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Pound Seizure: Trust Betrayed

Published 06/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 2, Summer 2004

Just imagine: You go out of town for a couple of weeks, your pet sitter doesn’t properly secure the gate, and your dog runs away. Where would you prefer your beloved companion wind up — in the local animal shelter, where you can claim him and bring him home safely, or in a research laboratory where he is caged and used as part of a cruel experiment? Few people realize that animal shelters and research labs may be connected. The connection is called “pound seizure,” and it’s one of this country’s shameful secrets.

Pound seizure is the practice of selling or releasing animals from shelters to research, testing, or training facilities. In communities across the country, dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens may be quietly slipping out the back doors of animal shelters and sent to universities and research or training facilities. The same qualities that make dogs and cats good companions also make them ideal research subjects. The animals taken through pound seizure are usually not aggressive, vicious, or dying animals; they are healthy, friendly, adoptable dogs and cats. Unfortunately, shelters may be pressured to save the “best” animals for labs and training facilities, without ever making them available for adoption. In addition, since pound seizure can occur as soon as five days after an animal is admitted to a shelter, it presents the very real possibility that a loved but temporarily lost pet will be sold from a shelter to a life of painful experimentation. Nightmarish as it may seem, the dogs and cats who become lost while their guardians are on vacation could, indeed, end up being used in research or training.

Not only does pound seizure make animals test subjects in research and training, it also represents a gross violation of public trust. When shelters sell companion animals to researchers or teaching institutions, the animals, their guardians, and the community at large are betrayed. In pound seizure, companion animals who may have once known the joys of a loving home are thrust into a very different sort of life. “Pets” have been conditioned to find comfort at the hands of humans, but once they enter the laboratory, they may find only pain and torment.

The research community, as well as lawmakers who allow pound seizure to continue, argue that since many shelter animals are destined to die anyway, they might as well be used for research and training.

The problem with this argument is that it implies that an animal’s life lacks value unless it can be utilized by human science. It also suggests that researchers appreciate the virtually limitless supply of animals that pounds provide. While it is a sad fact that shelters are overcrowded with animals who are lost, stolen, or otherwise in need of homes, until we as a society stop viewing animals as disposable items and find solutions to the problem of companion animal overpopulation, we have the obligation to offer animals in shelters the most humane possible treatment.

Pound Seizure at a Glance

As soon as a research or teaching facility acquires an animal from a shelter, the animal becomes that facility’s property. These animals also lose many of the legal protections they once had, since research and teaching facilities are generally exempt from state animal cruelty statutes.

In research facilities, former companion animals who were accustomed to lives of relative freedom often find themselves stressed, isolated, caged, and confined. Confinement is especially difficult for house-trained animals who are reluctant to relieve themselves in the cage where they eat and sleep.

Dogs used in pound seizure may be sold to medical research labs for use in various kinds of experiments, which have included testing exposure to radiation, measuring reaction to skin irritants, drug therapy tests, and cardiovascular research. Kittens seized from shelters have been taken to hospital teaching centers to be used in such procedures as intubation training (inserting tracheal tubes) for pediatric nurses. Animals may be killed shortly after their arrival at the research or training facility, or may linger in agony for a year or longer. (Some teaching facilities work with shelters to use animals in beneficial procedures such as spaying or neutering, which make the animals more adoptable, a practice that API does support.)

From a scientific standpoint, animals purchased through pound seizure have unknown genetic backgrounds and medical histories, which renders them poor test subjects and makes controlled experiments nearly impossible. Pound animals are used in procedures, however, because they are cheap and easy to obtain. For example, in Sacramento County, which is the only county in California to still engage in pound seizure, dogs can be purchased for use in research for a mere $75 each — less than the adoption fee.

In addition to being used in research, some animals seized from shelters are used to train veterinary students in procedures ranging from drawing blood samples and giving vaccinations to complicated surgical procedures. Some universities practice terminal surgeries, in which animals are not revived after the procedures are performed. The animals’ cadavers may then be used in veterinary anatomy classes.

Many veterinary students find that killing is not an effective way of learning how to help the animals that they aim, in their future profession, to save. When students know that they will terminate a dog’s life at the end of a surgery, they may not be as motivated to perform perfect surgical techniques and to practice proper sterilization. Some students report suffering emotional stress from the trauma they must inflict on animals during their training; according to a veterinarian who testified about pound seizure in Sacramento, some students have learned to set broken bones by repeatedly breaking a dog’s leg. As a result, an increasing number of vet students are encouraging universities to use alternatives to live-animal training labs. They are also searching for schools that provide cruelty-free learning opportunities, such as the new Western University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in California.

Gimme Real Shelter

In addition to betraying the animals that shelters were designed to protect, the practice of pound seizure also betrays the communities that shelters exist to serve.

Animal shelters were not created to supply researchers, training facilities, or teaching institutions with subjects. They were founded with the goal of getting animals off the streets and providing them with a safe haven until they can be found by their guardians, adopted into a new home, or, in the worst case, euthanized humanely.

Taxpayer dollars fund public shelters, although most taxpayers are not even aware that pound seizure exists, and would not willingly support it. Pound seizure also takes its toll on shelter staff, who day after day watch dogs and cats whom they have gotten to know trucked off to an uncertain fate.

Because pound seizure erodes the public’s trust in animal control, animals are more likely to be dumped on the street or abandoned across county or state lines rather than surrendered to a facility that may sell them to a laboratory.

