Brazilian taxpayers might be mad about government services. They might protest oil-field auctions and resent overspending on soccer stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. But nothing angers them quite like mistreated dogs.
This latest example of Brazilian outrage took place at roughly 2 a.m. on Oct. 18, when a group of about 100 animal-rights activists broke into the Instituto Royal -- a pharmaceutical testing lab in Sao Roque, about 40 miles to the west of Sao Paulo -- to rescue 178 beagles. Photos and video footage taken by O Globo’s TV TEM channel inside the lab during the raid showed dogs with portions of their backs shaved, as well as what appeared to be a frozen beagle's body.
Police made no arrests; officers stood by as activists trashed the place and pulled confused mutts from cages. Angry Brazilians soon took to Twitter using the hashtags #InstitutoRoyal and #CasoRoyal (#RoyalCase). Guilherme Andrade, from Curitiba, captured the prevailing sentiment in a tweet: “I am revolted by the #institutoroyal. What was that beagle frozen in nitrogen? Psychopaths!” Protests continued the day after the break-in.
Activists intent on changing Brazil’s law that allows animal use for scientific experimentation -- regulated in accordance with international standards -- found a sympathetic ear in Congressman Protegenes Queiroz, a member of the Communist Party of Brazil, who denounced the institute for “an atmosphere of torture that looked like a Nazi concentration camp.” Queiroz set up a six-member congressional commission to study charges of animal abuse.
Police opened a similar animal mistreatment investigation against the lab. But authorities are also looking into the raid itself -- an undeniable theft of lab property. Civil police delegate Marcelo Carrel told Brazil’s Agencia Estado: “We will identify those responsible and will single out the conduct of each one.”
Some activists didn't seem fazed. In an interview with TV Internet Grupo, Luisa Mell, an actress, model and one of the people who broke into the institute, dismissed the thought that she could be legally charged: “That would be the biggest joke in this country. Me go to jail? People need to charge the Instituto Royal" for ill treatment of animals. She noted how even police officers turned a blind eye during the invasion and said people would find a way to close the institute: “I think this is the moment for a revolution.”
Trying to defend itself, the Instituto Royal described the case as an irresponsible “act of terrorism.” On Tuesday, staff from the institute were invited to address lawmakers but instead sent their lawyer to vouch for their work. With the investigation underway, the prefecture of Sao Roque decreed a 60-day suspension of operations for the lab.
Silvia Ortiz, the institute’s general manager, tried to reassure the public in a rather cold video in which she insisted that the animals were well cared for, arguing: “If you’ve ever taken medication for your headache, the flu or high blood pressure, you can be sure that you have benefitted from studies performed on animals.” Based on legal, pre-clinical protocols, Ortiz said, “Rats, mice, rabbits and dogs are used, notably the beagle breed ... given its genetic pattern and similarity with the human biology.” Ortiz insisted the lab tests pharmaceuticals that help save human lives.
Still, she gave no details about what specific studies the lab conducted on the animals. As for the activists, it certainly didn’t help their cause that one of the rescued dogs was offered for sale on the Internet for 2,700 reais (more than $1,200) days after the raid. (The lab eventually recovered that dog.) A few others were apparently found abandoned in the streets.
The debate, which stretches far beyond Brazil, doesn't seem to be going away any time soon. Newsmagazine Veja put a beagle on the cover under the headline “The Beagle Dilemma, A Love Without Remedy.” Epoca magazine did a similar dog cover asking readers: “Is his life worth as much as yours?”
The scandal even prompted pollster Datafolha to survey 690 people in the city of Sao Paulo. Not only did Paulistas, as Sao Paulo residents are known, have knowledge of the case (82 percent knew about it), they also had a hierarchy of what animals should be used in tests. Two-thirds of those surveyed disagreed with testing on dogs. Rabbits were only slightly more acceptable: 57 percent opposed their use. Mice were fair game, with 66 percent in favor of using the rodents. (Though, some Brazilians recently stood up for their pet mice.) People were more eager to defend dogs than monkeys: Only 59 percent opposed the latter's use.
As Daniel Galera, a columnist for O Globo, wrote on Monday, “I do not oppose testing on animals in principle, but I believe it needs to be avoided as much as possible, and performed only to find the cure for illnesses -- never for cosmetics, cleaning products, etc.”
In a continent where stray dogs are common and rodents are more pests than pets, it is refreshing to see Brazilians exercise such middle-class assertiveness about an issue some might dismiss as a “first world problem." It certainly says a lot about the nation’s recent economic gains. After all, as Datafolha found, the most educated and well-off Paulistas were the ones who knew about the scandal.
In the end, Paulistas are taking the mess in stride. More than half of those polled approve of what some have dubbed the “beagle puppy revolution.” It seems rescuing caged dogs from a lab is the type of “terrorism” Brazilians can live with.
(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com.)