Re-homing or retiring animals for a new life after research

Published on August 29, 2018

Lab animal chimpanzeeFor about 18 years, Dr. Lara Helwig has been re-homing animals used in research, currently as director of Bio Med Animal Care at Brown University and previously at Tufts University. Her July 14 session at AVMA Convention 2018 in Denver focused on re-homing or retiring animals after research.

"This does wonders for the morale of not just your animal care staff, your veterinary staff, but most of the researchers," she said.

This is not a new concept, she said, but current events, such as state legislation requiring that institutions make dogs and cats used in research available for adoption, have renewed interest in the topic. The National Association for Biomedical Research tracks related state bills. Dr. Helwig said the bills are largely being sponsored by groups such as the Rescue + Freedom Project.

"I have concerns about groups like this that use words like 'we're rescuing animals from horrific abuse' because I can assure you that is not what is happening at most research institutions," she said.

Primate sanctuaries had two periods of growth. The first was during the 1970s-1990s, driven largely by the push to find homes for primates that were formerly pets. The second started in the 2000s, triggered by interest from the research community in retiring primates.

"If you want to get this started at your institution, what are some of the things you need to take into consideration?" Dr. Helwig prompted. "You want to make sure you have full institutional support for this."

For re-homing, she suggests institutions have a written policy approved by the institutional animal care and use committee, a screening process for adoptive families, and criteria for adoptable animals. Animals should not have been administered drugs other than Food and Drug Administration–approved ones, been exposed to infectious agents, or be transgenic or immune-suppressed. There are species considerations such as compatibility of companion animals with children and existing pets and, in the case of agricultural animals, the need to maintain hooves and horns, for example.

Dr. Helwig described criteria for screening applicants, animal preparation, and follow-up after adoption. When she was at Tufts, 40 dogs were adopted out. Only two came back, and those were re-homed. Brown University also re-homes some Beagles used in its studies.

Switching back to the topic of retiring primates, she said the National Institutes of Health is looking to retire all its chimpanzees. She said, "They're still trying to figure out how to do that."

When she became director at Brown, there was no formal process for retiring its rhesus macaques, but now there's an IACUC-approved process. All six of Brown's primate laboratories are interested in retiring their primates, she said. Input is required from all stakeholders—the laboratory and research teams, animal care veterinarian, general counsel, IACUC, and sanctuary. They start the retirement process at least a year in advance.

There are few sanctuaries, most of which are in Texas or the Midwest, and much of the $10,000-$25,000 cost involved in retiring an animal is for transportation.

The NIH does not want its funds used for retirement of animals used in research. Typically, researchers at Brown use project budgets, institutional funds, and personal donations and fundraising monies for this purpose. The recently created Research Animal Retirement Foundation accepts applications for funding retirement of primates.

Related JAVMA content:

AVMA emphasizes responsible stewardship of laboratory animals (June 1, 2018)