Italian court finds beagle breeders guilty in politically motivated trial

Today, three members of management at Green Hill beagle breeding facility were found guilty of animal mistreatment and each sentenced to a 12-18 month prison sentence. This sentence is a farce, as we will explain. But first, let us return to the beginning.

In 2011, animal rights activists began a high profile campaign against the Green Hill beagle breeding facility in Italy. The facility, owned by Marshall Bioresources, was accused of mistreatment of the beagles . The campaign received enormous help from an Italian TV programme, Striscia la Notizia, that worked to turn public opinion against the breeding facility. In the course of the TV and newspaper reports many lies were told, for example that animal research was undertaken inside the breeding facility, that beagles were sold for cosmetic testing in France, and that dogs were debarked, even if the videos taken by the activists themselves showed dogs barking as normal (such debarking is not permitted in Italy), testing cosmetics on animals was banned at the time and the facility was neither licensed nor equipped to carry out research. Those of you who read Italian can find a summary of the top 10 lies about Green Hill that never made it to court.

Some local and national politicians, spotting a populist cause, joined the campaign. The campaign made headline news when, in April 2012, activists broke into the facility and stole dozens of beagles as the police watched on idly.

Beagles were "liberated" from Green Hill in Italy in full view of police
Beagles were “liberated” from Green Hill in Italy in full view of police

On 18th July 2012, public and political pressure led an Italian court to issue a temporary closure order so that allegations by the Anti-Vivisection League (LAV) and Legambiente could be further investigated. The court also gave the animal rights group responsibility for the 2,500 beagles at Green Hill. Of around 70 inspections that the Italian authorities have made of the facility over the three years prior to the seizure, only one reported any mistreatment; this inspection was requested by the assistant prosecutor and carried out by a veterinarian who had been on the protests against Green Hill (so not biased at all then!).

For example, in January 2012 three experts from the prestigious veterinary institute” l’Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale della Lombardia e dell’Emilia Romagna” conducted a surprise visit during which they thoroughly inspected the documents, facilities and dogs. Their report concluded that there were no problems with the way in which Green Hill was run:

“From surveys carried out and documentation examined there emerge no situations of abuse or situations where there is a risk of mistreatment of animals”

During the recent trial, the four defendants (one was acquitted), were accused of mistreatment because they “forced the animals under unbearable conditions for their characteristics”. The prosecutors alleged that cages contained too many dogs – using data of the number of animals in the facility – yet the regulations are based not on the number of dogs per cage, but the combined weight of those dogs (i.e. three small dogs could not go into the same space as three larger ones). Similarly confused data was used for many other aspects of the trial. Allegations regarding night-day cycle inside the breeding facility, the nutrition of the animals, and the number of pregnancies were used to suggest mistreatment, but the defence demonstrated that these claims were unfounded and that the treatment of the animals was in accordance with the regulations.

The prosecution also accused the facility of high mortality rates of the dogs, though they failed to note that these were comparable with other breeding facilities. The prosecution claimed that 6,000 dogs were killed in a 5 year period before the facility was seized, without saying that to this number included deaths occured at or ssoon after birth and the deaths caused by infectious disease such as parvovirus infections (for example, the parvovirus is a particularly dangerous common disease that affects dogs and there were outbreaks of a new strain that had to be controlled). The average mortality of 1.2 puppies every 6 puppies, is normal when compared to other breeding facilities.

