with guest Shannon Keith
About this Episode
Beagle Freedom Project (BFP) founder and president Shannon Keith joins us once again to reveal BFP’s most recent, ground-breaking efforts to help dogs in research laboratories. As one of the most well-known activists in the fight against animal testing, Shannon is always ready to jump in to help wherever she is needed—even if the need is an ocean away. Heartening rescue stories—including one about the royal beagle Mama Mia—, more details about BFP’s new project in the United Kingdom, and an honest conversation about the “power of a person” and why that matters for dogs in research are all included in this inspiring episode.
Guest: Shannon Keith
Shannon Keith is an activist attorney, professor, multi-award-winning filmmaker and the founder and president of the non-profit organization, Beagle Freedom Project (BFP). Shannon formed BFP in 2010, a non-profit rescue and advocacy organization, in order to rescue animals from testing, advocate for an end to testing and ultimately legislate for it.
As an attorney, Shannon has challenged the archaic law that animals are considered property. She brings her activism to the courtroom, making sure to change the language and culture of how we view and treat animals, by using language encouraging companionship rather than ownership, and thereby advancing the concept that animals are sentient beings deserving of legal recognition beyond that of an inanimate object. Her cases resulted in several lower court opinions awarding damages for the emotional distress of animals, thereby recognizing they were deserving of legal recognition. Shannon also served as the advisor to Judge Wapner on the television series “Animal Court,” advising him on how to decide his cases.
Shannon has also taught several Animal Law courses in law schools across the country and has been a frequent guest speaker on animal law in over a dozen schools including UCLA and USC.
As a filmmaker, she focuses on stopping the problem at its roots through educational documentaries and has won several awards for her groundbreaking films exposing animal cruelty. Her first documentary, “Behind the Mask,” explores the underground world of those activists who break the law to save animals. “Skin Trade,” her second documentary, exposes the cruelty, fraud and deception in the fur industry. Her third documentary, “Sanctuary,” delves into the world of primates exploited for the exotic “pet trade,” entertainment and testing, and ultimately ending in sanctuaries. Her first two films garnered several awards including best documentary feature at festivals nationally and internationally.
Since 2010, Beagle Freedom Project has rescued over 3,000 animals from laboratories, where they were experimented on for cosmetics, products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and sick scientific curiosities. These animals would have been otherwise killed after the experiments ended, but BFP, with its inventive campaign, secures the release of these animals, finds them loving homes and educates the public about the fraudulent practices of animals testing via these incredible ambassadors.
BFP also focuses on changing laws. Since 2014, BFP has passed its signature legislation, “The Beagle Freedom Bill” in thirteen states, making it mandatory to release dogs and cats after testing instead of killing them. This is the first step of many towards ending testing and is the only law that recognizes the value of animals beyond being used as subjects.
Shannon lives in Los Angeles, California, with her two dogs (Gracie Mae, a Pitbull and Maya, a Great Dane), rescued from shelters, a rescued cat, Faith, a rescued turtle and a rescued tortoise.
ELLIE HANSEN, HOST:
There’s this photo of you in the Los Angeles Times taken in late August of last year that just encapsulates what I think of when I think of you. You’re holding two beagle puppies in your arms at the same time, both rescued from the now-closed and Envigo breeding facility. And one of the puppies is sniffing your face and you have this huge smile on your face. It’s like in that moment of time, there’s nowhere else in the world you’d rather be. I know your work can often be truly depressing and heartbreaking. So would you say that since you started Beagle Freedom Project 13 years ago, meeting and interacting with the Beagles you saved gives you the strength to continue your work? And can you describe how these moments make it all worth it?
