COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A colony of golden retrievers and Labrador mixes lives in an unmarked building at Texas A&M. Few Aggies will ever see them, and many of the dogs will never know another home.
The building looks like a pristine dog pound, with aisles of bare metal kennels and slatted floors. The healthy dogs jump and bark loudly, pushing their cold, wet noses between the bars of their cages in sterile, white rooms. The sick dogs are quiet.
Their location is a secret. University officials say the strict confidentiality shields the dogs and their caretakers from overzealous activists.
But animal welfare groups say the dogs are the ones who need protection from the university.
The dogs live on campus because researchers at Texas A&M use them to study Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a degenerative disease that's terminal for mostly young boys. University scientists are seeking a cure, or at least a meaningful treatment to lengthen lives.
A similar version of the disease naturally occurs in golden retrievers, one of America's most beloved breeds. Since 2012, Texas A&M has quietly become a world leader on Duchenne animal research. But it's required the university to breed sick dogs — and sometimes euthanize them — in the name of science.
It's a controversial means to an end at a time when medical research on dogs and cats is declining. The laboratory attracts a steady stream of protests, harassment and the occasional death threat from activists desperate to shut it down.
But Texas A&M officials are undeterred, motivated by their mission to save human lives.
"What this is is a philosophical divide among those who do not believe in any animal research and those of us who devote our lives to animals, and realize that at this point animal research is still necessary," said Dr. Eleanor Green, dean of the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "One day, maybe we won't need it. And it's becoming less and less, but until that day comes, we believe it's necessary."
For seven years, the university has cloaked the laboratory in secrecy, denying visitors, rejecting media interview requests, and in some cases, misrepresenting how researchers obtained the dogs for their studies.
Officials last month granted The Dallas Morning News limited access to the dog colony and lab, but banned a reporter from taking any photos or video.
Most important, researchers and vet school officials want the public to know the dogs are treated with great care.
"These animals are loved from the minute they enter this world to the minute they leave it," Green said.
School officials also want people to know they're doing the work with human lives in mind — like Kyle Cox, a 23-year-old graduate student with Duchenne.
Duchenne will kill 1 in 3,500 young boys, tearing slowly away at their muscles and rendering them wheelchair bound by the time they're 15. Most people born with the disease will die before they reach their 30s.
In dogs, the disease similarly breaks down muscles. They get tired easily, lose their ability to walk and have trouble swallowing food. They'll live to be about 7 to 9 years old.
In 2012, Dr. Joseph Kornegay, who is considered the father of this line of canine research, was recruited to join Texas A&M's distinguished veterinary school.
He brought with him more than 70 golden retrievers to start the school's research colony.
In the building where the dogs live, only a couple of the canines had beds or toys, out of a worry that they will tear them up and ingest the fabric. At least one of the dogs had thick saliva dripping out of its mouth — a symptom of the disease.
With names like Jumba and Bruno, the dogs take turns throughout the day playing outside in a gated, grassy area. On hot days, they're allowed to splash around in a plastic kiddie pool.
There are roughly 40 dogs on campus, down from about 100. Purebred golden retrievers comprised the original group of dogs, but gradually researchers bred them with Labradors and beagle mixes to diversify the colony. About half have the muscle disease — the other half are either genetic carriers used for breeding, or they're unaffected dogs born into the lab that are waiting to be adopted.
The operation is being scaled down as a result of Kornegay's retirement in June and the expiration of many of the grants tied to his work. The university will no longer breed the dogs onsite, instead getting them from other research partners.
Researchers insist the sick dogs aren't living in pain, they're just weaker. When the dogs are subjected to muscle strength tests, or when a one-centimeter cubed piece of muscle is surgically biopsied, they're anesthetized and given painkillers to recover.
Some of the Duchenne dogs will participate in studies that require them to be euthanized when they're only 6 months old so their tissues can be examined.
Scientists say animal testing is the uncomfortable price of medical advancement.
"Early on in my research, I had to come to terms with the apparent disconnect between loving and caring for dogs and conducting research on them," Kornegay, who studied Duchenne in dogs for 46 years, said in an emailed statement. "I have frequently attended meetings that have included parents of boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and met the boys and young men with the disease. As a parent, I have been compelled to do whatever I could to give them hope and make their lives better."
Texas A&M officials say they've achieved a significant milestone. Their research contributed to a gene therapy for Duchenne that was green lit last year for human clinical trials — a key step before medicine can become available to the public. However, the vast majority of therapies that make it to human clinical trials are never approved by the FDA.
"This is a huge breakthrough," Green said. "You don't go to human clinical trials until you've shown that they work in animals."
Vaccines, pacemakers, hip replacements, heart medicine and cancer therapies were all tested on animals. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires animal testing, including the use of a large animal, for therapies before they can be used on humans.
"Yes, there's a cost to animals, but there's also a really significant cost to humans if you don't do this," said Jim Newman, a spokesman for Americans for Medical Progress. "If you step back and look at the big picture, there's a huge number of people who are depending on it."
The university's work went largely under the radar for years. But in December 2016, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals declared war on Texas A&M for it. The group released a video of the laboratory alleging that dogs were being tortured.
They showed dogs with ropes of saliva coming from their mouths, and another dog sloppily eating loose wet food they called "gruel" — however, university researchers said, it's commercial-grade food thinned with water to help the dogs eat it.
The negative attention from activists has caused the school to close itself off to the world, said Dr. Robert Rose, who oversees animal and teaching programs at Texas A&M.
"Do we want to get into this public debate? Or are we more interested in curing diseases?" he asked.
For almost three years, animal rights activists have spotlighted the dog colony, using celebrities including Paul McCartney to pressure the school to shut down the labs.
PETA and other animal activists regularly protest on campus and at fundraisers and board meetings. They picket outside school officials' homes and send robocalls to students and faculty. They disrupted a graduation and routinely ambush Texas A&M's social media, overtaking threads meant to recruit and welcome students.
"We've had death threats. We get a lot of angry language that comes through over emails," Green said. "It's all scary and it's all interruptive."
For Kyle Cox and his family, the researchers — and the dogs — are heroes. Cox was diagnosed with Duchenne as a young boy and doctors say he probably won't live to be 30.
Cox has been in a wheelchair since he was 11. His lungs are operating at 25% capacity. Recently, he's lost strength and mobility in his arms to the point that he can't lift a glass of water, and he can't get his arms around his mother's shoulders when she lifts him from his wheelchair.
"That's hard. You want a hug from your boy, you know?" said his mom, Kristen Cox.
He came to College Station not because of the dog lab, but because he always wanted to be an Aggie. His family learned that the school did Duchenne research only when Kyle Cox was a junior. Kristen Cox immediately asked to meet with its team.
"It really hit me in that moment," Kristen Cox said about when she met the room full of researchers. "They're all trying to save my son's life, and they're doing it at some risk to themselves."