S1.E8: Envigo Beagle Rescue: Behind the Scenes with Kindness Ranch

with guest John Ramer

About this Episode

What was it like to be part of the largest dog rescue in U.S. history—the 4,000 beagles of Envigo? These beagles were destined for a life of cruel and painful experimentation and certain death in research laboratories around the world until Envigo—a massive research dog breeding facility in Virginia—was shut down.  John Ramer, Director of Kindness Ranch Animal Sanctuary, was one of the few people who were allowed onto Envigo’s property, and he takes us step by step through his personal journey to help rescue the 4,000 beagles of Envigo. *Also featuring an audio debut by Uno…the very first beagle released from Envigo.

Guest: John Ramer

John started work in animal rescue November of 1999 and has worked or volunteered at sanctuaries all over the country. Exposed to laboratory research when rescuing 27 squirrel monkeys used in nicotine testing and transferred to a sanctuary in Florida he has tirelessly devoted himself to the transition of animals from labs to homes since. Since taking over as director of Kindness Ranch in 2019 he has coordinated the release of nearly a thousand animals from research.

Transcript

Ellie Hansen, host:

I believe words can paint a thousand pictures so I’m very excited to have you here with us today to take us through your personal journey with Kindness Ranch as you helped rescue many of the beagles from Envigo.

So how early on did you begin to get involved with this rescue case…and when did you first get an inkling that something really big was going to go down?

John Ramer:

That is such a good question. In November of last year was when I was first made aware that Envigo was beginning to struggle, and through mutual friends in the rescue world I was told that they were possibly looking at downsizing a little bit and they blamed it on Covid at the time and I’m not one to really second guess that. It’s not my job to question why they were struggling. My job was to try and get the dogs out of there that could be successfully placed. And Kindness Ranch had just rescued about 140 dogs from a facility in Houston and we were still kind of riding the high on that because at the time that was our largest ever single dog rescue that Kindness Ranch had ever done. And we teamed up with another wonderful organization based out of California—Priceless Pets—and that was kind of what alerted some other friends in the rescue industry that we might be able to help.

And it was in early February of this year that mutual friends Justin Goodman from White Coat Waste, who I know you’re familiar with… he’s a great guy…he actually put Sue Bell from Homeward Trails in contact with me, and Sue already had a relationship with Senator Stanley and the officers out at Envigo. Sue called and said that they had arranged the release of 400-500 dogs and I was like…”Well great, how can I help?” And she goes, “Well they want to do 150 at once because at the rate we’re going they were only be able to get out like six at a time, and 400-500 dogs, six at a time, was going to take forever.”

And they were aware of our big rescue in Houston and I said, “Okay I’ll take 150.” And Sue on the other end of the phone said something to the effect of, “You’re my new favorite person. Let’s make this happen!” And so we went out and we got 150. Then we went back another month later and I think total we got 210 and that kind of put everything in motion.

Sue and I tried really hard to communicate back and forth between just the two of us while she was negotiating with Jim out at Envigo to take his excess or overflow dogs, and they were very, very open to it but even then still behind the scenes there was stuff that I wasn’t completely aware of what was going on. And then I got a phone call from Sue. She said, “Could you take 400?” And I said, “Well that would take a little bit of work.” She called me about a week later and she said, “This is getting crazy. Could you take 1,000?” And I said, “That’s going to take all lot more work. What’s our time line looking like?” And she’s like, “John, I have no idea. This is really beginning to snowball.” And two days later she called and said, “Okay, we’re on. We’re getting 1,500.” And I was like this a lot. I have to buy a new van.

And so that was when Sue and I actually started like frantically reaching out to other rescues and it was really, really difficult because something of that size, we couldn’t go public with because it hadn’t been finalized. We had to secure housing and transport and all of that so we had to start reaching out trusted partners in the industry that we had worked with before. And we kind of half-jokingly split up the map like the Mississippi was the border and I would take everything west of the Mississippi and she started calling people east of the Mississippi. It wasn’t but a matter of days that HSUS and the DOJ (Department of Justice) kind of said, “Okay, they’ve agreed to shut it down. We’re getting 4,000 and we’re going to take over logistics from there.” And I had a brief moment of a sigh of relief and then absolute panic.

