By Josh Kurtz
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) was the most popular member of the human species walking through the marketplace at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City earlier this month. But he wasn’t the most popular mammal: That distinction went to George Washington, a mellow beagle who spent four years in a research laboratory.
Hundreds of people – including the governor and other political dignitaries – stopped by to say hello and pose for pictures with George, who regarded all the fuss with equanimity.
“He’s very chill,” said Gail Thompson, George’s mom.
George is a living symbol of a renewed legislative push by animal-rights activists to change state law to enable dogs and cats who are used for research to be adopted by families when their service is over – if they are sufficiently healthy.
State Del. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, has twice put in bills to allow for the adoption of pets that have been used for research, modeled after laws in New York, California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Nevada (Illinois this month became the sixth state to enact such a law). But they encountered opposition – principally from Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical System, according to Kramer and the advocates.
Kramer said his bill, the Humane Adoption of Companion Animals in Research Act, passed the House in 2016 but was bottled up in a Senate committee. This year, the legislation was referred to a different House committee and didn’t fare so well.
Advocates are now taking a more aggressive approach, with a new in-your-face digital campaign comparing University of Maryland and Hopkins officials to Egyptian pharaohs and urging them to “Let my puppies go.” An ongoing petition campaign has collected more than 37,000 signatures in support of the legislation.
“We’re going to make them uncomfortable so they can feel the squeeze,” Kramer said.
Emily Hovermale, Maryland state director for The Humane Society of the United States, estimated that there are about 500 dogs and cats who would be eligible for adoption in the state if the legislation passes. Even though animal rescue shelters are sometimes inundated with a surplus of unwanted pets, “there are rescue organizations in the state that are willing and waiting to accommodate” dogs and cats who have been used for scientific experiments, she said.
Kramer and the advocates say the legislation is not intended to affect the way major scientific institutions conduct their research – only to give some animals a chance at a normal life with a loving family.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t impacting the research, this isn’t impacting the bottom line,” Hovermale said.
In a statement provided to Maryland Matters, Kim Hoppe, director of public relations and corporate communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine, said the institution “already has well-established processes to ensure the safe rehoming of our animals. We go to great lengths to customize placements based on the needs of each individual animal. In collaboration with faculty, staff, community partners, as well as reputable rescue organizations, our rehoming efforts have been incredibly successful.”
Hoppe said Hopkins complies with all federal laws governing the treatment of research animals but believes the state legislation as proposed would add an unnecessary extra layer of regulation.
“Requiring state reporting and oversight would set Maryland apart from the rest of the country at a time when many research organizations, including the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine, as well as the federal government itself, have identified regulatory burden as a significant hindrance on research,” she said.
But advocates hope George Washington’s experience makes a potent argument. Thompson recalls taking him out of his cage and watching him feel uncomfortable at first because he’d never had so much freedom. But bringing him to her Washington, D.C., home and integrating him with her other two dogs – another beagle and a mixed-breed – was easy, she said.
“We’re offering them a little human kindness after they’ve suffered for humankind,” Kramer said.