Animal rights activists question Virginia Tech’s dog purchases

By: - October 1, 2020 5:30 pm

Ginger, right, was among former research beagles offered up for adoption by the Richmond Animal League in 2015. (Style Weekly)

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling on Virginia Tech to stop purchasing beagles from Envigo, a controversial dog breeding facility in Cumberland that’s been the subject of recent legislative debate

It’s the second time PETA has gone after Tech and other state universities in recent weeks. In mid-September, the animal rights organization claimed that both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia misused state funds by conducting experiments on animals they planned to kill during the pandemic. 

Both universities denied the accusation, but Jennifer Moschetti, a senior investigator with the State Inspector General, confirmed in a September 17 email to PETA that the office had opened investigations into both cases.

The Office of the State Inspector General has opened two investigations into UVA and Virginia Tech in response to complaints by PETA.

PETA’s most recent criticism of Virginia Tech comes after the organization submitted multiple public records requests that resulted in five different order forms between the university and the breeding facility, which until 2019 was owned by Covance — a drug development extension of LabCorp, the diagnostic testing behemoth. The orders, which span from 2016 to 2019, show that Virginia Tech purchased more than 100 beagles for its College of Veterinary Medicine. 

In an editorial published by the Mercury in May, Dr. Helmut Ehall, Envigo’s senior vice president of veterinary services, said that dogs at the company’s facility in Cumberland are well-cared-for and that “animal welfare is a top priority.” The orders show that Virginia Tech continued to purchase beagles from the facility after a 2017 USDA inspection found multiple deficiencies, including dogs with skin problems and excessively long nails that became caught in the flooring. There were also sanitation issues, including dog food infested with insects and enclosures with significant buildup of fecal matter.

Another animal welfare group, SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) published drone footage in 2019 that appeared to show hundreds of dogs warehoused in the facility.

Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech’s assistant vice president for university relations, did not respond to a Monday email with several detailed questions about Virginia Tech’s purchases from Envigo and Covance, which included how the dogs were used at the veterinary school.

Alka Chanda, PETA’s vice president of laboratory investigations, said Virginia Tech has told the organization that the beagles are only used to train students how to perform physical exams and other standard procedures, such as dental cleaning. But the university has also denied two of the organization’s records requests for any research and experimental protocols in which the dogs were enrolled, citing an exception in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act laws that protects “proprietary” records, according to emails provided by PETA.

“I think Virginia Tech is denying them because they know very well that the citizenry of Virginia knows these dogs should be treated well,” Chanda said. “A lot of people are horrified to learn there’s this kind of breeding facility operating within the state.”

Virginia Tech has denied records requests from PETA, citing a clause in state Freedom of Information Act law that protects proprietary information.

Owczarski also did not respond to a request for explanation on what made the records “proprietary.” PETA has pointed to multiple studies by Virginia Tech researchers that involve beagles being used in invasive experiments.

There have been previous efforts to shut down or expand oversight over the Cumberland facility, including a failed bill filed during the 2020 General Assembly session that would have largely banned breeding dogs and cats for experimentation. An effort to close a loophole in Virginia law that exempts the facility from state inspections also failed earlier this year, largely based on a flaw in how the amendment was drafted.

Legislators have promised to revisit the issue during the 2021 General Assembly session, which begins in January.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.