USDA says pound animal giveaways to vet schools are not covered by the federal Animal Welfare Act
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana; TUSKEGEE, Alabama––Recent transfers of shelter animals to the Louisiana State University and Tuskegee University veterinary schools have allegedly been reported by shelter personnel as “adoptions” or transfers to “rescue.”
The disputed transactions appear to illustrate a perverse effect of using “live release rate” as the primary benchmark for animal shelter performance.
Dogs and cats “adopted” or “transferred” for laboratory use may indeed be alive at the time, and may be counted as “live releases,” but are not necessarily alive for very much longer.
How long has this been going on?
The numbers of animals known to have been transferred during 2018 from the Companion Animal Alliance in Baton Rouge to Louisiana State University and from the Russell County-Phenix City Animal Shelter to Tuskegee University are fewer than 100.
But this may be a small percentage of all such transfers made over multiple years.
Further, the alleged motivation and methodology of the transfers could be replicated through arrangements between other shelters and other laboratories many times over, throughout the U.S., with few people becoming aware of the misleading transactions.
This would have the net effect of reversing more than 70 years of progress toward ending the use of shelter dogs and cats in laboratories.
“Pound seizure” drove up euthanasia
High-volume shelter killing, after short reclaim times, for owner-surrendered and stray dogs and cats became the U.S. norm in the mid-1940s. This was partly in response to a boom in pet-keeping paralleling the post-World War II “baby boom,” which––in an era before the advent of easily accessible and affordable spay/neuter––produced surging shelter intakes of unwanted puppies and kittens.
Use of the term “euthanasia” to describe the killing, however, came into widespread use in response to the advent of “pound seizure.”
Universities rapidly expanding involvement in biomedical research in the post-World War II era turned to shelters as a source of dogs and cats for use in experimentation and dissection.
When humane societies balked at allowing animals to be used in painful procedures, many states passed “pound seizure” laws, almost all of them now repealed, requiring any shelter holding an animal control housing contract to surrender animals to laboratories on request.
Dogs & cats euthanized before bunchers could “pull” them
The only way an open-admission shelter with public contracts could avoid surrendering live animals for laboratory use was to euthanize any animal who might be taken, before the “bunchers” who were the “middle men” between shelters and labs could seize them.
Public opinion research eventually established that a major cause of dog and cat abandonment at large was owner guilt over surrendering animals to shelters, knowing that they would almost certainly be euthanized, if not sold to laboratories.
Eighteen states subsequently banned transfers of shelter animals to laboratories, 13 of them between 1976 and 1986.
Is “live release rate” the Titanic of no-kill?
Still legal in the 32 other states, lab use of shelter animals nonetheless appeared to have receded into history until the Louisiana State University and Tuskegee University cases surfaced. Unknown, and perhaps unknowable from existing public records, is whether they are anomalies and anachronisms, or perhaps the first visible tip of a menacing iceberg.
Preoccupied with boosting “live release” rates, shelters today often seek to suppress animal intake by various means, while preventing dog and cat abandonment is no longer a visible priority. Thus the factors that impelled decades of shelter opposition to sending dogs and cats to laboratories are today relatively weak.
Shelter on the LSU campus
The known transactions between the Companion Animal Alliance and Louisiana State University occurred during the six months before the Companion Animal Alliance moved into a new $12 million shelter on the Louisiana State University campus in November 2018.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) initiated an investigation of animal transfers from the Companion Animal Alliance to the Louisiana State University veterinary school in October 2018, wrote LSU Reveille reporter Bailey Chauvin, “after receiving a complaint from former Companion Animal Alliance executive director Desiree Bender. Shortly after Bender began working at the Companion Animal Alliance in May 2018, she said, she was asked to sign an invoice to transfer live dogs to the vet school for a lethal anatomy class.
“Bender refused to sign the invoice,” Chauvin continued. “After attempting to bar the transfer of dogs to the vet school in August, Bender received a call from Veterinary Clinical Sciences assistant professor Wendy Wolfson, who also serves on Companion Animal Alliance board of directors. Bender said Wolfson attempted to convince her to continue to meet the vet school’s needs, but Bender refused.”
