In Melanie Kaplan’s Capitol Hill home, Alexander Hamilton isn’t a Founding Father. He's a beagle.
He’s a pooch who spouts off a bark or two, but then greets strangers with a wag of the tail. He's a pup who loves chicken and treats. And he's a real gentleman – he'll daintily put his paw atop your hand, holding it as well as a dog possibly can.
He also has a bright lobbying career ahead of him.
Hamilton, or “Hammy” for short, is one of the DC7: seven beagles rescued last year from a Washington-area laboratory where animal experiments are performed. Responsible for the rescue was the Beagle Freedom Project, an organization rising in national prominence because of a May viral video showing the group’s rescue of nine beagles in Las Vegas. Currently, the footage has 2.5 million hits.
But there’s another Washington angle to this, too, and it’s not just because it’s the city the 4-year-old Hammy calls home: Experiments on these dogs were funded by taxpayer dollars.
“The reason why we got involved with the DC7 is they came out of a taxpayer-funded [lab],” explained Anthony Bellotti, the founder of the White Coat Waste Project, which aided the Beagle Freedom Project on this particular rescue. Bellotti’s bipartisan group, which he launched last year, tackles the federal appropriations piece of the animal experimentation pie. Bellotti’s personally a Republican. He briefly worked in an animal lab as a teenager, an experience that he found traumatic but gave him cause.
And, since he works in GOP politics, he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
“Well, I’m an old opposition researcher from the Arnold campaign,” he said, speaking of Schwarzenegger. “I learned from the campaign world how to go through public databases.”
What he found was that the federal government, giving grants to colleges and universities through the National Institutes of Health, spends about $12 billion annually experimenting on animals. In these reports, Bellotti has seen some seriously weird studies – such as $144,541 of federal stimulus funds going to Wake Forest University to give cocaine to monkeys, a project that Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz, also shook their fists at.
There was also a project that cost taxpayers more than $1.9 million at Ohio State University to test the safety of fish oil supplements after a heart attack. The ones having the heart attacks were dogs. (Beagles, by the way, are predominantly used because they’re small and they’re friendly. “The same thing that makes them great pets,” points out Kaplan, Hammy’s owner.)
“Even if you didn’t care, worst-case scenario, about the animals, maybe you care about the fact that you’re forced to pay for it?” Bellotti mused. “And if you don’t care about the money, maybe you care about the animals. Or, if you’re like us, you care about both.”
To hound the government about paying for these experiments, Bellotti's group is launching its first set of ad spots later this week. “The bad news is the awareness is terrible, but the message is getting out there because you have ambassadors like Hamilton walking around and spreading the message.” Bellotti is also pursuing legislative options.
Meanwhile, on the state level, the Beagle Freedom Project just saw its first legislative victory. In Minnesota, dogs being used in taxpayer-funded experiments now have a chance to be adopted once the studies are done. Usually, they’re euthanized. "It's a new phenomenon that you hear about this," Bellotti said of dogs being released for adoption.
As for Hammy, his road from experiment to pet was sometimes bumpy. Kaplan had plans to foster, possibly adopt, one of the dogs and greeted them coming straight from the facility in a supporter's backyard. “It was the first time they’ve been on grass and they’re very tentative and they’re sniffing around,” Kaplan recalled. The foster families each gravitated toward a beagle, each named after a Founding Father.
Kaplan decided it was Alexander Hamilton she wanted to take home. “The whole ride home he was just drooling like crazy, shaking,” she explained. She covered the entire downstairs of her home in newspaper in case Hammy’s stomach reacted to eating better dog food. The beagle, who spent the first three years of his life in a cage, didn’t know at first what to do with his squishy dog bed. “And then he was on it and he curled up and he just basically did not want to move for the first several weeks,” Kaplan said.
Along the way, Kaplan decided to adopt Hammy. It took about six weeks for him to start acting like a typical dog. “It was never that he didn’t trust people, it was just all of the uncertain things in the real world that he had never seen before,” Kaplan said.
Occasionally, Hammy still gets nervous. His vocal cords were cut in the lab and have since grown back, though his government-branded tattoo remains in his ear. “His favorite spot is this on the couch between two people, doting on him,” Kaplan continued. The beagle was stretched out between Kaplan and Bellotti.
On Saturday, Hammy’s slated to appear at a Beagle Freedom Project fundraiser in Washington with five of the other DC7 beagles. Bellotti hopes to bring the dog in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill at some point soon as well.
“I don’t think you can get a much better lobbyist than this,” Bellotti said, giving Hammy a pat. "You have a right to know what’s going on, what they’re spending money on – this is your tax dollars at work.”