SHANNON KEITH, GUEST:
Yes, definitely. I remember that day like it was yesterday and thank you for noticing that because you’re right. There wasn’t any place I’d rather be and holding these puppies that we rescued just brings it all home. So it is really hard and depressing what we do and sometimes it’s can be overwhelming. But tangibly having those rescues, being able to physically rescue them myself, and then holding them, looking into their eyes, knowing that they’re safe and free now really does make it all worth it. Seeing the results I guess I would say of you know, the fruits of our labor, and that’s why sometimes it can be really hard because we do rescues and sometimes I don’t even get to meet the rescues who we have. But when I do see them and I’m able to interact with them, it really helps with the process.
Since we spoke last, which was just over a year ago, Beagle Freedom Project has been involved in some sizable and media-worthy beagle rescues. One of these rescues involved British royalty with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and her husband Prince Harry adopting a beagle named Mamma Mia from BFP last summer. Mamma Mia came from the now closed Envigo. So I was hoping you could tell us this story because to me it’s like a rags to riches fairy tale. And I’m guessing that now Mama Mia has quite the amazing life compared to where she came from.
Yeah, she definitely does. This is such a cool story and so exciting for us. Essentially, we received an email from somebody who said that she was the assistant to a celebrity and somebody who supported us but didn’t say who and wanted to set up a call with me and this person. So I said, yeah, of course, and I got the call. It was from a blocked number, so I didn’t know who it was still. And she introduced herself as Megan. And we had this great conversation. I still had no idea who it was. I knew she was a celebrity and she supported us, but I’m thinking, “Megan… I don’t know who this is.” And I’m not very good with celebrities and stuff like that.
And so we had this really long call. She was awesome and she talked about how she’s been supporting us for years. And, you know, shops, Amazon Smile back when they had that (they stopped that program) to support BFP and that she and her family are now settled in Montecito and really wanted to bring a new beagle into the family. But they definitely wanted a beagle who needed them, you know. Not a puppy. An older dog; someone who’s not so, let’s just say, typically adoptable, which I loved, so I was just falling in love with this person. They also had rescued chickens who they rescued from a factory farm. So yeah, long story short, we hung up the phone and we set up a date for her to come and meet some of our beagles.
And I’m just doing a Google search. And I’m like, oh, that was Meghan Markle I was talking to. I didn’t know. So fast forward. We communicated. And she really wanted to adopt Mama Mia. Mia, who is the mother of the puppies that I was holding in that photo. Just such a sweet, sweet older beagle who had just been used for breeding over and over again, who we rescued from in Envigo. And so she showed up with, it was Megan and Harry, and they came to our home office in Los Angeles and met Mia and she instantly took to them. She jumped on the couch next to Harry and just fell in love with them. So it was meant to be. They were the sweetest couple.
And Harry was especially really, really sensitive. And he said, you know, “She keeps wanting to get into this bin in this back house.” And he said, “We can’t leave until we see what she wants.” And he’s like, “There’s a toy she wants in there.” Because it was a bin of toys. And I was like, no, she’s fine. Like she’s got plenty of toys. It’s okay. He’s like, “No, no, no, there’s something there.” And so, Melina who works for us, who had actually transported Mama Mia and her babies tipped over the bin. Mia was going through the bin, going through the bin, and she grabbed this one toy and ran out with it. And Melina said, “Oh, that’s the toy I bought her on our ride home.” And we’re like, “No way. How did she know that?” And Harry said, “See? I knew she wanted that. Now we can go home. She’s got her baby.”
Using dogs for research is unfortunately a global issue. And there are people in almost every nation fighting against it. Earlier this year, you traveled to set up Beagle Freedom Project in the United Kingdom. And I believe you spent quite a lot of time there as well. So why did you choose the United Kingdom? And what was it like getting BFP set up in another country?
Yeah, thanks for asking about us in the UK. It’s really exciting. So I’ve always wanted to expand Beagle Freedom Project into the United Kingdom for a lot of reasons, but the main reason is that in the UK there is simply no regulation for animals in laboratories like there is here. Now, I’m not saying the regulation here is any good because it’s not, it’s terrible, but at least there is some sort of legal recourse.