“15 cat bodies with heads”
Bender shared with PETA a portfolio of email correspondence between Comparative Biomedical Sciences Research staff member Allison Vestal-Laborde and Companion Animal Alliance director of shelter operations Amanda Pumilia Forde.
The correspondence showed that the Companion Animal Alliance fired Bender soon after she refused to comply with a request from Vestal-Laborde for “at least 15 cat bodies from which we would need the heads.”
PETA verified the correspondence with a Louisiana state open records act request filed on October 31, 2018, obtaining 226 pages of what it termed “responsive material.”
But Bender’s response to the order for “at least 15 cat bodies” was not included.
Wrote Chauvin, “PETA filed a companion complaint with the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in February. This complaint alleged the University committed criminal violations of Louisiana’s Public Records Law by failing to provide at least one email that fell under the scope of the records request.
Adopted? Heads up!
“PETA also asked that the district attorney investigate Companion Animal Alliance listing some of the animals purchased by the vet school for its lethal anatomy courses as ‘adopted.’”
PETA research associate for laboratory investigations Jeremy Beckham told Chauvin that the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in February 2019 asked Beckham to re-submit the complaint to the East Baton Rouge Police Department, then requested that the police department conduct an initial investigation and refer the findings back to the District Attorney’s Office.
PETA claimed 140 violations of Animal Welfare Act
Meanwhile, Beckham on February 6, 2019 wrote to USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service director for animal welfare operations Robert Gibbens, DVM, “According to credible reports obtained by PETA from a whistleblower, as well as internal correspondence obtained by PETA from Louisiana State University, it appears that in 2018 LSU unlawfully purchased at least 70 live dogs from a community animal shelter located in Baton Rouge.
“Louisiana State University also appears to have failed to maintain the required acquisition and disposition records for these 70 dogs,” Beckham charged.
“If PETA’s allegations are substantiated, [this] would give rise to at least 140 separate violations of the Animal Welfare Act.”
Bender told PETA that Louisiana State University paid the Companion Animal Alliance $40 apiece for live dogs and $20 for the remains of dogs who had been euthanized, Beckham summarized.
“No invoices, intake forms, or other official records”
“Included among the responsive material,” obtained by PETA through the open records act request, Beckham continued, “were a number of email exchanges,” chiefly between Alee Vestal-Laborde and Amanda Pumilia, which “appear to confirm that LSU routinely procured both live and dead animals from the Companion Animal Alliance for use in training and/or research in 2018, and may be continuing to do so.
“Despite all of this correspondence, which clearly indicates LSU’s routine procurement of live dogs from the Companion Animal Alliance, Louisiana State University provided PETA with no invoices, intake forms, or other official records documenting the acquisition of these dogs, even though such paperwork should have fallen under the scope of PETA’s request,” Beckham said.
“On January 15, 2019, PETA submitted an additional records request for these records,” Beckham wrote, “wherein we identified each of the 70 dogs, individually, by their unique identification number. Louisiana State University replied that it had ‘no LSU public records responsive to [PETA’s] request.’ ”
PETA asked for $1.6 million fine
However, Beckham pointed out, “7 U.S.C. § 2137 states that it ‘shall be unlawful for any research facility to purchase any dog or cat from any person except an operator of an auction sale subject to section 2142 of this title or a person holding a valid license as a dealer or exhibitor…pursuant to this chapter.’
“As a community animal shelter, the Companion Animal Alliance does not possess a valid USDA license as a dealer or exhibitor,” wrote Beckham. “Second, even if this were a lawful source, 9 C.F.R. § 2.31 requires that Louisiana State University ‘make, keep, and maintain records or forms which fully and correctly disclose…information concerning each live dog or cat purchased or acquired, transported, euthanized, sold or disposed of by the research facility.’
“Further,” Beckham said, “the correspondence obtained by PETA strongly suggests that Louisiana State University personnel often intended on using and killing the dogs almost immediately after the animals arrived at the facility.
