missouri's primary dog dealer has a history of record-keeping violations that is documented both in APHIS inspection reports and in court records. But Leroy Anthony, the manager of the school's animal laboratory, says, "He's still in business, so he's doing something right." Ron Banks, the lab-animal veterinarian at the University of Colorado Health Science Center, told me that although he reviews inspection reports for suppliers who are new to the university and for those who have had violations, the overall responsibility lies elsewhere. "I worry about every part" of the system, he says, "but we have to rely on the USDA."

Institutions can afford to do business with dealers whose practices may be questionable: no laboratory has ever faced legal action for buying stolen pets. Some institutions have gone to court rather than reveal the sources of their animals. The State University of New York lost a two-year legal battle in 1998, when the New York Court of Appeals ordered it to disclose its records to a public-interest group.

The National Association for Biomedical Research maintains that pet theft is a "myth" and "an enduring falsehood," and continues to battle against restraints on dealers. The NABR Web site states that animal-rights activists use the "illusion that there is a demand by researchers for stolen pets" to generate "opposition to animal research in general." Pets that have disappeared, the group contends, are far more likely to have wandered off than to have been stolen. As for cases in which lab animals are obtained through "free to good home" ads, the Web site points out that "even in those instances the pets were turned over voluntarily -- they were not being stolen from owners who wanted to keep them." The site acknowledges that there have been "rare cases"in which family pets have ended up in research laboratories, but argues that USDA-mandated holding periods for pounds and dealers ensure that owners have adequate time to find a pet before it is sold for research.

BY about 9:00 A.M. in Poplar Bluff the dealer was slamming shut his loading doors, muffling the barking of the dogs now crammed within. Only a few scraggly dogs remained on the lot. One buncher was preparing to haul his leftover dogs across the state, to an auction in Joplin. One was going to dump his dogs by the side of the road. Another talked about shooting his. Some of the small dogs were consigned to a "bait bin" on the lot, to be sold as live bait in organized dog fights. By ten o'clock the back lot was deserted -- a patch of dust under a flat sky. Several boys were combing the ground for coins and cigarette butts. But there was little to salvage: just a couple of dog collars attached to a metal chain.