In the UK, there isn’t. And it’s shocking. So for example, every year, I send out a letter to every single laboratory in the United States introducing us, saying, please work with us. Please release the animals to us. And that’s actually how we formed a lot of our relationships. In the UK, you can’t even get a list of the companies and facilities that test on animals. It’s private. So there’s no way of even knowing unless it’s public information.
So in the UK, there’s a lot that needs to be done. And for those of you who haven’t seen, check out Camp Beagle, because Camp Beagle has now made Marshall Farms, Marshall Bioresources, a very public place. And so…They’ve now, it’s I think coming on two years, been protesting and camping outside of this huge beagle breeding facility called Marshall in the UK. Now Marshall also exists in the United States. Marshall Bioresources is in upstate New York, and it is one of the biggest beagle breeding facilities where they sell to animal testing places…to different facilities all over. So even Marshall here breeds beagles and sells them to facilities all over the world. So they’ll end up like in China, South Korea. So they don’t just get bread to be sold here, but it’s everywhere. It’s a horrible, horrible place. It’s been around forever. And we’ve been trying to work on closing it down here in the U.S., but they’re doing a great job with Camp Beagle in terms of just raising awareness and hopefully Marshall in the UK will be shut down very soon.
But that’s, you know, I thought, OK, we’ve got a good activist group there. The person who runs Camp Beagle there, I’ve known him for years and years since I did Behind the Mask [a documentary film]. He is an awesome activist. And I knew that we had a good solid foundation in the UK to get some work done.
I actually interviewed John Curtin, the activist you just referred to who is running Camp Beagle, for a podcast episode earlier this year. And you actually visited Camp Beagle yourself while you were over there. I remember seeing a picture on social media of you sitting in a chair outside with everybody else at the camp, and I was like, “Oh, that’s Shannon!”. And so I’m just wondering, what was that like for you?
It was really, really emotional. First of all, you can hear the dogs barking inside. So you’re just so close to them. And the activists there, they have an injunction against them, a legal injunction, which means that they can’t cross the street and be within a certain amount of feet from the facility. But because I didn’t have an injunction, I crossed the street. And as the employees were leaving— you know, we were holding signs, protest signs and things—I was trying to stop the cars and I literally was in their faces and security was like pushing me. But I was so angry because you just become overwhelmed with emotion. Those dogs are right there. There’s so many of them and you can hear them barking and crying. And I mean, I almost just ran in. But I thought, well, how far am I going to get running in and grabbing dogs and leaving? But it, you want to do that so badly. And I was so pissed and just stopping these cars who tried to hit me. I mean, those people were wearing masks in their cars because they were so afraid of showing their faces, which they should be. They should be ashamed. Um, and yeah, it was super emotional. Those people who are there and camping out, they just have my utmost respect for being there all the time. I don’t know how they do it.
You have a history of personally engaging in street activism, like protesting. Do you feel that this is still a valid tool in this fight against animal experimentation? I don’t see a lot of it being done in the United States when it comes to animal rights. In general, how do you feel about street activism working for this issue?
Yeah, that’s actually a really good question. I’m glad you asked that because I come across that quite a bit. You know, back in the day, back in like the nineties and stuff, there was a lot of street activism here in the United States, in California, specifically, we were protesting a lot. There were huge groups of animal rights activists. There were huge campaigns. We traveled to different states and protested different facilities and outside of people’s homes who did the actual testing on the animals.
We protested circuses, any place of abuse. And we had a big presence back then, but things changed after 9-11. So what happened then was animal rights activists started becoming labeled as terrorists by the government. And we would just constantly be getting arrested, bullied, beaten. That happened to me. I was protesting outside of Neiman Marcus, their fur salon, and I was just standing there quietly holding a sign, and there were cops everywhere. And one came up and just started beating me with his baton, like out of the blue.
It also became harder to do our big World Week for Animals protests and things like that in terms of just getting inside information, getting inside of facilities. And I think people just got burnt out because so many people were going to jail.
