What does freedom look like? For some lucky dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, alpacas, cows and horses, it’s endless rolling green pasture and grassland, open skies full of sunshine and starlight, earth under their feet, and companions to play with. It’s the absence of fear, pain and stress. It’s a place in Wyoming called Kindness Ranch, the only USDA-approved sanctuary in the U.S. that takes in all sorts of animals used in laboratory research. At 1,000 acres, the ranch has ample room for the rescued animals who live there as well as for people who like to combine getting away and doing good.
Since its creation in 2006, Kindness Ranch has helped more than 350 animals. Executive Director Maranda Weathermon says they have capacity for about 18 dogs and 20 cats. Given their unique history and lack of experience with normal life, newly arrived dogs and cats live in homelike group yurts (two for dogs, one for cats) with a full-time caregiver providing socialization and rehabilitation. When an animal is adopted, a new one arrives to take its place, and, not surprisingly, there are waiting lists.
Most of the dogs at Kindness Ranch are Beagles, and it was her love for the breed that led Portland, Ore., resident Amy Freeman to discover Kindness Ranch and arrange to volunteer there in June of this year. Amy rescued her first Beagle years ago; the puppy, whom she named Boomer, was a handful. “But he brought me so much joy. After Boomer, I adopted Belle, a 10-year-old Beagle (no more puppies!). Belle died at 13, and then I adopted Spike through Cascade Beagle Rescue.” Freeman’s volunteer work with Cascade Beagle Rescue steered her to the Beagle Freedom Project, which takes in Beagles from research labs. “I started following them on social media, and that led me to Kindness Ranch,” she said. “I came for the Beagles but fell in love with all of the dogs!”
Labs use animals to test human drugs, pesticides, household products, biomedical and dental research, and surgical techniques. Those using dogs prefer Beagles, a medium-sized breed with a good disposition and a propensity for large litters. Of the estimated 60,000 dogs held in research laboratories each year, a significant number are Beagles. They and other lab animals come from Class A animal dealers authorized by the USDA to breed and sell them to research laboratories. When labs no longer need the animals, they are either euthanized or turned over to a rescue organization.
“Most of our animals were involved in pharmaceutical studies,” Weathermon says. “When the study is over, or the animals age out at seven or eight years old, we get them. The dogs mostly come from vet and vet tech schools, where they’re used as teaching aids for students to learn to draw blood, do ultrasounds and perform spay/neuter surgeries. It’s the same story for the cats, although because they’re also used in food studies, some are fat when they arrive at the ranch.” The ranch’s pigs were used for pre-human trials for things like heart valves. The horses came from a Premarin (estrogen hormone replacement) facility, the sheep from a pharmaceutical research study and the alpacas were part of a fiber study using genetic modification.
Like other lab-animal rescue groups, Kindness Ranch has to juggle several ethical issues when working with facilities to take their animals. “Labs are finicky; they keep information close,” Weathermon says. “People trying to stop animal testing often block getting animals placed. So we play it neutral; we don’t name the labs, we keep information confidential. It’s a very narrow line to walk to keep animals safe because it’s easy for the labs to just euthanize.” Ideally, animals would not be used in research or testing, but until that day arrives, the staff of Kindness Ranch focus their attention on making it easy for labs to transfer their animals to the ranch so they can be rehabilitated and live the balance of their lives as someone’s companion.