Hansen:

And why did you panic? Was it the sheer number of dogs, or because you knew you were going to be part of something historic?

John: 

It was a combination of knowing that I was going to be involved, but I also knew that it was going to be a huge, huge event in the media and it was something that we had been working on for months and months and months. So you know the brevity of it was very real to us but the entire country was about ready to be hit with all of this. And you know there were some people that were taking some of my press out of context. There were some people that were make it bigger than it was supposed to be. My involvement in it from the beginning kind of helped not make me so much of a target but as kind of a point man once the DOJ and HSUS got involved there wasn’t anything more for me to say other than, “I’m just taking some dogs,” and that part was really nice.

But the notoriety that came with it put Kindness Ranch under a spotlight. And I’ve tried really hard over the last three and a half, four years to make sure that we were ready for that and I’m grateful that we were. I think we handled it quite well.

Hansen:

So how did you prepare for this mission you knew was coming? Did you have to do anything special at Kindness Ranch, or was this just another day at the office for you?

John:

It wasn’t at all. We had to improve the infrastructure of our intake area because at the time when the call came down we were only set up to house about 15 dogs in our intake area. And so we more than doubled the size of it and bought all of the new stuff just for that.  Our old transport van—the most we could haul at any one time were our large dog crates that we put the beagles in…and that was only 16 dogs. So we had to basically double the size of that. We went out we paid it was just about $65,000 for a new Dodge van that we could haul 36 dogs at a time in.

And then it was prepping for the influx of adoption applications that we knew were going to come. We went from getting maybe 20-30 adoption applications a month to—once the news broke—we got 700 plus in one day, and we only had one guy that was trying to field all of those, and God bless him, he did a phenomenal job. But there were some really upset people because you know we didn’t know at that point in time how many dogs that we were going to be able to bring out here and I was very fortunate that Kindness Ranch was in a privileged spot that since we had been on the property before, we had worked with Envigo before and had an existing relationship, that we were one of a small handful of rescues that were able to make multiple trips out there. Everybody else was kind of limited to just making one trip. Many of them weren’t even allowed to go on the property. They had to wait outside the gate and have the dogs brought out to them.

Hansen:

How many beagles did you end up getting in total from in Envigo?

John:

Out of the 4,000?

Hansen:

Yes, out of the four thousand.

John:

Out of the 4,000 we were able to get 155. Total for the year we got 481…all from Envigo.

Hansen:

You took several trips from Wyoming to Virginia to pick up loads of beagles from Envigo. Could you describe what that first trip was like and what you felt the first time you saw the Envigo facility and the beagles inside?

John:

The drive out my wife and I purposely took a couple extra days just for the brevity of it all to kind of absorb and mentally prepare ourselves. She had never driven across country with a van load of dogs before so the joy and mystery was all quite new for her which was infectious for me as well. But then we made it out there and sitting in the hotel and you know of course my phone was just blowing up. I had press calling and other rescue groups were wanting to meet with me. I had people asking if I could just take a car load of beagles down the road and drop them off with them and go back and get more. There is like this almost like a sub culture of sorts that wanted to be involved. Although I’m sure the majority of their heart was in the right place it was also just people wanting to kind of cash in on the celebrity of what was about to take place.

Then the morning of we all got our…forgive me I don’t remember if it was the night before or the morning of…but we got the location from the DOJ of where we had to go meet prior to going to Envigo. And that was to kind of prevent press from following us out and just kind of our secret meeting spot which ended up being a hotel in Farmville. We stood in a parking lot for about 15-20 minutes. We talked, asked our questions, signed our slips saying what we would and wouldn’t do. They gave us a rundown of what to expect when we got on the property. The drive to the property was strangely silent. I remember looking at my wife and I had tears in my eyes and I said we’re about ready to do this. We’re about to make history. And she, in typical Katy fashion, she turned up the radio a little bit and she’s like, “Hell yeah! Let’s do this!” and she was just completely gung-ho.