Do I think it’s still effective? It depends, but I would say time is better spent doing other things, like legally trying to close these places down, spreading the word, that type of a thing, putting together really solid campaigns, doing the research, finding violations of these places that you could report to try to get them closed, doing outreach campaigns so people learn more. I think the issue with street activism is that it does make you feel good as a person. You’re there, you’re doing something, and I get that, but at the end of the day, unless it’s consistent, like a Camp Beagle situation, it’s not going to work.
Then what efforts do you believe we should be making here in the United States against Marshall Bioresources and other places? Because the fact is that Marshall is one actor, one facility, the biggest facility for sure, but there are others that are equally as awful and they’re all over the country and they’re usually hidden down a country road or some remote area where people don’t go and they’re located there on purpose. And so, there’s got to be something that we can do. I’m personally a big believer in grassroots activism. I think if a community wants to do something, maybe it’s a protest. Maybe it’s something else. At least it’s something. So what are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, I agree with you. I think something is better than nothing, right? So yeah, I mean, people kind of underestimate themselves and the power of a person, and I always like to tell people, you have so many gifts and talents that you are unaware of maybe that could help in the fight to end animal suffering, whether it’s taking photographs, videos, social media posts, research, phone calls… everyone’s got something that they can do that’s gonna help. And every piece of that is so critical. One is not more important than the other.
And these places are hidden. The Envigo closure with the 4,000 beagles in Cumberland, Virginia was awesome. But, I think people were like, okay, cool, that’s closed. And to what you said is like, well, there’s thousands of other places doing the same thing, if not worse, that we still have to focus on. It’s not all over because in Envigo got closed and also, Envigo owns still other laboratories that we’re working on trying to deal with right now. Um, so that was just the one facility. It happened to be big, but people do need to know that animal testing facilities are in their backyard.
Like you said, they’re down country roads. They’re also in strip malls, just with blacked out windows, looks like a closed place. They’re everywhere. And we’re talking about public facilities who are publicly funded, that are publicly funded as well as CROs, Contract Research Organizations. Those are the private facilities that get hired by big companies like Big Pharma to do certain tests. And those are the worst ones, because they’re not as regulated.
I saw a photo come across my Facebook yesterday and it was somebody wearing a black mask. Only their eyes and mouth were showing. And this person was standing by himself or herself holding a sign that read “Ridglin Farms Kills Beagles.” . This was in a town near Ridglin Farms, another huge research dog breeding facility in Wisconsin. And this person was just out there alone on the sidewalk and I’m like, how brave are you? You know what I mean? Just that you decided to go out there by yourself and do that. I mean, yeah, does it make a huge difference by itself? Maybe not? But it’s still a noble act in my eyes.
Yeah, but I agree with you. I think that’s great. I love that that person did that. And like you said, the bravery…because that takes bravery to go out there and stand by yourself and hold that sign and just be this person advocating against this place. And it does plant seeds. People driving by, walking by see, well, what’s Ridglan Farms? And hopefully they look it up and they see what a horrible place it is. That’s one of the second or third largest breeding facilities here in the US. So I love that. I love that people take action by themselves and do things like that. It’s amazing.
In late October, just a week before this recording, you rescued 31 beagles from a research facility in Arkansas. And I’m just wondering, was this a new relationship with this facility? And that’s dozens and dozens of dogs you had to get out of there. So I was hoping you could describe what work was involved with a rescue of this size.
Yeah, so it takes a lot of work, especially finding the perfect foster homes. That’s the most work. How we found this place is through actually another facility we rescue dogs and cats from. And we happen to have a pretty good relationship with this facility and the owner of this facility. And he recommended us to the place in Arkansas. And so the veterinarian there called me and we’ve developed a relationship as well. That’s pretty good because prior to this rescue, this facility that’s been around for 50 plus years has never ever let an animal out alive.