In particular it was alleged by the prosecution that about 54 dogs were killed without reasonable explanations, basing this statement not on the autopsies of the dogs but on the technical data collected by Green Hill in the so-called “dog” sheet, that contains most important data about a dog. However, when a dog has to receive medical treatment this was noted on another sheet called “treatment” sheet that contains more and deeper details about the medical situation of the animal and the clinical development. These treatment sheets were ignored by the prosecuting magistrate. It must be noted that the role of the prosecuting magistrate (PM) in the Italian legal system is quite different to that of the prosecutor in the US or British legal systems; in Italy the PM has not only the duty of presenting the prosecution case, but also that of ensuring that justice is done. The PM is prohibited from withholding evidence that might clear the accused, and must request the judge to acquit them if, during the trial, they become convinced of a defendant’s innocence, or agree that there is no evidence, beyond any reasonable doubt, of their guilt. That  this doesn’t appear to have happened here casts serious doubt on the verdict.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of evidence, the judge found three of the management guilty and sentenced them to 12 to 18 months each. It will take a further 60 days before the motivations behind the sentences are provided by the presiding judge. It should be noted that this decision is the opinion of one judge, whereas the Appellate Court where the appeal will be held consists of three judges who must agree on the verdict, which is why the appellate court often overturns the first court decision.

The judge delivers his verdict (Image from TGCOM24)
The judge delivers his verdict (Image from TGCOM24)

This trial is part of a wider political movement against animal research which has seen extensive limits placed on animal studies. As Science reports:

“The Italian law goes far beyond the restrictions imposed by the directive, already seen by many researchers as quite restrictive. Among other things, the law bans breeding dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates for research purposes, or using them for any other purpose than health research; studies without pain killers or anesthesia, if the animal may experience pain (unless these are themselves the subject of the study); and using animals in studies of addiction, xenotransplantation, and for training purposes (except in higher education for veterinarians and physicians).”

The new laws force research institutions to import all dogs from abroad, increasing the cost of the research and damaging animal welfare by forcing the animals onto long flights. Surely Italian activists would prefer to have the animals bred inside their own country where their own inspectors can monitor animal welfare conditions?

This is not the first time science has been in the docks in Italy. In 2012, six seismologists were sentenced to six years for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake in another farcical legal trial. Thankfully they were cleared of these charges in November 2014 after an appeal (at the Appellate court). Appeals are very much a standard part of an Italian trial, and it is almost certain that the Marshall case will be put in front of a judge again. It will be important for animal research advocates to make the case for research clearly in the meantime, as public opinion has appeared to play a large part in the legal outcomes of this trial. Scientists and breeders clearly have a lot to do if they are to prevent a looming disaster for biomedical research in Italy

Marco Delli Zotti
Speaking of Research and Pro-Test Italia

5 thoughts on “Italian court finds beagle breeders guilty in politically motivated trial

  1. Tom,so why is public opinion so wrong ? If we the general public find it abhorrent and morally wrong that scientists continue to want to fight to use animals in research,and also question how valuable it actually is, and also do not trust that all facilities adhere to the guidelines of the 3R’s, why is that wrong ? Surely as time goes on with practices and attitudes changing, plus a greater awareness by the public of animal welfare issues and valid alternatives to testing on animals (and there are scientists who right now believe that using animals is not the only or ultimate way to experiment), why can’t you and others like you open your minds up too ? only one of many examples of some such forward thinking

