ROME—Three employees of Green Hill, a company that breeds beagles for animal studies, are guilty of unjustified killing and mistreatment of dogs, a court in Brescia, Italy, ruled on Friday. Ghislaine Rondot, Green Hill’s executive manager, and Renzo Graziosi, the facility's veterinarian, were each sentenced to 18 months in jail; Green Hill’s director, Roberto Bravi, received a 1-year sentence. A fourth defendant was cleared of all accusations.
The court has to release a written motivation for the verdicts within 60 days.
The accusations against Green Hill, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Marshall BioResources and one of Europe's largest suppliers of dogs for research, were presented to prosecutors in June 2012 in a complaint filed by Legambiente, an environmental organization, and the animal rights group Lega Anti Vivisezione (LAV). In July 2012, the court in Brescia ordered the temporary closure of the facility and the seizure of all animals. Legambiente and LAV took custody of more than 3000 dogs, which were later placed in foster homes all over Italy. The trial against Green Hill employees started in June 2014.
Enrico Moriconi, a veterinarian who served as a consultant to the prosecutor and reviewed evidence gathered by the police, says that 6023 dogs died at the center between 2008 and 2012, compared with 98 in the 2-year period that followed the animals’ seizure in 2012. In 44 cases, the court was able to establish that dogs were euthanized even though they suffered only from mild, curable diseases, Moriconi says. Some of the beagles were put down with Tanax—a drug that causes cardiorespiratory failure—without prior anesthesia, which is widely considered a less ethical way to kill them.
As to the abuse charges, the dogs weren't beaten or otherwise physically harmed, Moriconi stresses. “It’s their ethology that was not respected,” he says. The dogs were never outdoors and didn't have a common area where they could socialize and move freely, “key factors for their well-being.” The animals were also exposed to artificial light day and night in spaces that weren't properly cleaned and too hot during summer, Moriconi claims, and sick dogs were left without medical assistance or supervision between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Moriconi says Green Hill tamed dogs by suspending them in a hammocklike device. Lack of contact with the ground made the animals twitch frantically and eventually become motionless with fear, a state called freezing. “I don’t know about such a technique, but surely if dogs lose contact with the ground and hence their balance, this would be very annoying to them," says Angelo Gazzano, an ethologist at the University of Pisa in Italy who has worked on the behavioral rehabilitation of beagles used in animal research.
“The public prosecutor has provided [the court] with kilos of evidence,” says LAV President Gianluca Felicetti. But Gaetano Di Chiara, a pharmacologist at the University of Cagliari in Italy and a campaigner for animal testing, says that although he has not heard all the evidence for abuse presented in court, he's not impressed with what he has read about it in the media so far; the court should have rejected that charge, he says.. Pro-Test Italia, an Italian group that supports animal experimentation, says on its Facebook page that it prefers not to comment until the reasoning behind the verdict is released. The statement adds that “the monocratic judgment on this sentence leaves us puzzled"—a reference to the fact that only one judge was involved—and says the penalties are mild and "symbolic rather than anything else.”
The European Animal Research Association (EARA) strongly condemned the verdicts. “These appalling sentences are without precedent in Europe," EARA Executive Director Kirk Leech said in a statement distributed by the United Kingdom's Science Media Centre. "They are a legal travesty and a part of a politically motivated campaign to end animal research in Italy." Europe's life sciences sector should condemn the "sham decision," Leech added.
Italian media have reported that the Green Hill employees plan to appeal; the judge in the case, Roberto Gurini, has suspended their sentences pending a final verdict. The three have also been barred from breeding dogs for 2 years.
A representative for Marshall BioResources says the company has produced a press release about the matter but that she would not be able to send it to ScienceInsider today.