Then we made it to the property and everybody had to wait outside the gate. The U.S. Marshalls checked everybody’s IDs before we went in. And as we drove around the corner you could see who we affectionately called “the suits.” There were the Department of Justice attorneys. There were Envigo attorneys. And it was like a standoff in a parking lot. Nobody was smiling. Nobody was excited about what was happening. They were all like prepared for the worst but hoping for the best.

And then everything was definitely silent. We weren’t allowed to get out of our cars. If we had to use the restroom we had to be escorted and we weren’t allowed to talk to Envigo staff. And they called us all out for our Covid checks. And that was when we were standing…it was a very humid day…really, really hot and humid…and we were standing in line getting our temperatures checked and that was when somebody turned and they said, “You’re here from Kindness Ranch?” And I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well, how many are you taking?” I said, “Anywhere from like 20-30.” And they’re like, “Well do you want to go first?” And I looked at Katie and I went, “Yeah…yeah I’d love to go first.” They went, “Alright well just pull up around the corner over there.” And we hopped in the van, drove around the corner, and by the time I even had the side door of the van opened, there was already people standing there in line with dogs waiting to hand them off to us. We came home with 26 dogs that trip, and I don’t think I’ve ever loaded 26 dogs as fast as we did that trip.

It was kind of funny because I did meet with a reporter from the Washington Post the night before and she really, really wanted to know who got the first dog, and if it wasn’t going to be me, if I could like text her and let her know who ended up getting the first dog. And then it ended up being me. I texted her a picture and I said, “Baby on board.” It was really, really fast and sterile once we got there but the build-up to it was really just tense and stressful.

Hansen:

What was the comradery like in this rescue operation and can you describe what it was like working with the Humane Society of the United States? I’m trying to get a sense of what it was like to be there.

John:

I’m sorry about my dog back there. Can you hear Uno?

Hansen:

Is that Uno? Well, he’s allowed to talk all he wants, I don’t care. He’s famous after all.

John:

He’s trying so hard to get the other dogs to play with him right now.

So the relationship developed with HSUS…they were fantastic to work with and communicate with. They were timely to return calls. The biggest stress that I personally faced was from the rescue groups that wanted dogs that were turned down. And it wasn’t…and I don’t know if “turned down” is the accurate word, but the HSUS decided to not include them for whatever reason. That was way above my pay grade, but there was a lot of hurt feelings from other groups and for whatever myriad of reasons caused that, it did create some tension with the HSUS because somebody called in and reported Kindness Ranch and said, ”Why are you working with them?” and gave him a copy of a USDA report from like ten years ago…long before I was ever involved. So I had a couple of phone calls and I said, “Well, have you seen our recent USDA reports where we’ve been 100% compliant for three years now and are just continuing to get better?” And they went, “We know, but we have to do this.”

So there was a little bit of stress involved in that aspect. But every time I went out there and every time somebody needed help or even if I needed help, everybody that was invited to be involved were fantastic people. They were absolutely amazing to work with. And to help us with our last group of dogs that we got, we hired additional transporters and there were people that had other rescues that just volunteered their time to meet us there and transport dogs all the way to Wyoming for us. It was amazing and it really did feel like a small neighborhood connected by long driveways, so to speak. People from all over the country really did come together and work really hard to make this happen.

Hansen:

There must have been so many emotions swirling around in everyone’s heads during the rescue, including yourself, but yet when you were picking up the dogs from Envigo you had to leave emotion out of it. I know all the feelings that would have been going through my head just seeing that facility. I think it takes a certain kind of strength to kind of hold the emotion back, but for the sake of the dogs you have to.

