Visit to Hill's, part 2: I could tell you all about nutrigenomics, which is really pretty cool, or all about ingredients and safety...I could even tell you about the laboratories, the in-house veterinary facilities, or the credentials of the scientists, veterinarians and animal techs who work there, blah, blah, blah---but when it comes down to it, it's all about the animals. And we all want to know what goes on behind closed doors at an animal research facility. I mean, we've heard stories...dingy cages, forlorn lab animals, unfeeling caretakers---after all, pet food companies are out to make money, and that is BAD.
And Hill's is out to make money, but---they also look to be spending it hand over fist when it comes to dog and cat facilities. Heck, they might have done better just to throw dollar bills in the runs and use it for bedding, cost-wise. Grind some up for kitty litter. Oh wait, they had some other kind of special kitty litter.
But they foolishly instead had a new building designed about two years ago. You enter the animal areas through a long corridor---that sounds ominous already, kind of like that long corridor Dorothy et al had to go down to meet the Wizard once they got in the building. Or Wicked Witch. Something with a W. Whatever. No, that's not it...Anyway, down the corridor we went. On one side the wall was lined with pictures of employees---I think it was everyone from the president to the janitor---each with their pets. I think if you didn't have a pet you couldn't get your picture on the wall. Or maybe they made you borrow one. Or buy one. Or maybe you couldn't get a job. It seemed to be a prerequisite for working there. In fact, one of the head guys at the plant said (the next day) the most common reason their employees give when applying for a job starts with, "Well, I have a dog (or cat) and I really love him, and I thought it would be really neat to work here..."
Well, rosey posed pictures are one thing, but when would we get to the real thing, the lab dogs, obviously sequestered away---hold on, what's this? The entire right side of the corridor is glass, and on the other side is...Beagletopia! Beagles running, Beagles fetching, Beagles friggin' cavorting. As far as you could see, Beagles and people playing in grass-covered yards, complete with little obstacle areas and gravel paths. It looked like about five or ten per yard. It turns out this was their daily "Bark-Park" playtime, and each group had one or two people in there playing with them---the Kansas version of Beagles Gone Wild. I was waiting for one of them (the dogs, not the girls) to pull its shirt down, except, you know, they were already naked (the dogs, not the girls).
Onward we trekked down this hallway---which I might add, had to be the world's longest glass hallway---until we passed the grassy area and came to a smaller yard of astroturf bounded by concrete. And Beagles bobbing up and down at the window, heads appearing and disappearing as they bounced and barked. Their buddies ignored them (there's a token suck-up in every bunch), some snoozing in the sun, others playing with toys, some wrestling amongst themselves and others ambling back inside through a doggy door.
Now, it's true that the folks at Hill's could have staged this. The techs did look suspiciously like models. Or Stepford Wives. Stepford Techs? And the bouncing Beagles could have been cleverly designed automatons---only in that case, Hill's really needs to go into the business of selling those instead of dog food, because there is a fortune to be had there.
But automaton or real, why Beagles? Beagles eat anything; how can they do any taste discrimination testing? I first tried a bag of Hill's on my dogs about 35 years ago; I recall the bag label stating something like, "Put the food down, and when he won't eat it, put it down the next day, and when he won't eat it, he'll probably choke it down by the third day" or something like that. I think I went about one day before it became seagull food, and even they were spitting the stuff out. Well, duh, if they taste-tested it with Beagles! It could have been gravel and the taste-bud-challenged dogs would have been scarfing it up.
Turns out Hill's has a had big change of heart when it comes to taste. The top guy there admitted that years ago, their philosophy was that taste was of minor importance compared to nutrition. But as anyone knows, you can have the best nutrition on earth, but it does the dog no good if it remains in the bowl or goes down the disposal. So they say they now have placed a big emphasis on palatability, and in fact much of their research deals with taste preferences. Yeah, still with Beagles. I plan to give it a try myeself---or, well, let the Salukis try it---for the ultimate test. I'll report back.
