Inside the Horrible Trade in Dogs for Reseach

Every year, close to 65,000 dogs are used for medical research in the United States. How do laboratories get the animals? Some come from licensed "Class A" dealers, who specifically breed dogs for research. But the majority of dogs are acquired from Class B dealers, who are also licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—but who can obtain their dogs from various sources, including unlicensed sellers known as bunchers, for as little as $20.

The transactions are legal if the bunchers can prove they raised the animals themselves or acquired them from someone who did. But animal-rights groups claim that Class B dealers, who can sell the dogs for hundreds of dollars, often do not check the origins of the dogs they acquire—and that bunchers will pick up strays or simply steal dogs from backyards. Moreover, animal-rights groups claim, some dealers often neglect and abuse these dogs before selling them. Members of one animal-rights organization—Last Chance for Animals—spent six months undercover investigating one of these dealers. The conditions they found were deplorable. Dogs were crammed into narrow feces-covered cages, some malnourished or bleeding from open wounds. Some were already dead, their bodies lying stiff and unnoticed in the back of the cage. One dog, considered a "biter," was shot in the head ("no sense in him breathing air that a good dog could breathe," a kennel worker says). Other maggot-infested canine corpses were discovered in a trench, some of them butchered for their organs.

A new HBO documentary, "Dealing Dogs," tracks the investigation and its outcome: the shutting down of the Arkansas kennel and the fining of its owner, Chester C. Baird. Tom Simon, one of the producers of "Dealing Dogs," —to be shown on Feb. 21— spoke to NEWSWEEK's Christina Gillham about the film. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you learn about this issue?

Tom Simon: We were originally interested in doing a film about animals used in research. As we began to dig into it we realized that the procurement of animals for use in research, particularly dogs, was a complicated and somewhat shady business. Many of the dogs used in research are not purpose-bred dogs, they are dogs that are acquired through Class B dealers. We found that that trade is not very well regulated, that there have been many, many allegations over the years that pets have been stolen from people's yards or strays picked up by people who were then selling them to these B dealers. In the film, there are [bunchers] speaking to an investigator who admit driving around rich neighborhoods in St. Louis [looking to] pick up dogs. We became very interested in this supply chain, and we began to reach out to animal-rights groups that were investigating this.

And that's how you came across Last Chance for Animals?

We heard about Last Chance and we had a meeting with [founder and president] Chris DeRose about five years ago. He mentioned casually they were trying to get someone to go undercover inside C. C. Baird's kennel … So we begged DeRose to meet [the undercover investigator known as] "Pete," and a couple of weeks later we did, and we began to follow that story.

How rampant is the problem of Class B dealers acquiring animals illegally and treating them inhumanely?

There are about two dozen Class B dealers who are doing what C. C. Baird was doing, but he was by far the largest … By various estimates, Baird was selling several thousands dogs a year and selling to a lot of state university veterinary schools. They have to get their dogs from someplace, so some other B dealer is going to try to take over that business.

Where does the law stand on Class B dealers now?

Last Chance for Animals has been pushing the Pet Safety and Protection Act for a long time. It has a couple of congressional sponsors, but that bill's going nowhere fast. It has been around for a number of years and has never seemed to gain much traction.

The act calls for the elimination of Class B dealers, a move some medical research groups oppose. They say Class B dealers provide better, more diverse dogs than Class A dealers.

They do get all kinds of dogs. [But] if you buy a dog whose provenance is really not well known, that was bought at a country flea market or may be a stray that, quote, "wandered into somebody's yard," you don't know anything about the bloodlines of that dog. You don't really know anything about the health of that dog, so how valid can medical research be when don't know enough about your subjects to really know if your research results would be valid?

Some research labs argue that if Class B dealers are eliminated it could hinder medical research. What's your opinion?

I don't agree, and I think that's a bit of a specious argument.

Your film doesn't take a position on the animal research itself.

We absolutely don't. That's a really complicated issue, and it's not one we deal with in the film. The important thing to understand is that the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] is responsible for the inspection of any kind of facility that uses animals—from a small breeder of puppies to a circus to a research lab. They're supposed to enforce the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act, which has very specific standards for the care and treatment of animals. For example, a B dealer has to provide adequate and regular veterinary care. They have to provide a certain amount of square feet of cage space. They have to provide an adequate level of nutrition. Pete was in the [Baird] kennel when the USDA inspector came. The kennel cleaned up in advance because they knew the USDA was coming. And that pile of dead dogs [in the film], including that poor little black dog that was shot, was of course cleared out. And the inspector I'm sure never got to see those open trenches of dead dogs, which is one of the most horrific things I've ever filmed or witnessed.

Aren't there local organizations like the ASPCA or Humane Society who can keep an eye on people like C. C. Baird? Why bring in the federal government?

Yes, there are, and some states actually have enforcement on the state level as opposed to a local or county level. But C. C. Baird had a license that he obtained for $50 or $75 from the federal government. If they're going to license them, they ought to regulate them. But I think the states are ill equipped for it. The other thing is, there's no real federal animal-cruelty statute. Baird was charged with negligence and cruelty as an administrative charge of the USDA, which ended up fining him [$262,700], the largest fine ever under the Animal Welfare Act. But the criminal charges against him were mail-fraud charges and conspiracy charges basically for selling dogs to a research lab and receiving payment by check, and because those dogs were not properly documented as to how he obtained them.

Some might ask, if the animals are just going to be used for research anyway, why even bother caring about them and how they're treated en route to the lab?

Most animal-rights groups I studied closely recognize that they're not going to cut off the use of animals in research anytime soon, so they're taking a more moderate stance and pushing for more humane treatment. And they've made incredible strides in doing that.

At the end of the movie, the animals are put up for adoption, and the rescue group who has them says anyone who wants a dog can come get it. Isn't that how bunchers get animals in the first place?

Yeah, but I think [the rescue group] folks are very vigilant. It's true that bunchers have answered ads that say "free to a good home" and there have been people who have connected someone who answers those ads with someone who is basically selling the dogs for some nefarious purpose. But I don't feel the folks from this rescue group would ever let that happen. They're too hip to that.

Why doesn't the law focus more on the bunchers?

They're individual entrepreneurs, they're unlicensed, kind of shady characters. Our understanding is that the U.S. attorney in Arkansas is now turning its investigation toward the bunchers and the people who Baird bought dogs from.

What responsibility do the research labs and vet schools buying from Class B dealers have?

The problem is if you're buying from a licensed B dealer he is warranting that he obtained the dogs legally. So [the buyer] can say, "Well, I'm not buying them under the table, I'm buying them from a licensed dealer and he tells me that these dogs were obtained legally." They do have responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act in terms of how they treat the dogs once they're in their custody. But from what I understand, they don't have a lot of legal responsibility besides buying from licensed dealers.