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Massachusetts state legislators advance the ‘Beagle Bill,’ meant to help dogs and cats leaving research facilities find adoptive homes

A piece of legislation dubbed the “Beagle Bill” is likely to soon be signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker after being enacted by both chambers at the State House and receiving bipartisan support.

But what exactly does this legislation do and how will it help save the lives of dogs and cats that were involved in animal research and help find them new lives as pets?

The bill, which was first introduced four years ago, would require research institutions and product testing facilities in Massachusetts that use dogs and cats to offer healthy animals for adoption once their time in research has ended, allowing for them to have a second chapter in life .

The move would go beyond current federal law, which regulates the care and use of research animals in laboratories, but does not extend protections beyond the end of a research project, with the exception of providing humane euthanasia — leaving the possibility that otherwise healthy cats and dogs may be killed.

That’s where the law comes in to facilitate a relationship between laboratories and non-profit animal adoption organizations, according to the MSPCA-Angell, which supports the bill, also know as “An Act Protecting Research Animals.”

The Massachusetts “Beagle Bill” also follows in the footsteps of similar bills already enacted into law in about a dozen other states including in Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York, according to the MSPCA-Angell.

“I think there’ll be a real opportunity for us to forge and for us to facilitate forging relationships with those facilities once it passes,” said Kara Holmquist, the MSPCA’s director of advocacy. Holmquist noted that flexibility is also a key part of the legislation.

The bill is written in a way that research facilities are not forced to give animals to any specific group, nor is a shelter of rescue organization required to accept animals offered to them by such facilities, according to the MSPCA-Angell.

The bill would “simply require that once an institution makes the determination that a dog or cat is no longer needed for research, is healthy, and doesn’t pose a risk to the health or safety of the public, the research facility must then reach out to an animal shelter or rescue organization to ascertain whether it can assist with placement in an adoptive home, or opt for private placement,” the group said.

Holmquist said the private placement provision was asked for by research groups, and gave the example of a veterinary technician who worked with an animal and wanted to have it as a pet after the research protocol had concluded — allowing for such adoptions to occur without mandating that a shelter acts as an intermediary.

She added that the advocacy arm of the MSPCA is “optimistic” that the “Beagle Bill,” will get the governor’s signature, saying that there has been no opposition to the bill and that it has also received support from the Massachusetts Society of Medical Research , a group which represents research facilities and which helped to work on some of the bill’s language.

The MSPCA-Angell, in addition to the Northeast Animal Shelter, have recently taken in over 150 beagles from an embattled breeding facility run by the company Envigo in Cumberland, Virginia, which housed about 4,000 dogs that would have been used in animal research, but are now all in the process of finding new homes nationwide through the Humane Society of the United States and its rescue partners.

The Envigo facility faced numerous violations of federal regulations, leaving many dogs “underfed, ill, injured, and, in some cases, dead,” according to a report by The New York Times. The coinciding large-scale rescue makes the likely passage of the “Beagle Bill” all the more timely, even while not being directly related.

The “Beagle Bill” got its name stemming from the fact that beagles are the breed of dog most commonly used in research, largely due to their docile natures and easy ability to handle, according to Holmquist.

Beagles make up close to 96% of the more than 60,000 dogs used in animal experimentation nationwide, according to the Beagle Freedom Project, a non-profit animal rescue and advocacy organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating animals used in research and subject to “other forms of unique cruelty, abuse and neglect.”

The group said nearly 20,000 cats, in addition to dogs, are also used in the US to test cosmetic, pharmaceutical and household products and “other scientific curiosities.”

In advocating for iterations of “Beagle Bill” legislation nationwide, the Beagle Freedom Project said, “This is a simple, common-sense and compassionate proposal to help rescue dogs and cats from tax-payer funded laboratories.”

The MSPCA director of advocacy said in seeing and hearing stories from those who have adopted or fostered dogs used in research that it is “remarkable” how well these “resilient” animals can do in homes after coming from these research environments.

“We know that these dogs can be great family pets, that they can still learn to be a dog,” Holmquist added.

She cited one example of a 6-year-old beagle named Louie, whose owner had adopted him after he spent the earlier half of his life in a research facility, who was “a huge hit at the State House” when advocates began testifying on the bill prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Louie’s “well adjusted and docile” nature helped him become the “face of the bill” for a time according to Holmquist, saying dogs like Louie help to make the case for giving these animals a second chance at life post-research.

The legislation also does not impact the research conducted itself, as the discretion for when to withdraw and offer animals for adoption remains with the research facilities, according to the MSPCA-Angell.

The MSPCA-Angell noted outside of the legislation, there are also a number of research facilities that have already instituted successful adoption programs for dogs and cats.

“Companion animals deserve the opportunity to live in a home. By formalizing the practice of adoption for animals used in research, this legislation benefits dogs and cats that make or will make contributions to scientific development in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” the group said.

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