“If this is the case, Louisiana State University would also be in noncompliance with the Animal Wefare Act requirement that research facilities hold dogs obtained from non-USDA licensed or exempt sources for a period of at least ‘5 full days, not including the day of acquisition…before they may be used by the facility.’”
“If PETA’s allegations are found to be true,” Beckham concluded, “we are asking that APHIS assess the maximum penalty for these 140 violations of $1,594,600.”
Responded Louisiana State University communications manager Ginger Guttner, “The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine obtains euthanized animals from animal shelters; the cadavers are used to train veterinary students, whose life work is dedicated to serving and saving animals. In some cases, live animals are brought to the veterinary school for euthanasia. In all of these cases, the animals were already scheduled for euthanasia. In all cases, the shelter determines which animals will be euthanized and why. That totally falls on them.”
Agreed Louisiana State University media relations director Ernie Ballard, “Obtaining animals from animal shelters for use in teaching does not violate the Federal Animal Welfare Act.”
Companion Animal Alliance responds
Said Companion Animal Alliance board chair Christel Slaughter in a prepared statement, “No animal has ever been euthanized to ‘fill an order’ from the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. In accordance with Association of Shelter Veterinarians guidelines,” Slaughter continued, “CAA procedures allow for cadavers to be delivered to LSU for educational purposes only.
“It is common practice to reimburse shelters for transport costs and incidental expenses,” Slaughter said. “However, the Companion Animal Alliance no longer accepts the $40 per animal reimbursement.
“Last summer,” Slaughter acknowledged, “the Companion Animal Alliance board was made aware that, on occasion, CAA provided live animals already scheduled for euthanasia to the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine on a limited basis. However, no animals were used for educational purposes or teaching while alive.
“While this does not violate the Federal Animal Welfare Act, the Companion Animal Alliance board voted unanimously on October 7, 2018 to discontinue this practice and establish formal policies to prevent any further causes for concern,” Slaughter said. “The transfer of living animals to the vet school was altogether discontinued at that meeting, which took place prior to the move to the new shelter at LSU.”
Did Companion Animal Alliance need Class B permit?
Despite the claimed policy changes, wrote Chauvin, “Slaughter said the Companion Animal Alliance was contacted by the USDA on October 29, 2018, who informed the shelter they needed a Class B license, the same license they would need to sell live animals to the vet school.”
A “Class B” license holder is a re-seller of animals obtained from any source other than breeding. “Class A” license holders are breeders.
The “Class A” and “Class B” distinctions were created by the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which was in 1971 expanded into the present Animal Welfare Act.
While “Class B dealer” was once widely used as a virtual synonym for “supplier of dogs and cats to laboratories,” most “Class A” and “Class B” dealers today are in the pet industry.
The National Institutes of Health in February 2012 quit funding experiments using cats from random sources, including pounds, shelters, and “Class B” dealers. This policy was extended to dogs on October 1, 2014.
First USDA-APHIS said “Yes”
Continued Chauvin, “After Companion Animal Alliance lead veterinarian Sarah Hicks responded to the USDA seeking further clarification, the USDA sent a letter in November 2018 stating that because the Companion Animal Alliance transfers animals to other rescue groups that adopt those animals out for a fee, the shelter should apply for the Class B license.”
The Companion Animal Alliance applied for the Class B license in December 2018.
“PETA received a leaked copy of its application in February,” Chauvin said, “and began drafting a letter to the USDA urging them to deny the application. PETA discussed this with news reporters on February 28, 2019,” Chauvin added, “and about a week later the Companion Animal Alliance withdrew its application for the license.
“According to a statement on the Companion Animal Alliance website,” Chauvin recounted, “the shelter withdrew the application after being informed by ‘knowledgeable transport partners and other national animal welfare experts’ that they did not need a Class B license because the Companion Animal Alliance is the public animal shelter for East Baton Rouge Parish.”
Then USDA-APHIS said “No.”