So she came in and said, this is wrong. I wanna change this, which is great. And we’re developing ways to not only release the animals, but make their lives better while they’re in there. Because obviously, like we can’t close it overnight, but we wanna make things better for them until we can close it down.
So, 31 dogs is a lot of dogs, and it’s a lot of dogs with medical issues. It’s a lot of dogs with severe PTSD because they live literally inside with no windows. They’ve never been outside. And these are all the things that she’s told me. And she’s very open about how they don’t even leave their kennels. They’re short staffed. The people who work there are frustrated and they don’t give the dogs attention. They don’t take them outside. They don’t take them even in the hallway to just get out of their kennel at all. So when we did this rescue, these were some of the most fearful dogs we’ve ever seen. You would go to touch them and they would cower.
So getting the whole rescue together is a massive process because we need to find amazing fosters who live near the facility or somebody can do transport. So we have to find volunteer transporters. We have to find the fosters. We have to set up veterinary appointments. Really, it’s the aftermath that is a lot of work. It’s still a lot of work doing the rescue, but then the aftermath of being there for the foster is 24-7, which we are. We have a cell phone that we all switch out and answer phone calls at any hour to help. And a lot of these dogs, like I said, have medical issues, really severe ones. And the PTSD of just getting through the day to day and walking people through that is also very, very time consuming.
How old were these dogs? What was the age range?
Yeah, except for two of them, they were all older. So they were all like seven and up and some 11.
I know you often can’t disclose what they were used for, but do you know if it was for toxicology experiments, or something like that?
Yeah, we know what they were used for and it definitely had to do with poison—poisoning their skin and internally with certain products. And we’re doing another rescue at this place on the 15th.
And like I said, you know, we want to work towards closing this place and ending it and educating people. So this is the process of developing relationships, which is what you have to do. And I think we’re getting closer to like people there understanding like this isn’t viable. This isn’t going to keep working for you, especially with all the new laws. Work with us. Let’s try to close this down and end it. Give them an alternative to do.
So Beagle Freedom Project is definitely growing its global presence these days, which I think is so crucial. Are there any future projects on the horizon that you’d like to talk about? And most of all, if listeners want to get involved, what is the best way for us to help you and reach out to you?
We are so open to any person who wants to volunteer and that’s all over the United States and the UK. It’s not just, I know people see a lot of Los Angeles because that’s our hub, but we do rescues everywhere and especially now we’re gonna be doing a lot in the Arkansas, Oklahoma areas. So please sign up, go to our website, bfp.org. Sign up to volunteer. We need people who do everything: people who can take great photos, people who can do videography, transportation, database work, research work. So people can do these things remotely, helping us make calls, helping us write letters, things like that we could use. I can also use interns, legal interns. And then administration people who can help with just admin stuff. So social media, we need, you know any help we will take it because we operate as a very large organization. However, there’s only a few of us. There’s only 11 people in Beagle Freedom Project. People don’t know that, but it’s, we’re small and we work constantly and really hard. And so we always need help.
We also are hiring people. So if somebody’s interested in working for Beagle Freedom Project, there’s a couple of positions open right now. So people can email info at BFP.org to get more information on that. We do have some really exciting things on the horizon at Beagle Freedom Project that we can’t disclose right now, but something is going to happen that is going to literally change the face of animal testing and save hundreds of lives. So right now, we really do need help and we need a lot of donations to help us with the rescue that’s going along with the other piece of exciting news. So please stay tuned because you’ll hear about it but we do need help leading up to it.
And before we close, is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners today?
Yeah, so one great tool that we have that people really love is our free app called Cruelty Cutter. It’s a shopping app and you download it on your phone and you scan any product. It will tell you if it’s cruelty free or not. And you can also share your results, which is pre-written statements to the company. It tags the company and everything else that you didn’t buy a product because it wasn’t cruelty free and you can boycott as well. And we’re doing a big update right now. So it’ll be released maybe in about a month, but it’s still working. So please check that out. It’s really easy to be an activist with your dollar.