Pet offered free to 'good home' may end up in lab, Abingdon woman warns

March 20, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Linda Drees was horrified to find out that her two cats could have ended up in an animal research laboratory.

"I'm very naive," she said.

Mrs. Drees had innocently placed a classified ad in a local Harford County paper, offering her two felines, Humphrey and Smokey, free to a good home.

Then she got a phone call from Lorraine Phillips, one that left her shaken -- and careful.

"I had no idea they could end up in a lab," said the Abingdon mother of two, who was forced to find a home for the pets before the family moved to Arizona.

After talking with Ms. Phillips, Mrs. Drees said she was much more wary about placing her cats in new homes.

"If it saves just one animal, then it's worth it," Ms. Phillips said.

Each week, the 65-year-old retired woman spends several hours on the phone, alerting pet owners that their dogs or cats might not be going to a safe home.

She tells them that there are dishonest people who may pretend they want a pet, but will sell the animals to dealers, who in turn sell them to labs. "Most people are very receptive [to the call]," Ms. Phillips said. "Some get very angry."

As Ms. Phillips sits in her tidy Abingdon home, there is no doubt that she is an animal lover. Lucky, a nearly blind, shaggy white dog, waits for a pat; Miss Tibbs, an immense fur ball, purrs nearby; and Little Bit, a miniature poodle, makes little growling noises behind a closed door.

There are also reminders of past pets. The ashes of Rags, a dog, sit in a container behind his photo on the TV; the ashes of Midnight the cat are upstairs. The pets are, or were, abandoned animals that Ms. Phillips has taken under her wing. Since her retirement four years ago, she decided to take her concern for animals a step further by trying to save other people's pets from harm, too.

The former office worker isn't able to prove that animals end up in labs, but she does tell of incidents in which people had second thoughts about giving away their pets and then found out they couldn't reach the new owners. For example, a phone number may turn out to be nonworking or people claim the animal ran away.

"We've heard the stories, also," said Patty Billings, director of the Humane Society of Harford County. She said she had received a call about two women in Harford, who took whole litters of animals and said they were from the Humane Society. They weren't affiliated with the nonprofit organization, she said.

"We've sent people out, but we're not able to prove any of it."

That doesn't mean Ms. Billings doesn't think it's possible. "It happens in other parts of the country," she said. "It's big business. Labs can pay $20, $30, $40, $50 [an animal]."

It's also a business regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Animal dealers who make a living from animals, dead or alive, must be licensed, said Dr. Jerry DeFoyster, acting northeast sector supervisor of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service/Regulatory Enforcement and Animal Care division of the Agriculture Department.

To discourage unscrupulous practices, licensed dealers selling

to laboratories are required to provide the name and address of the person, pound or shelter from which the dog or cat was acquired.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Dr. Robert Adams, director of animal services for the Division of Comparative Medicine, which is involved in research on animals, said the lab buys its animals from licensed dealers.

"If someone calls up with a litter of cats, we will not take them."

According to Roseann Trezza, assistant director of the Associated Humane Societies based in Newark, N.J., dog sellers can circumvent the licensing requirement by taking pets to auctions, where they can be bought by animal dealers, who then have a bill of sale they can use for documentation at a laboratory.

But, again, it's a trail that difficult to follow. An active member of a Pennsylvania kennel club who did not want to be named said there is at least one auction house in that state that deals in animals, but the club can't prove it. "People swear [the auction] is involved," she said. "There are many stories . . . not good stories."

Ms. Billings of the Harford humane society, which does not sell its animals to dealers, said that dog sellers also may turn to ads in Lancaster Farming, a Pennsylvania agriculture newspaper. A recent edition listed a few animal dealers, who, when called by a reporter, said they didn't accept unknown animals.

One dealer, Jack's Dog Farm, said it picks up puppies offered for sale to make sure they are clean and disease-free before reselling them as pets.

Still, animal activists say they have heard too many stories about disappearing pets. "It's so pervasive, so quiet," said Ms. Trezza. "By the time you have second thoughts, you can't believe the pet is missing."

Another Harford County resident, Charlene Wilcher of Joppa, also calls people to warn them about the risk in advertising free pets.

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