UPDATE: Campbell Live producer Kim Hurring has been in touch to say that the the original beagle piece run by TV3 was in the works well before the news out of Spain and that the fact the two stories broke on the same day was “purely coincidental”.

“We had had a team of about three people working on it for four days.. not to mention a lawyer going through it meticulously,” she said.


It started with a tear jerking video that went viral on the web – footage of beagles who had never seen the outside of a research lab gingerly taking their first steps on grass.

A dog's skeleton discovered behind a VARC facility. Source: 3 News

A dog's skeleton discovered behind a VARC facility. Source: 3 News

The video, filmed in the US back in June and released by the Beagle Freedom Project suddenly took off again a couple of weeks ago after media interest in the release of dozens of beagles from a lab in Spain that was about to go out of business. The beagles ended up in Los Angeles, with the Beagle Freedom Project setting out to find foster homes for the cute, floppy-eared beagles, some of whom bear the scars of experiments.

The New Zealand media quickly took an interest – with the beagle video – despite being nearly six months old, featuring on the front of the Stuff website for part of an afternoon last week. Then Tv3 took an interest, looking for a local angle on the story that had racked up so many views elsewhere in the world.

Campbell Live’s Natasha Utting didn’t have to go far to get her homegrown news hook. The controversial Valley Animal Research Centre has featured in 3 News reports before. Now defunct, the centre operated for years as a centre for end-stage drug and food testing on animals. The anti-vivisectionists, fundamentally opposed to the testing, honed in on VARC, claiming mistreatment of and poor conditions for the test animals.

Animal testing has a fairly low profile in New Zealand though around 240,000 animals were used in testing last year. The bulk of those will be rats and mice and even fish, over which few tears seem to be shed. The beagles, chosen for their placid nature and lack of genetically-acquired health problems are a different story entirely – there’s no doubt the videos of them stepping into freedom for the first time are heartbreaking.

But animal testing is a necessarily unsentimental and clinical line of work that is incredibly important to modern medicine. No one is better at articulating its virtues than John Forman, the tireless force behind the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders. In many cases, the only hope of eradicating the types of disorders affecting the organisation’s members is advances in human medicine that rely in part on experiments with animals.

I think most of society, when pointed out how animal testing underpins the advances in medicine and even food testing that have improved the lives of millions, would accept the validity of its use. What people will not accept however, is animals being kept in poor conditions, being the subject of unethical treatment and being kept in captivity longer than they need to be.

Campbell Live reported last week that former VARC director Margaret Harkima was selling beagles on Trade Me without disclosing their past lives as animal testing subjects.

Last night it got worse. Footage of Natasha Utting and an anonymous dog breeder uncovering the dead bodies of dumped beagle pups and the skeleton of a dog, discarded amid piles of trash behind the VARC facility, was shocking.

The dialogue went something like this as the dog breeder opened a rancid trash bag:

Dog breeder: I’m pretty sure that’s a dog. A puppy.

Utting: Are they organs?

Dog breeder: To me that looks like puppies.

Utting and Campbell Live did a good job on this story, literally digging out an exclusive.

The animal testing may be over at VARC – a notebook discovered in the trash pile showed records of testing ending back in 2009. But dogs and cats, inexplicably remain at the facility and the careless disposal of the dead dogs, while not an animal ethics issue as such, doesn’t help the case of animal testers who claim to treat animals with respect and dignity.

Who knows why Margaret Harkima is holding onto these animals – she certainly wouldn’t explain her actions to Utting. While the beagles may live in conditions that meet the standards policed by animal welfare inspectors, the VARC facility is clearly run down. Harkima should take up the offer from animal welfare organisation Huha, and have the dogs taken off her hands and given to familes who can show them a good life.

Getting all weepy-eyed over the footage of the newly freed beagles is understandable, but is manipulation by the activists who campaign for the freedom of these dogs. The shoddy treatment of dogs in New Zealand that have been the subject of testing and the inappropriate disposal of animals is on the other hand an issue that taints animal testing and by association reflects badly on the researchers and scientists who operate ethically with society’s best interests at heart. The sooner VARC is totally wound down and the dogs placed with new owners the better.

The Beagle Freedom Project video that has attracted 2.8 million hits on Youtube

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