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A long time coming

NIH move is momentous in campaign against Class B dealers

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2015


In February 1966, in the weeks after Batman made its television debut and Beatles guitarist George Harrison broke hearts by getting married, millions of Americans met Lucky.

Life magazine ran a two-page photo of the emaciated English pointer, kicking off a powerful photo essay that introduced the country to the issue of dealers selling dogs—including lost or stolen pets—to laboratories. “YOUR DOG IS IN CRUEL DANGER” warned a headline on the cover.

The influential Life package featured photos from the legendary Stan Wayman and the work of longtime HSUS chief investigator Frank McMahon, giving readers an inside look at the raid of one bleak Maryland property. One hound had frozen to death. A collie lay on his side, too weak to crawl toward food. “Laboratories now need almost two million dogs a year,” read the introduction. “To cash in on this need, the dealers rove the country paying a buck or two to anyone who comes forward with a dog, and no questions asked.”

Almost 50 years later, on Oct. 1, 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) signaled one of the most significant milestones since Lucky first cowered his way into the country’s consciousness: The agency will no longer fund research that includes live dogs from Class B dealers—dealers who acquire animals from random sources, such as shelters, “free to good home” ads and potentially even pet theft. NIH instituted a similar policy for cats in 2012.

“It was a long-standing effort,” says Kathleen Conlee, HSUS vice president of animal research issues. “To cut off that federal funding is crucial to bringing Class B dealers to an end.”

Three Class B dealers remain in the United States, down from about 200 in the 1970s and ’80s. Pressure has mounted over the past decade, with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighing in, and a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) warning that, despite increased regulations, there’s still no way to fully guarantee the dealers aren’t selling pets (as opposed to dogs and cats bred for research).

Also critical: The Pet Safety and Protection Act pending in Congress has helped keep the issue on the radar for lawmakers, and an undercover documentary from Last Chance for Animals added tough-to-see, behind-the-scenes images to the argument. The HSUS has rallied support for the legislation, provided information for the GAO report, prompted lawmakers to call for the NAS study, and exposed dental experiments on dogs from a Class B dealer with a 2013 investigation at Georgia Regents University.

All of this work continues a campaign that McMahon helped ignite in the ’60s—his years of investigation and the subsequent Life spread not only spotlighting the issue of dog dealers but sparking support for final passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed that into law in August 1966, McMahon received a ceremonial pen. Four years later, the law was expanded and rechristened the Animal Welfare Act.

“Frank McMahon was one of the most valuable assets The HSUS had for fighting cruelty,” former HSUS president John A. Hoyt said in 1975, after McMahon’s death—following a series of strokes—at the age of 48. In an obituary that summer, an HSUS newsletter reported that, over his remarkable career, McMahon had been shot at and threatened, and had even had his Washington, D.C., home bugged.

Labeling him “courageous beyond the point of caution,” Hoyt added: “There is no doubt that he helped make this nation more humane.”

About the Author

Michael Sharp is a former Senior Content Editor at The Humane Society of the United States.