This summer, Catonsville resident Kat Novak teamed up with Beagle Freedom Project to help a beagle rescued from an animal testing lab adjust to the life many dogs enjoy of running in the grass, and being petted and fed in a loving home.
Vito, who turned 4 on Sept. 3, was rescued from a laboratory in Washington, D.C., on July 15 along with six other dogs.
Novak, an animal trainer, cared for and rehabilitated Vito until Aug. 31 when he arrived at his new home in Pittsburgh, Pa.
"His permanent home was his birthday present," Novak said.
Beagle Freedom Project is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit established in 2004 to help find permanent homes for animals, usually beagles, used in testing. The organization works with the labs to take in those dogs that are no longer usable for testing and would otherwise be euthanized.
"Beagles are the breed of choice for laboratory research for the exact same qualities that make them great family pets," said Kevin Chase, director of operations for Beagle Freedom Project. "They use beagles because they know they're not going to bite you.
"At the end of the day — at the end of the research — we owe these dogs more than just a cold lonely death in a cremation oven," Chase said. "We owe them a soft spot on the couch."
Since the organization's first rescue two years and nine months ago at a Los Angeles laboratory, Beagle Freedom Project has rescued 126 beagles, three mixed-breed dogs, eight rabbits and two cats from 17 different laboratories in 21 different rescue missions, according to Chase.
Novak has a long history working with dogs, and applied to be a foster parent with Beagle Freedom Project because she said she strongly believes in the group's mission.
"I started my own dog training business [in 2006] that was Top Dog Canine Counseling," Novak said. "And then I started Catonsville dog walkers two years ago.
"I kind of connect with anything dog," she said.
Due to the uncertainty about when or where Beagle Freedom Project is able to conduct a rescue, Novak said she only had a few days notice before she picked Vito up from the Washington laboratory.
"I said, whenever you get a rescue on the East Coast, I would be happy to foster," Novak said. "They let me know, I think, four days before.
"Everybody was kind of anxious," Novak said of the day of the rescue. "I didn't really know what was going to happen."
The group met at a home not far from the lab where the beagles were released from their crates to experience the outside world for the first time.
"You couldn't not cry when you saw those dogs coming in," Novak said. "Their little faces were like, 'What's going on?'
"It was kind of surreal in a way, because you think what these dogs have been going through [is so bad]," she said. "Vito was standing there looking at me, so I said, 'OK buddy.' "
For the next month and a half, she cared for Vito like she would one of her own children, she said, socializing him with her other dogs, Mickey and Mary Ann, and introducing him to basic life experiences.
Having been bred and raised in a laboratory, Vito had never been exposed to anything as basic as the sound of a television or eating from bowl.
"Vito had never known anything," she said. "He wasn't used to daylight; he wasn't used to sunshine.