John:

There was always that underlying feeling that…and I’m sure all of the staff and the lawyers and the management of Envigo they felt like the enemy was coming in onto their property and we felt like we were in enemy territory. But with all that being said all of the interactions with the people and everything, I never had a negative one. It was set up to where Envigo staff were kind of kept separate and the Envigo staff would hand off a dog to an HSUS worker who would verify the tattoo, do a quick temperature check, and make sure that the dog was healthy enough to travel, hand off the dog to me, and I put the dog in the van. And it was not until after leaving the property that all of the emotions had to come out.

There were several times that my wife and I would just look at each other and start crying a cross between happy tears and angry tears and it made for an adrenaline-filled drive all the way back home. It was really intense. And then we would be in the back with all of these dogs and we were trying to clean cages and top off waters and it’s really cramped quarters and we’re just moments away from snapping and yelling at each other and then one of us would grab a dog and start petting it and calm down and it was really fun.

Hansen:

You’ve been part of many research dog rescue operations since you’ve become the director at Kindness Ranch. How would you say that this experience compared to all of those? Did this feel any different?

John:

It felt like there was a purposeful detachment. The facilities that I typically rescue animals from I’ve developed—over time— a relationship with these facilities. I can call them and I know who to ask for. I know who to talk to. I know what pets they have at home. I know what schools their kids go to. They’re not friends, but we’re friendly, and this one wasn’t like that. We didn’t see the same faces. We didn’t build any relationships or anything like that. It was very cold and sterile but at the same time, as I just said, everybody kind of knew their place, what their duties were, and it became kind of a conveyor belt. We knew that we were dealing with sentient beings. We knew that we were dealing with lives that were coming of a really, really unfortunate situation and environment. But again, the emotions didn’t hit until we were off the property because it was just such a machine.

Hansen:

So we’ve been talking mostly about human emotion here, and I’m wondering how the dogs you dealt with coped with everything. Did any of the dogs you took suffer from any illnesses or emotional trauma?

John:

We were fortunate that we didn’t have any that were ill when we got them.

Senator William Stanley, Bill Stanley, I don’t know if you’ve talked with him or not but he told me that the first time that he went to Envigo there was close to 10,000 dogs on property and that walking through the facility you could see the front rows of the dogs jumping up and down in their kennels trying to get attention, and the ones that had been there a little longer were more traumatized and pushed to the back. And I don’t know how the behavior dynamic happens in the kennels that are so over-populated like that, but my pure speculation is that a lot of the dogs that we got that came out first were probably the more outgoing ones that were easier to handle and move off the property and travel across country because I know they took a lot of the moms and puppies and kept them on the east coast.

But when we got our third group, they were much more shy and withdrawn and traumatized. We had one that was in foster because she was so traumatized that even being around other groups of dogs on the property at Kindness Ranch, she wasn’t thriving in her new life whatsoever. So we put her immediately into foster with actually one of our veterinary technicians that works with us and thankfully it was a foster fail and she just did the adoption paper work at the beginning of the month. So it ended up being successful and little Lena is going for nice long walks and enjoying life now.

For the people that aren’t familiar with Kindness Ranch, our dogs and our caretakers live in what we call a crate-free, home-like environment. When we have larger populations of dogs, we do crate them occasionally…there are dogs that find comfort and security in crates and are most comfortable and willing to interact that way. They have access to the crates, but we try

to eliminate cages from their existence entirely because all of our dogs come out of cages and terrible situations. But like the Envigo dogs, they didn’t run on grass before, they didn’t hear music, they don’t know the sound of sirens…blenders…the refrigerator door opening…they don’t know all of those smells and it’s our philosophy that since we have the room and the ability to do this that instead of the dogs coming straight from Envigo and immediately into foster care where they’re not quite ready for that transition, we have them live with our caretakers in small apartments on our property. And our caretakers go out in the morning and start making breakfast, brew a cup of coffee, and these dogs gradually become desensitized to all of these new experiences. Some dogs…it takes them six months to a year to really become desensitized to all of that, and some never do. But our caretakers spend so much time with these dogs and learn their personalities so much that it allows us to really, really narrow down what type of home that these dogs should be going into.

