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.
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.
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