Confirmed USDA-APHIS staff member David M. Neely in an April 2, 2019 response to Hicks, “APHIS previously sent correspondence notifying you that you may need to obtain a USDA license or registration from our Agency. Based upon further review of information provided by you to APHIS concerning your business model and activities, you do not require a USDA license or registration.”
In short, USDA-APHIS accepted the Companion Animal Alliance contention that the transfers of dogs and cats to the Louisiana State University veterinary school, for which the shelter was reportedly reimbursed about $3,500, do not constitute sales.
Because those transactions are not “sales,” the Animal Welfare Act record keeping requirements that pertain to Class B license holders do not apply.
This interpretation of the Animal Welfare Act could enable any shelter, anywhere, to “adopt out” or “transfer to rescue” dogs and cats who are actually going to laboratory use, and count those dogs and cats as “live releases,” with no risk of getting caught by organizations such as PETA, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, and the White Coat Waste Project, who routinely scrutinize Animal Welfare Act filings.
LSU sues whistleblower
Instead, discovering clandestine transfers of dogs and cats would occur entirely though “whistleblowers” coming forward with documentation, at risk to their jobs and careers and possibly exposing themselves to lawsuit.
The Companion Animal Alliance did in fact sue Bender on March 27, 2019, Rachel Thomas of WAFB 9 News in Baton Rouge reported.
“According to the lawsuit,” said Thomas, Bender “took without permission ‘numerous items’ that belonged to the Companion Animal Alliance,” which may include the documentation Bender shared with PETA, and “began harassing the animal shelter as well as Companion Animal Alliance veterinarian Sarah Hicks and director of operations Amanda Pumilia through social media accounts. Included in the lawsuit were screenshots of posts Bender created under a Facebook account named Companion Animal Alliance: Shocking Truth Exposed.”
The Facebook account as of May 1, 2019 had 677 followers.
Blew whistle before
Bender, a longtime Arkansas regional representative for the Humane Society of the U.S. before becoming Companion Animal Alliance executive director, had already been a whistleblower in her previous role as founding director of Where Animals Run, a pit bull rescue near Little Rock.
Beginning on October 12, 2005, about six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Bender tried repeatedly to alert rescue organizations working in New Orleans that they were sending dozens of pit bulls to a purported sanctuary called EDNAH that had already been red-flagged for alleged neglect by the Humane Society of North Central Arkansas for about three years.
Pasado’s Safe Haven, of Sultan, Washington, whose New Orleans rescue team had sent about 50 pit bulls to EDNAH, threatened to sue Bender––until Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery found 477 dogs packed into the two-acre EDNAH site, as many as 100 of the dogs running loose. One dog was found dead.
EDNAH cofounder Tammy Hanson, then known as Tammy Doneski, had been convicted in Chicago in 1994 of felonious impersonation of a medical doctor.
She and her husband William Hanson were eventually convicted of multiple EDNAH-related offenses, jumped bail, and were finally apprehended in Vermont in 2009. Tammy Hanson then sued Montgomery; that case was dismissed in 2014.
Companion Animal Alliance has troubled history
Founded in 2010 to house animals for East Baton Rouge City & Parish, the Companion Animal Alliance handles about 9,000 animals per year, including horses, wildlife, and exotic species as well as dogs and cats.
The Companion Animal Alliance web site boasts of a “program modeled by the Humane Society of the United States [that] targets specific low-income zip codes to offer pet education and medical care including spay/neutering”; a program undertaken “in partnership with Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center” that matches foster pets with cancer survivors’ a transport program “in collaboration with the American SCPA,” which “helps transport lost and abandoned animals to northeastern partner shelters”; and a neuter/return program for feral cats.
But the Companion Animal Alliance has also had a troubled history.
“From the start there were problems”
“When the Companion Animal Alliance took over sheltering responsibilities, it was with the intention of making Baton Rouge a no-kill community. From the start, however, there were problems,” noted Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf in August 2012.
The first Companion Animal Alliance executive director, Laura Hinze, resigned after just two months, Wolf recalled, after the East Baton Rouge city council “publicly scolded Hinze and the Companion Animal Alliance over photos and complaints detailing inhumane conditions and overcrowding.”