    I am also struck by the difference in attitude and belief towards animals by scientists and non scientist general public ( I hate sweeping generalizations in any argument but….) there does seem to be a mindset here with scientists that is different to the folks that care about the whole sordid business of using animals. It worries me greatly that it seems you and your colleagues have the capability of detaching yourselves from any human emotion or empathy for animals, specifically when doing experiments that entail the cause of pain. Conscience seems to be absent. I have a strong belief that anyone capable of doing things to animals like your colleagues do,without wincing or feeling bad is a seriously doubtful human trait.Especially those that know when they do a test on a Beagle for example, that the dog or puppy is to die at the end, just discarded like their life counted for nothing, in fact these dogs are just commodities to you to be used and rubbished.
    Any suffering caused to these animals is wrong, but additional to that you think that human beings have the divine right for being the ultimate decider of their fate on this planet. I am not surprised at all that labs don’t retire or find homes for these dogs, they will be so traumatized and scarred from their short life experience inside a lab,let alone any physical damage caused by you and your colleagues, that to tackle the poor dogs whole psyche would be a hell of a task. So no, it is pretty damn obvious why the dogs are killed. Like the lab that is less than a mile down the road from my house, that was exposed last year after in an undercover investigation with proof in video footage filmed by a tech, showing these poor animals and their suffering inside the lab,and you ask the general public to trust that the 3R’s are being followed…please. (For pity sake, surely you cannot condone this. And if you don’t object yourself to your colleagues not following the rules they are supposed to,then you are clearly supporting them).
    This is in my town, and very near to me and is outrageous and pains me every day to wonder what is happening to these dogs, puppies and kittens daily.
    From reading articles written by scientists re pro testing and their arguments, there is a general style and way in their communication, that comes through.
    Desensitized………. I especially noticed this in Juan Carlos Marvizon responses to people on this website in the Animal research is not “animal testing” article. Worryingly arrogant,devoid of empathy for animals, and seemed more concerned with trying to explain the differences between animals and humans in terms of what we can do and they cannot, as some sort of justification to just devalue their existence.
    They ALL matter whatever they are or are not.
    I am an atheist,and also a broad thinking person, avid interests in many areas from space and black holes to history and society, to politics,psychology,humanitarian and worthwhile acts and so on.
    I would have thought by now that the scientific community, would be past the Victorian era of using animals,and started to think of more innovative and humane ways to research and test.
    Why not pursue your kudos by being a pioneer in taking the scientist into a more challenging world of simply finding better and smarter ways to find cures and treatments ?
    Testing on animals will one day be outlawed, and the sooner it comes the better.

    The Beagles at Green Hill.

    It is not a question of how they were treated,or the point you made about importing dogs from abroad, and surely the ‘activists’ would prefer they be bred in their own country so that their own inspectors could monitor their welfare…uh, no, you are missing the point …. it is the fact that they are there at all that is wrong, nothing justifies their use…nothing.

    1. Public opinion is not unimportant, but can easily be influenced by shock stories that do not represent research as it truly is. In Italy (like the US and UK), animal research has the public support:

      I don’t think any scientist thinks animal research is the only method. They see it as one of many tools used in biomedical science to answer crucial questions. Sometimes in vitro studies will be the best or only method, sometimes computers are essential, sometimes an animal is the only method. You use the most appropriate method to answer the questions you have in front of you.

      I think it is emotion and empathy which drives scientists to do what they do. They would like to eliminate diseases like cancer and neurodegenerative diseases which effect humans and animals. Animals are required to be able to build some of the knowledge required in treatments. You are essentially saying that you do not care for those who suffer these conditions. Had your views come to pass in the 1900s there is the likely chance that people would still be dying of polio. Childhood Leukaemia survival rates would still be 10% not 90%. Millions of cattle would still be dying of Rinderpest. Modern antibiotics would not have been developed. Untold suffering that we have eliminated would persist!

      I’m not quite sure what suffering you think happened in the lab near your house but the Inspectorate who actually went in and checked were unequivocal when they said:

      No non-compliance with authorised programmes of work was detected apart from two minor issues with no welfare implications [both essentially paperwork issues].
      Our detailed investigations and review of available records and other evidence, does not support the allegations in the investigation report.
      Our findings confirm that the site is well managed with staff at all levels committed to the provision of appropriate standards of welfare and care, within the constraints of the scientific requirements of the research.

  2. Stopping cruelty to animals is not “extremism,” and scientists do themselves no good by immediately jumping to protect the breeders. This is NOT the same as the earthquake case, except in the silence and complicity of scientists.

  3. Reblogged this on Non al Denaro. Non all'Amore. Nè al Cielo. and commented:
    Bene. Ora i cani sono liberi. Evviva! Vi consola di aver perso il lavoro? No? Peccato. Ora chiedetevi perché un’azienda estera non vorrebbe mettere piede in Italia a pagarla, sapendo (e notate che l’articolo è in inglese) che rischia di perdere tutto una sentenza come questa. Secondo voi?

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