You know I’ve seen in a number of the foster groups and Envigo rescue groups on Facebook that some of these people have taken these dogs and they’ve had them for a couple of months now and they’re just at wits end because the dog may not have been ready for that immediate shock to its’ poor little brain and coping with all of that. These dogs never were taught these coping skills. The only life they knew was fighting for food and attention and now they’re showered with both, and on top of that they have dog doors, they have other dogs that they’ve never met before, the sound of big thumping stereos driving by their house at all hours of the night and there’s a lot sensory overload there. And that can result in…I don’t want to say failed adoptions… but people adopting these dogs with the greatest of intentions but just not being fully prepared for the rehabilitation that’s required. So that’s where Kindness Ranch…we’re not in a hurry to adopt out our dogs. They can stay with us long as required to be able to successfully place them in a home.

Hansen:

Let’s talk about Uno, who has already been so kind as to introduce himself. You adopted Uno, the very first beagle out of Envigo and that’s a pretty special milestone. What was it about Uno that you connected with? I mean… you weren’t looking to adopt a dog that day or during this rescue.

John:

Yeah you know it was kind of funny. As I said I had met with the Washington Post reporter Lizzie the night before and she really wanted to make it a point that she knew who got the very first dog and as luck would have it…it was us.

When I put him in the crate I slid the crate directly behind the passenger seat in the van. I knew I was going to be in the passenger seat when we left the property so I would be able to keep a close eye on his crate and I wouldn’t get him mixed up with the other dogs when we were coming back. And the drawback on that was knowing that his crate was right behind my seat. It was really easy for me to reach behind my seat and scratch him through the gate and give him treats and make sure that he was doing okay. And I called Steven Lee our companion animal manager here at Kindness Ranch and I said, “This dog is pretty special. You better make sure that whatever home he goes to is of the point zero zero one per cent upper tier home. You have to make sure that he goes to the best home possible. You know this dog…he’s going to be followed for a long time.”

And we took him out of the van when we got back to Wyoming, put him in his kennel in our intake area, and he just came walking right out and looked at me and started licking my face and I was like, “Oh little man…” I was like, “Okay, you know you’ve got to stay in here and you’ll get your medical checks. We’ll see how this goes in about five days.”

And as soon as he was through with all of his meds and everything and got a clean bill of health, my wife was out and I walked over to my house and I grabbed all of my other dogs and I took him to our Canine Corral which is our meeting area where we do introductions to potential adopters. I called Steven and I asked him to bring Uno out and it was like…it was like he had always been my dog. All of the other dogs took to him immediately and I just took him home. I said, “Okay well, I’m going to foster him for a little bit and that lasted all of but twelve hours and Amber, my deputy director out here, when I went to work the next morning she had all of the adoption paper work drawn up and she was like, “Do you want to just sign for him now?” And I said, “Yeah… yeah I do.”

You know it’s been very bitter sweet because my wife Katy she absolutely fell in love with a little beagle about a year and a half ago that came to us out of a facility. And this poor little girl…she was nine months old and pregnant when we got her out of a testing facility in a southern state. Katy absolutely fell in love with this little girl, and our last trip to Virginia we got the phone call that little Jane passed away. She wasn’t even two years old yet. Our hearts sank. We were driving back—we were halfway through Iowa when we got the phone call that Jane was found passed away in our backyard—and the entire staff at Kindness Ranch just dropped everything they were doing and they knew that we were going to be back in less than twelve hours with a group of dogs.