Successor Debbie Pearson lasted only until September 2012. Her successor, Kimberly Sherlaw “was fired in December 2012 amid allegations by employees that she was a poor manager and was directing staff to violate veterinary protocols,” reported Baton Rouge Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen.
The next Companion Animal Alliance executive director, Beth Brewster, retired in 2018 after five years on the job. The current Companion Animal Alliance executive director, Jillian Sergio, returned to the organization in April 2019 after several months as manager of the Routt County Humane Society shelter in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Sergio previously held a variety of positions at the Companion Animal Alliance from 2015 to June 2018.
State legislation introduced
Responding to the current fracas, Louisiana state representative Jerome “Zee” Zeringue (R-Houma) on March 29, 2019 “filed a bill that would prohibit rescue shelters from providing live animals to facilities that use them for research,” and “would also prohibit shelters from euthanizing animals for the sole purpose of transferring their carcasses for research,” reported Kim Chatelain of The Times-Picayune.
“While Zeringue’s bill does not prohibit dead animals from being turned over for research,” Chatelain wrote, “it says no ‘animal shelter or other person shall euthanize an animal for the sole purpose of transferring the carcass to a research facility, biological supply facility or animal dealer.
“It also says that no shelter or person that accepts animals from the public or takes in strays shall provide living animals to facilities or dealers ‘for the purpose of research, experimentation or testing,” and “requires any shelter that turns over dead animals for research to post a sign that advises people of the practice.”
Tuskegee vet school lab is a rescue?
Transfers of dogs and cats from the Russell County-Phenix City Animal Shelter to the Tuskegee University veterinary school came to light in September 2018, after Russell County resident Tina Hively found that her family’s missing seven-year-old Lab/pit bull Sheba had been impounded a week earlier.
“By the time I found out she had been at the Russell County animal shelter, her seven day stray hold was up,” Hively told Mikhaela Singleton of WRBL News 3 in Columbus, Georgia.
The shelter “had already sent Sheba to the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine to be used as surgery practice,” Singleton explained.
Hively told Singleton, Singleton said, that “after several calls to the Tuskegee vet school, she connected with a professor who was able to locate Sheba in the holding kennels.”
But when Hively “asked the shelter for answers,” Singleton reported, “she was met with mixed answers.”
Specifically, Hively said, a shelter staff member “wanted to tell me she had been sent to a rescue.”
“To save as many dogs as we can”
Said Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith in a written statement, “As for the Tuskegee Veterinary School picking up animals from our shelter, I can verify that this private school, governed and licensed by the Alabama Veterinary Board, does from time to time pick up animals from our shelter. The animals they pick up are on the list to be euthanized.
“In an attempt to save as many as we can, we often provide dogs to several organizations, including the Russell County Humane Society and other shelter groups,” Smith continued. “The animals are not ‘seized’ by these organizations and the city does not charge for these organizations to pick up the animals. We only allow legitimate shelter groups or approved veterinarians licensed by the Alabama Veterinary Board to pick up animals from our shelter.
“The Tuskegee Veterinary School is a legitimate veterinary organization,” Smith added “and must abide by the same ethical standards as any veterinary office.”
How many dogs per year are sent from the Russell County-Phenix City Animal Shelter to the Tuskegee University veterinary school?
Neither the Russell County-Phenix City Animal Shelter nor the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine appears to have disclosed this information.
If such transactions are not subject to the federal Animal Welfare Act, they will not have to disclose it.
Animal Welfare Act originated from similar cases
Ironically, the Animal Welfare Act originated in response to similar cases. Five times between July 1965 and February 1966, Animal Welfare Institute investigator Fay Brisk and others traced specific missing dogs to laboratories.
Her investigations inspired Life magazine photographer Stan Wayman to produce an eight-page photo essay “Concentration Camps for Dogs,” focusing on bunchers who collected dogs for sale to laboratories.
The Wayman essay is generally credited with securing passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act in August 1966, amended into the much broader Animal Welfare Act of today in 1971.