HARTVILLE, Wyo. – As long as animals have been used as test subjects in laboratories, there’s been ongoing debate over the ethics of the practice, concerns about the potential for cruelty and more.
But one topic is seldom discussed: What happens to the dogs, cats, pigs and even horses when the experiment is over?
That’s the question that plagued psychologist Dr. David Groobman more than a decade ago, one he decided to find an answer to. In 2006, he purchased property in the rolling hills north of the tiny burg of Hartville in Platte County, Wyo., and the Kindness Ranch was born.
The name came from a simple desire on Groobman’s part to offer these former laboratory animals – the ones that survived the experiments, testing and more, anyway – something he believed they’d never had before.
Measure of kindness . . .
“He wanted it to be someplace kind for laboratory animals,” said Maranda Weathermon, executive director of the Kindness Ranch sanctuary. “They’ve not been treated with kindness – well, ever. So, we wanted the whole ranch to embody that we were treating animals kindly.”
The first animals to arrive at the ranch when it opened in 2007 were horses, survivors of pregnant mare urine farms, Weathermon said. On the PMU farms, the mares were housed in stalls and kept pregnant so their urine could be collected. The urine is processed to remove a specific type of the hormone estrogen, which is used in hormone replacement therapy medication for women going through menopause.
Most of the horses at Kindness Ranch have come to eastern Wyoming directly from PMU farms, either mares who are too old to be effective “donors,” or their offspring. The most recent arrivals at the ranch are a small herd of four- to five-month-old foals, whose mothers are still in the production facility.
“We got the foals that were abandoned because a lab had bought the mares with the foals and they didn’t want the foals,” Weathermon said. “They were force-weaned at far too young an age. They were just left on a lot to be sold – or die.”
Not all the horses at Kindness Ranch have survived that type of past experience. The ranch is also home to a small herd of thoroughbred race horses who actually had pretty good lives in the past, as subjects in ration and feed formulation studies, she said.
“Our food-testing horses were straight-off-the-track thoroughbreds,” Weathermon said. “They probably had it just as good there as they do here, ridden every day, trained, groomed, every day.”
But, their job was over, she said. They had nowhere else to go and so they were taken in at Kindness Ranch.
Not just horses . . .
In addition to the horses, Kindness Ranch is home to quite a sizable herd of dogs – mostly beagles who’ve been used in a variety of experiments and testing – and cats. There are also pigs, cattle, alpaca – “Just about everything you could imagine,” Weathermon said. “Unfortunately.”
The initial mission of the ranch, in fact, was to rescue and rehome the hundreds or thousands of beagles used in laboratory testing annually, she said. Beagles are the most commonly-used breed of dog in experimentation and testing for several reasons.
“They’re compact, they’re easy to house together and they’re very forgiving,” Weathermon said. “You can do all sorts of horrible things to a beagle and he’s still going to love you in the morning.”
Kindness Ranch is totally self-supporting through voluntary donations. They don’t take in outside surrenders from individuals, only accepting former research animals from laboratories around the country.
“But we do have resources we can help people find homes for their horses, after the kids grow up and left them and they have to be re-homed,” Weathermon said. “We work with several other rescues we can refer people to and we have a waiting list of people who want trained-to-ride horses, pasture pets, et cetera, that we can refer people to.”
To date, Kindness Ranch has found homes for almost 350 former laboratory subject animals, she said. Almost 100 adoptions have been completed this year alone.
Memories . . .
In any animal rescue and rehabilitation situation, there are good memories and bad, Weathermon said. For almost every success story, there’s another tale that doesn’t end so well.
Weathermon recalled a recent rescue of a herd of six gray mares. Supposedly, they came from a cancer research facility, but that’s never been confirmed, she said.
One of the mares survived the quarantine process at an off-site facility but, when she arrived in Wyoming, it was discovered she had a ruptured uterus, probably due to complications of foaling. It was an injury which, if caught early, could have been treated and repaired, Weathermon said. Because it was not discovered in a timely manner, the mare became septic. Ranch staff had to make the difficult decision to euthanize her, Weathermon said.
But, talking about the “boys and girls” in the ranch herd – some of whom are permanent residents and will never leave the Platte County plains again – Weathermon remembered what she called her favorite success story.
It centers around a horse named Cheyenne, foaled in a PMU facility and brought to the ranch from Canada. She’d been trained to halter, but never trained to ride. Cheyenne lived at Kindness Ranch for nine years before she was adopted.
“Cheyenne has been trained to ride and is now the proud horse of a little five-year-old girl,” Weathermon said. “She’s already a kid horse, turning into an accomplished trail horse and will start to compete in 4-H in the spring.”
Finding new homes for former laboratory animals – primarily the dogs and cats they take in – has always been a big part of the mission of Kindness Ranch. A recent amending of that philosophy has added their equine friends into the mix.
The bulk of the herd are permanent residents, roaming and grazing on about half the 1,100 acres. They’re older and lived most of their lives in laboratory or production farm facilities, mostly in the PMU farms, Weathermon said. They’ve earned a “little vacation,” she said.
But, recently, the belief they could best care for the horses has undergone a re-evaluation.
“Our founder didn’t start out in animal rescue,” she said. “It was about proving to ourselves that other people could take just as good care of our horses as we could, or even better.
“Bottom line is, we don’t want this to be a last stop for them,” Weathermon said. “They have a lot of potential to love, and to be loved, to have a job and enjoy that job. We’re working toward adoptions now and we’re doing pretty good.”