We agreed that we weren’t going to talk about it as we were unloading the dogs because it was supposed to be a happy day. I was so concerned that we were riding such an amazing high from rescuing all of these dogs from Envigo and Uno being in the house that it would be a constant reminder of her losing Jane. I didn’t want her to, knowingly or not, build up any resentment to the new dog in the house when she had just lost hers. And it’s amazing because she is more attached with Uno now then I think that she ever dreamt that she could be. I’ll wake up in the morning and she’s not snuggled next to me…she snuggled next Uno rubbing his belly and it’s amazing.

Hansen:

So Uno was like a gift maybe… when you needed one most.

John:

I think so. It was the universe’s way of putting all of the pieces in place. I don’t know what it is about Uno that allows him to have adjusted to a new life so amazingly well. And it wasn’t overnight by any means but there was always this like spark of curiosity in his eyes. If you look at the media and the social media for Kindness Ranch you see Uno riding around with me in a side-by-side. You see Uno riding around on a tractor with me, or in the truck. We just posted a picture…we were having a manager’s meeting in the office a couple of days ago and Uno was standing on his back legs with his nose up on my office desk staring at people. We took him to a fundraiser literally in the middle of downtown Denver, Colorado and he was surrounded by thousands of people that were wanting selfies with him and he just absolutely loved all of the attention.

Now if there was a dog like Jane for example…we took Jane to a legislative summit in Denver before she passed and we could only be there for about an hour, hour and a half before she got too overwhelmed with all of the stimulus and we ended up having to leave early which there’s no problem with. And we decided

right then and there that she probably doesn’t thrive in those environments. Well Uno is the exact opposite. And when you have a dog that really, really thrives in meeting new people and experiencing new things and feeling safe and confident in those new environments, there I don’t want to say we would be doing more harm than good by keeping him from them, but if he loves that stimulation and that enrichment that it provides…He’s a fantastic ambassador for Kindness Ranch and he’s like I refer to him as my “proof of concept” that dogs can come out of these facilities and continue to have normal lives where they thrive and can really send the message that we should be saving all of these dogs.

Hansen:

Yes, and Uno is such a poignant example of that. His desire to interact with people…it’s almost like Uno’s spirit was healed just from interacting with all the people that wanted to be around him.

John:

That’s a fantastic way of putting it. I don’t remember what we called him in our most recent social media post…he was like Director of Fun or the Ambassador of Fun at Kindness Ranch. We’ve had people that have driven here from Salt Lake City and from Denver. We had a family just last month that came all the way from Salt Lake City on a family scavenger hunt before the new year and one of them was quested to get a selfie with Uno which I thought was just hilarious. So they literally drove all the way out here, spent a weekend with us and they said, “We have to fulfill the scavenger hunt. Can we get a selfie with Uno?” It’s kind of funny that you know he’s become this accidental little celebrity. It’s really cute.

Hansen:

I know Kindness Ranch has grown in popularity over the past few years because of some high-profile rescues and all the media coverage. How long is your waiting list to adopt a beagle for someone listening who may be interested?

John:

Right now the list is still considerably long. I think we’re about 300 deep in a waiting list, but I don’t want that to deter anybody from applying. What happens more often than not like the dogs that we have right now…I think we only have five or six that are really truly ready for a home. And we run into the all-too-common event of people putting in an application not just with us but with a number of other rescues, and when we finally call them three months later to see if they’re still looking for a dog, they’ve already found another dog and didn’t let us know—so their name was still on the waiting list. When we just started calling people again two weeks ago because our dogs are finally becoming ready, our list went down from 700 to 300 and it did it in a matter of a week. So people should absolutely continue to apply, email and constantly ask because if we know that you’re ready and we have a dog that is a good fit, we’re to the point now that our waiting list becomes more of a first-come-first-serve. We’ll just call and the first people that can show up can come on out and we’ll introduce you to your new family member.

I don’t know when this is going to go out but between now and the beginning of December I’m going to be traveling to two different states and securing the release of I think a total of another 120 beagles, or thereabouts, so we will have more beagles going into the new year for sure.

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