They do admit they need to bring in some more breeds. But that will take some time since they have about 485 Beagles, and the place only holds 500 dogs. And we all know that feeling of just one too many dogs on the bed...
By this time I was ready for them to show me the sleeping suites with king-sized beds that the techs spent the nights on with 20 Beagles to each bed, the hapless tech bracing herself from being pushed off the sliver on the bedside allotted her by the "hand on the floor" technique. You know what I'm talking about. But no, turns out each Beagle gets its own Beagle-sized bed within a Beaglish-sized cubbyhole.
Here's the set-up: The dogs live in packs of 20, made up of dogs of all ages. Each pack has its own room, which is about the size of a double-car garage. Lining each side are five or so stalls, each about the size of half a single bed. One each side of that and in the rear are resting platforms. Beyond the rear platform are two cubbyholes recessed into the wall so each dog has its own little cave to sleep in if he wants privacy. During the night, and in two hour
shifts during the day, two dogs are closed in the stalls for rest time. They used to let all 20 dogs run loose all day, but they said the dogs exhausted themselves because everyone kept everyone else all wound up like kids at a
carnival; they said that now they separate them into two groups of 10, so while one group plays for two hours, the other group rests. The group at play has doggy door access to a sun porch outside, and from there to the yard that has astroturf in it.
Feeding time: Since this is what they're there for, they don't just get a bowl of food shoved at them. Each dog is microchipped, and when it's food time, he runs into a little stall that reads his microchip, which opens a door to his food bowl, and records every bite he takes out of one or often two, bowls. Each dog is allowed to eat a precise amount of food to maintain its weight; when he has eaten that much, a tone sounds and then a puff of air blows on his face, so he backs out, the door shuts, and feeding time is over. When everyone is done, they go out and play. The bowls are switched and sanitized; each bowl has a barcode on it to ensure it is filled with the correct amount and type of food. It takes about 4 1/2 hours to feed all the dogs there. They only eat once a day. Because, did I mention it takes about 4 1/2 hours to feed all the dogs there?
There were cats, too. They also lived in pods (prides?) of 20. Their room had lots of beds and toys and perches, including two large overhead platforms, as well as a plexiglass dual-level kitty passageway that led them past another cat room to an enclosed sunporch. Outside the sunporches are birdfeeders for their entertainment.
Their feeding trials work slightly differently. Instead of distinct feeding times, the cats can free-feed throughout the day from one of several stations. Each cat has a microchip between its shoulder blades; when it enters the feed station the chip is scanned and a door opens allowing the cat access to the food. When the weight sensors under the bowls indicate that cat has eaten its daily allotment, the door closes when the cat backs off and won't open again for that cat. Meanwhile all that cat's eating data has been recorded for the day.
And again, there were people in there playing with cats, playing with kittens, grooming cats, clicker training cats---and again, you know, I guess this COULD have been an elaborate hoax, but if it was, they should all go to Hollywood.
So---as difficult as it was for me to endure the horrors, here is my undercover expose' on the cruelties of pet food companies and their animal testing. These poor dogs were forced to eat dog food! And to play, and exercise, and have buddies, and people, and climate-controlled sleeping quarters. I've been to other animal labs; while the Hill's facility is top of the line, it's far from the only one that cares about its animals and does everything it can to enrich their lives while still maintaining control of their health and nutrition. Here's a surprise: Yes, dog food companies are in it to make money. But most people who work to produce dog foods take pride in their product, have animals of their own who eat the food they develop, and work with animals because they actually really like animals.
If you are wondering, yes, I do feed my dogs commercial food. I also cook for them (it hasn't killed them yet) to flavor it up. I don't feed Hill's, but was impressed enough that I will give it a try---at least the diet food for my fat Russell Terrier. I have no quams about pet food companies making money---profit does drive the world. And I caution those who think raw food advocates DON'T make money to do the math---sell 100,000 books, self-published, at a profit of $10 a book---you make money. That, too, doesn't make it a bad thing...