At Beagle Freedom Project, we are often asked the same question by elected officials, members of the media, and the general public: “Why is it that beagles are the breed of dog that make up the vast majority of the dogs used in laboratories, worldwide?” We consulted scientific and industry journals and quickly learned that beagles are a preferred breed because of their “good behavioral characteristics, size, and other physical traits”[i] as well as their “docile temperament.”[ii] In other words, the very same characteristics that make beagles wonderful companion animals and beloved members of the family make them vulnerable victims for laboratory experiments. But we wanted to dig a little deeper than this. There are plenty of dogs that have gentle dispositions, so how was it, precisely, that beagles became the breed of choice for animal experimenters?
The first institution, anywhere in the world, that intentionally made the decision to experiment on beagles, specifically, was the University of Utah. The first eight beagles were purchased by the University of Utah on April 3, 1951, from Mr. A Clyde Clark, a dog breeder in Weston, West Virginia who was affiliated with the “West Fork Beagle Club.” Several more beagles were procured from various backyard breeders in the Salt Lake City area. By March 1, 1952, the University had acquired a total of 61 beagles for breeding, and the breeding program started immediately. Dogs were bred after their first estrus, and laboratory personnel performed cesarean sections on the beagles the moment the in utero puppies were viable. This allowed the mothers to be quickly re-impregnated “in order to obtain a maximal yield of puppies.”
By June 1953, the colony had already grown to 175 beagles. By 1955, there were 309 beagles in a space designed for no more than 200 dogs. Laboratory personnel described the conditions as “seriously overcrowded.” To contain costs, the dogs were fed horse meat. By 1960, more than 671 beagle puppies had been bred for use in the University of Utah’s deadly radioactive toxicity experiments. All 671 were bred from just 32 breeding pairs.
The dogs at the University of Utah were being used in Atomic Energy Commission-funded tests, known as “The Beagle Project.” All of the beagles were injected with plutonium, a highly toxic radionuclide. Some of the dogs were injected with highly toxic doses, and they were all allowed to suffer the painful effects of radiation poisoning without any anesthesia. Bone tumors, gross skeletal disfigurations, tooth loss, and “spontaneous” fractures were some of the most frequent harmful effects seen in the high-dose dogs. The beagles who received the highest dose of radium had an average of more than 20 fractures per dog (compared with zero fractures in the control groups.) The fractures could occur just about anywhere in the dogs’ bodies. Fractures of the jaw, cheek, ribs, legs, or spine were all observed. Because the experimenters were most keenly interested in knowing how exposure to radioactive substances affected lifespan, dogs who were suffering severely were not even given the mercy of euthanasia.
The University of Utah sought media attention soon after the establishment of the beagle colony. In 1952, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a favorable story titled “The Hounds of Beagleville.”
In April 1956, the university scored its first major national media exposure when the magazine Mechanix Illustrated ran a feature about the laboratory titled “These Dogs Are Really ‘Hot.’” The magazine contained the statement “[d]og lovers need not fret – tests are painless; no dogs have died,” which was incorrect, as several dogs had already died, and many more dogs were clearly dying.
These types of experiments quickly spread, with University of California-Davis, Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Washington state, the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in New Mexico, and Colorado State University all picking up Atomic Energy Commission contracts to experiment on beagles.
After adjusting for inflation, more than $1 billion of funding was funneled into this research, and more than 7,000 beagles were killed in hideously painful and deadly experiments where they were injected with or forced to inhale radioactive substances.
Despite its failure to provide meaningful data for human health, this decades-long Cold War project did leave a lasting legacy. The Radioactive Beagles represented the first time that beagles were singled out as a means to acquire data rather than a companion with whom to share affection. The decision spurned the growth of an enormous industry. In 1952, there were no commercial beagle breeding facilities in existence that catered to the research industry.
By 1970, the year a “how-to” scientific compendium titled The Beagle as an Experimental Dog was published, there were at least 56 commercial beagle breeding facilities, marketing their dogs specifically to the research industry. The increased supply capabilities meant that tens of thousands of beagles could be produced and killed each year at an enormous profit, all out of public view.
We still live in the shadow of the Radioactive Beagles. Nearly 60,000 dogs are used in research, testing, and education in the United States each year, and the vast majority of these dogs are beagles. Beagle Freedom Project tries to rescue as many of these survivors as we can and raise awareness about the sad life that awaits these dogs in the laboratory.
[i] Selection, Acclimation, Training, and Preparation of Dogs for the Research Setting
[ii] Characterization of the oculocardiac reflex during compression of the globe in Beagle dogs and rabbits
All Image Source: Beagle Freedom Project