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.
"He was kind of adventurous, considering," she said, noting that though he was timid, Vito was very playful.
However, because she already owns two dogs and doesn't want to have more than three in her house at one time, Novak worked with Beagle Freedom Project to find Vito a permanent home.
"The more [dogs] you have, the less attention each one gets," she said. "I don't want that third dog because I want to have room for another Beagle Freedom dog."
On Aug. 31, Novak met Jeff and Laura Graves, of Pittsburgh, at a park halfway between their homes and they officially adopted Vito as their own.
"We had three beagles," said Jeff Graves. "One of them passed away in December and one of the remaining two was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
"I've always liked beagles, and we decided we wanted to get another one," he said. "I just did a Web search for rescue beagles and up popped their [Beagle Freedom Project's] site.
Graves said he filled out an application once he saw Vito's picture on the website and, within a month, had interviewed with Novak and Beagle Freedom Project representatives to adopt him.
Novak said she interviewed a number of candidates for Vito's adoption, but she felt the Graves were the best fit.
"Based on what they're doing for their dogs now, I know he's going to get the best medical treatment, the best time and attention with them," she said. "I'm heartbroken that he's gone, but he's in the best place."
Graves said that after a rough first few days, Vito has adjusted to his new home.
"Now he interacts with our dogs," Graves said. "It's great: They sleep together; it's cute.
"They actually all sleep in the bed with us," he said. "It's my wife and me, and three dogs."
He said they have been sending regular email updates and photos to Novak to update her on his progress, a process they plan to continue in the coming months.