WASHINGTON – He calls it the “blood belt.”

Chris DeRose uses that phrase to describe 15 sites, stretching from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania, where dogs and cats gathered from random sources are sold for research. DeRose, president of the nonprofit animal welfare group Last Chance for Animals, says dealers at these sites even steal pets from ordinary homes.

His organization has conducted undercover investigations of USDA-certified Class B animal dealers who are legally permitted to collect animals from flea markets and pounds, among other places, and sell them to research facilities. The LCA and like-minded groups say the animals are mistreated. But their most incendiary charge is that Class B dealers regularly steal pets from homes and sell them to research facilities for hundreds of dollars.

“Anyone whose animal is missing shouldn’t have to stay up at night wondering if their animal ended up in a lab,” said Cathy Liss, legislative director for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation.

According to those in the research community, the idea that pets are being stolen from backyards is ludicrous and the allegations of animal welfare activists represent another attempt to turn the public against animal research.

But activists have been heard on Capitol Hill, where the Pet Safety and Protection Act is again pending in both houses of Congress. The act would prohibit Class B dealers from selling random-source dogs and cats to laboratories.

Proponents of the act, which has not passed Congress in previous attempts, insist the legislation has a chance this time, crediting the added momentum to a recent HBO documentary.

HBO’s “Dealing Dogs” documents practices at Martin Creek Kennels, an Arkansas facility that was owned and operated by C.C. Baird, a Class B dealer. An LCA undercover investigator worked at Martin Creek for six months.

Stephanie Loranger, of Washington, D.C., now owns Skittles, a terrier mix who was rescued from Martin Creek Kennels, which the USDA charged with more than 100 counts of animal abuse and neglect.

“Since we got her home she’s learned how to be loved.” Loranger said of Skittles. “She’s got some problems still from being in that place for so long.”

Should the legislation pass, research facilities would have to rely on Class A dealers, who breed and raise animals themselves. According to the Department of Agriculture, of the 92,475 dogs and cats used in research in 2002 – the latest year for which figures are available – about 70 percent came from Class A dealers. Of the remaining 30 percent, two-thirds – about 18,500 cats and dogs – came from Class B dealers, and the rest came from other sources.

The legislation would allow research institutions to continue breeding animals, and in states where it is still legal, pounds could release animals to research facilities with the consent of the owners who turned in their pets.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., is co-sponsoring the House bill with Rep. Phil English, R-Pa.

“You couldn’t watch (“Dealing Dogs’) for any more than five to 10 minutes and not be convinced that the only way to solve this problem is put Class B dealers out of business,” Doyle said.

The documentary depicts graphic images, including dogs being held to the ground and shot, dead animals being tossed into heaps, and trenches full of decaying bodies of dogs.

“As upsetting as it may be, please understand that what we go through watching (the film) is nothing compared to what these animals go through,” said “Pete,” the investigator who surreptitiously filmed the images in the documentary.

In 2003, LCA gave its footage to federal officials, leading to a raid of Martin Creek Kennels. The USDA then charged Baird with animal abuse and neglect. He was ordered to pay a $262,700 civil penalty, the largest ever for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Baird’s Class B license was permanently revoked. In addition, Baird and his wife pleaded guilty last August to felony charges in a mail-fraud scheme related to the sale of dogs and cats to research facilities. Their sentencing is scheduled for July 14.

“Pete,” wearing a hat and sunglasses to conceal his identity, was at a Capitol Hill luncheon for congressional staffers last month where “Dealing Dogs” was shown to generate support for the bill.

According to activists, the USDA does not have the capacity to adequately regulate these dealers. While rules are in place, documentation is regularly falsified and records are not adequately checked, resulting in lost and stolen pets becoming research subjects, critics contend.

Researchers, however, label this the “Pet Theft Myth.” Amanda Banks of the California Biomedical Research Association said there is no evidence to support the claim that pets are being stolen by Class B dealers. Instead, she says there is good evidence that pets are being stolen for fighting.

Banks added that researchers are concerned about the perception “in the general public’s mind that animals are acquired inappropriately for animal research. That doesn’t happen.”

Some also say that the claims from animal rights activists, and the potential elimination of Class B dealers, could hurt animal research.

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