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“She doesn’t know how to turn left…”
A blind beagle's rescue reveals the dark secrets of the biomedical industry. Today, it's the subject of a new criminal proceeding.
Beagles, as a rule, are gentle creatures. But this gentleness has surprising power. I saw this firsthand when growing up.
I faced bullying as a kid. It started as teasing about my slanted eyes and poor English but escalated into physical violence. I was once sent to the emergency room after my face was cut open. (Over 25 years later, I still have a scar on my face.) As a result of this bullying, I developed a fear of being touched. As a child, I couldn’t accept hugs or kisses on the cheek or even shakes of my hand. I was afraid of everyone.
Except the beagle next door.
On so many days, when I ran home from the bus stop, holding back tears from bullying, I would look into my neighbor’s yard and see a tiny beagle, named Anna.1 She was peering at me from behind an “electric fence” - a boundary, established by a shock collar, that Anna knew she could not cross. And while I always did my best to hide my anxiety, Anna seemed to know.
“I’m sorry everyone is so mean,” she said to me, with her face and her eyes. “But you don’t have to be afraid.”
I would walk into her yard, and she’d approach, tail wagging, and gave me a lick on the hand. I’d laugh, and pull my hand back, surprised by the warm, wet touch. But then I’d sit down on the grass and pet her on the head. Touch, from her at least, was safe.
I cried so many tears in the presence of her profound gentleness. Maybe you’ve had an experience with a similar being; they are a rare breed, creatures who walk lightly on this earth, typically dogs or other domesticated animals but occasionally a kind-hearted human being. These special beings seem to lack even the capacity to cause harm.
And yet there is power in their gentleness: the power to be open, to be vulnerable, to be free. It’s a power that heals the wounds of those in its presence. And so it did for me. That little beagle, who inspired my family to adopt a dog of our own, was one of the things that drove me down the path of a lifelong love for dogs, a love that has been the most healing force in my life. The power of her gentleness cured my fear of being touched, and gave me confidence that the world didn’t have to be a scary place.
And that power, for thousands of innocent dogs, has been corrupted for the biomedical industry’s gain. You see, the very gentleness that has healed so many human beings, has been exploited to subject beagles to all manner of tortuous death. As one experimenter put it, before subjecting a beagle to lethal radiation tests in the 1950s, “[T]he Beagle’s excellent disposition and gay personality are two of its greatest assets, because special handling is seldom necessary and a minimum amount of restraint is required for most experimental procedures.”
Translation: we torture beagles because they won’t fight back.
Ridglan Farms in Dane County, Wisconsin has been at the center of this brutal one-sided fight. Thousands of dogs have been sent to their deaths by this company, and for years, like other lab animal facilities, its operations were shrouded in secrecy. Through FOIA requests and research, animal rights advocates have identified the abuses happening to the dogs of Ridglan, who have been poisoned, cut open, and killed. They have demanded that our government take action. But no government action was ever taken to save the dogs of Ridglan, and no one had ever even documented what actually happens inside.
Until now. I and a team of activists walked into Ridglan, through an unlocked door, and documented everything we saw with 360 degree cameras, and published our findings in May of 2018. And what we saw was haunting: the power of a beagle’s gentleness, corrupted by a lifetime of abuse, leaving the victims in a traumatized, zombie-like state.
That was how we found a beagle we named Julie, spinning mindlessly in a cage at Ridglan, and always to her right. We don’t know how or why. But the world went completely dark for Julie; when we found her, she was completely blind. Spinning was a response to the stress of this dark, lonely world. She could not escape the wire walls that surrounded her. But spinning gave her mind hope that she could. The insanity that accompanied the spinning was a comfort; better to live in the world of delusion than the world of Ridglan Farms. Perhaps in that fantasy world, one day she would spin her way out of the cage.
The power of Julie’s gentleness was corrupted for an evil purpose: profit and corporate gain. And this corruption has left Julie with permanent psychological scars. To this day, Julie still spins constantly, always to her right; it’s as if she doesn’t know how to turn left. But the power of her gentleness has not been completely destroyed so long as it inspires us to fight.
When I walked into Ridglan that day, I thought of my neighbor’s beagle. I thought of how my life was transformed by her gentleness. In a strange way, these two beagles — Anna and Julie — are connected. Anna’s power healed me. Julie’s power inspired me to fight. And that is why, on the day we walked into Ridglan Farms, despite blaring alarms and the risk of prosecution, we took Julie out of her cage. Her fantastical hope, that her spinning would someday free her, miraculously came true. We saw the power of her gentleness, and the trauma that those who sought to steal that power had caused, and we could not leave her behind. We brought her to a vet, and to a loving family. For the first time in her life, her gentle nature was not corrupted for profit, but honored, as the beautiful gift that it is.
Today, I face criminal charges, and my first court appearance for these actions. And, as I say in the video our team published this week about the case, my only regret is that we were not able to save all the dogs from that hellish place. But this is where Julie’s power — the power of gentleness — can work its miracles again. If you have ever been helped by this power — if your dog has comforted you on a lonely day; if your cat has cuddled up to you and made things feel ok when everything seemed broken — then you can give some of that power back. You can help us save all the dogs of Ridglan by asking the District Attorney of Dane County, Ismael Ozanne, to do the right thing. To acknowledge the right to rescue animals like Julie from violence and pain. Because when even our government acknowledges this right, everything will change.
We expect to “lose” today’s preliminary hearing and for criminal charges to be formally filed against me and two other defendants, Eva Hamer and Paul Picklesimer. The Wisconsin legal system has been changed in recent years to give criminal defendants even fewer protections in the pre-trial stage. And we won’t even be presenting our own evidence, yet; that will come when we face trial later this year, before a jury of our peers. But if the institutions of government hear from the people — from you — today will be an opportunity to start building power to win the longer-term case.
The industry targeted Julie, and thousands of other dogs, because they would not fight back. But the industry is mistaken if it believes that this gentleness is a weakness. Julie’s gentleness is a strength. And if we fight back for them, then that power — a power grounded in kindness and nonviolence — will be realized to heal some of the world’s wounds. Today, as I head to court, is our first chance to do just that.
If you or anyone you know has been touched by the power of an animal’s gentleness, please join this fight. Here are details for what you can do. Thanks for helping Julie, and me. With your help, we’re going to take her power back.
I don’t remember her name. And neither do my family members, who I asked about it. But Anna is my best guess, and perhaps an appropriate one, for reasons I’ll explain on another day.