Currently, pound seizure is illegal in thirteen states: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia. In three states (Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah) shelters are required to release animals from shelters for use in research. The remaining states allow local governments to make decision about whether and how to regulate pound seizure.

API’s goal is to end the practice of pound seizure across the country. We encourage people who care for the well-being of animals to investigate whether the shelters in their community sell animals for use in research, and to contact API for assistance in combating this cruel practice. (For more information about steps you can take and about API’s efforts, see “Pound Seizure: API in Action” below.)

No companion animal guardian should ever have to worry about coming home from a vacation to learn that their dog or cat has been sold into research. And no animals entering a shelter should ever be so horribly betrayed by the very institution that was designed to protect them.

Pound Seizure: API in Action

API is taking a firm stand against pound seizure. With the help of dedicated animal advocates, we know we can put a stop to this shameful practice once and for all.

Considering that a majority of states in the U.S. allow pound seizure, you may wonder whether your local animal shelter sells animals to research, testing, or training facilities. Animal control policies are generally enacted by local or municipal authorities; this means that individual cities and counties may decide to allow pound seizure to occur.

As part of API’s campaign to end pound seizure, we need your help in determining which cities and counties across the country allow the practice to occur. We’d like to hear from you with information about whether pound seizure takes place in your community.

In addition, if your city or county does engage in pound seizure, API would like to know whether the practice is permitted through an ordinance, municipal code, or simply through an agreement between the animal shelter and the facility purchasing the animals. Armed with knowledge about which localities allow pound seizure, API can develop a more comprehensive portrait of the issue on a national scale, and can more easily take action on behalf of animals.

To find out whether your locality engages in pound seizure, call the city or county clerk and ask if the practice is allowed. You can also contact your area shelter and ask if it allows animals to be seized for research or training practices and, if so, whether this is permitted through ordinance, policy, or state law.

Learning that the terrible, outdated practice of pound seizure is taking place right in your own backyard can be a real spur to action. API first became involved with the issue of pound seizure when we learned that it was occurring in Sacramento County, California, where our national office is located.

The Sacramento County animal shelter is the only such facility in the state that still engages in pound seizure. Currently, California has no state law regulating or prohibiting pound seizure. Each city, county, or shelter in California can decide whether to permit or prohibit this practice. Thankfully, the remaining California localities have prohibited pound seizure through an ordinance, resolution, or city or county policy, or have simply chosen not to engage in the practice.

API’s experience in Sacramento illustrates how activists can use legal strategies to protect animals from pound seizure. In 1986, Sacramento County passed a resolution permitting the practice of pound seizure, provided that institutions buying animals comply with limitations, restrictions, and conditions on how to “use” the animals as set forth in a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU.

That same year, Sacramento County entered into two separate MOUs with University of California Davis (UCD) and Sutter Medical Research Foundation (Sutter Hospital). This agreement is still in force to this day. Among its requirements are that records be kept about animals taken from the shelter for research or training and that these animals not be subjected to avoidable pain or suffering. Failure to comply with these stipulations shall result in termination of the agreement.

In 2003, API joined forces with the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) and In Defense of Animals (IDA) to stop the practice of pound seizure in Sacramento County on the grounds that Sacramento County had failed to enforce the MOU agreements with UCD and Sutter Hospital.

During the 18 years that these two agreements have been in force, there have been numerous violations of the conditions set forth in the MOU. Our lawsuit asserts that Sacramento County has failed to follow the agreement by:

  • Not seeking an independent opinion or evaluation of UCD’s or Sutter Hospital’s compliance with any provisions of the MOU;
  • Not employing the appropriate and qualified personnel to review research protocols (documents containing detailed information about the use and disposition of animals used in research or teaching);
  • Failing to keep complete and accurate records in a manner required to ensure compliance with the MOU;
  • Not taking appropriate measures to ensure that the research or teaching procedures conducted on “sold” animals are not unnecessarily duplicative, or to find out whether a less invasive alternative is available;
  • Not taking appropriate measures to ensure that the animals sold are kept free from avoidable stress, pain, and suffering; and
  • Failing to take appropriate measures to ensure that the use of animals sold to UCD and Sutter conforms to applicable federal, state, and local laws regarding the humane treatment of the animals.

API, along with AVAR, began our campaign against pound seizure by meeting with county supervisors, attorneys, and the shelter director to inform them that the MOU had not been complied with since its inception. We urged the county to terminate the agreement, which they refused to do.

In addition, AVAR met with UCD faculty and suggested that they adopt a phase-out program, wherein, over a period of years, they would reduce to zero the number animals used in veterinary training and research. UCD rejected this proposal. Fortunately, in 2003, UCD made several changes to its teaching curriculum, and no longer uses animals in terminal surgeries. However, the school still has the option of buying animals for research purposes. (In addition, the UCD veterinary school continues to use shelter animals for surgery training where the surgery is of benefit to the animals, a program that API and other humane organizations support.)

After exhausting all administrative remedies, and in light of the many violations of the county agreement that we documented, we turned to the courts. In March 2004, API, AVAR, and IDA filed a lawsuit against Sacramento County for its failure to enforce the MOU agreements with the two institutions. API will keep our supporters up to date as the case progresses.

API wants to help concerned individuals to take a stand against pound seizure in their communities, as well. We encourage you to investigate this issue in your locality and to let API know what you learn, so that we can continue our campaign to end pound seizure nationwide. By working together, we can help put an end to this cruel, outdated practice that betrays animals, guardians, and entire communities.

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