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Secret Suffering

Secret Suffering

Exposed: BUAV’s pioneering investigation at Huntingdon Research Centre revealed, for the very first time, the plight of beagles in toxicity testing and caused a public and political outcry.


Background

Huntingdon Research Centre (now Huntingdon Life Sciences) is Europe's largest contract testing laboratory carrying out toxicity tests on animals. The BUAV infiltrated its animal laboratories in 1989 when Sarah Kite worked for eight months undercover in both the rodent and the dog toxicology units. Sarah painstakingly collected evidence of the suffering and poor conditions endured by the animals, and the uncaring attitudes of the staff. Her work provided the first real insight into conditions inside a 'modern' British laboratory, and indeed the first damning insight into the actual workings of the government's much heralded Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

The testing

At the time of the BUAV investigation, HRC had three dog units holding up to 1500 beagles at any one time. Here Sarah witnessed the grim reality of the daily toxicity tests the dogs were subjected to. This could entail anything from dripping substances into their eyes twice a day, feeding agrochemicals such as fungicide or highly toxic insecticide in their diet to force feeding them chemicals, drugs and household products in gelatine capsules or via plastic tubes forced directly into their stomach.

Subcutaneous and skin toxicity tests also occurred, as did infusion studies where the dogs were strapped into a harness for up to eight hours a day to have substances pumped directly into their bloodstream. The dogs at HRC spent their brief and miserable lives in isolated, barren, unfriendly cell without bedding or play objects. Just half a spade of sawdust to ease cell-cleaning was permitted.

During the frequent dosing procedures, the dogs were often roughly handled by the staff. Sarah witnessed beagles being grabbed and pinned upright between the technician's legs, their jaw forced open and the toxic capsules pushed down the throat. The highly distressed dogs would often struggle to escape and retch and regurgitate after their ordeal was over.

The outcome

The BUAV investigation broke to the public on 29th Nov 1989 with a front page exclusive in the Today newspaper entitled 'Inside Britain's Beagle Labs' with full colour pictures plus a four-page special report. Predictably, HRC refused to answer any questions from the press or public. The BUAV called for a full Home Office Inquiry.

Parliamentary Questions tabled revealed that in 1988 1,900 procedures had been carried out on dogs at the company. In 1989 HRC had been visited no less than 11 times by Home Office Inspectors who had reported, quite remarkably that "the conditions in which the animals were being kept were found to be generally satisfactory". Indeed, after our investigation the then Home Office Minister Peter Lloyd replied to public queries by writing "In many ways, it [HRC] would serve as an excellent example to others".

It later came as a severe blow, but no real shock, when the Home Office finally resolved its Inquiry without any serious consequences for Huntingdon Research Centre whatsoever.

It’s a Dog's Life

Yet, seven years later, Sarah Kite was involved in another exposé of the research facility, now called Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), this time with Channel 4 TV. Sarah acted as an expert consultant on the undercover investigation that was to follow, made by Smallworld Productions and shown on Channel 4 as 'It's a Dog's Life'. This time members of HLS staff were filmed shouting at, shaking, hitting and punching beagle pups (two people were subsequently convicted of cruelty to animals), whilst others were exposed for fabricating test evidence. The prime-time programme revealed:

Public outcry

The evidence caused a public outcry and sent shock waves around the entire animal research industry. As a result of the programme the Home Office launched an immediate investigation. They concluded that "Shortcomings related to the care, treatment and handling of animals, and delegation of health checking to new staff of undetermined competence demonstrate that the establishment was not appropriately staffed and that animals were not at all times provided with adequate care."

Two members of staff were convicted of cruelty to animals under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, pleading guilty to "cruelly treating dogs". The 1911 Act was relevant because the technicians' actions were outside the terms of their licence. This remains the only time in England that laboratory staff have been convicted of cruelty to animals.

In an unprecedented move, HLS's Certificate of Designation (the licence that allowed it to experiment on animals) was conditionally suspended, but re-issued in September 1997. However, the stigma of animal cruelty continues to haunt HLS to this day.