Valuing the welfare of dogs over profit and convenience

December 7, 2020 12:01 am

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

By Ingrid Taylor, D.V.M.

The first time I visited Virginia, I was mesmerized by its beauty — the green rolling hills, the white fences bisecting verdant lawns, and the quaint and charming small towns. But amid all this beauty, there’s a shameful secret, hidden in plain sight. Cumberland County is home to a massive dog-breeding mill that churns out thousands of puppies every year to be sold to universities and companies for laboratory experiments. 

As a veterinarian, I was troubled to learn that this breeding mill has been cited for serious violations of federal animal welfare law. Yet, it is still permitted to operate and is even supported by prestigious universities like Virginia Tech

Because they are dependent on our tax dollars, public universities should be required to enact a policy stating that they will not conduct business with facilities that violate animal protection laws and regulations.

Last fall, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released disturbing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) video footage recorded by federal inspectors at this facility, previously operated by Covance, but now owned by animal testing behemoth Envigo. 

The videos documented appallingly inhumane conditions. USDA inspectors found dogs housed in dilapidated, ramshackle, and unsafe enclosures. Waste dripped from upper-level enclosures into lower ones, which had several inches of fecal buildup underneath them. Dogs in the facility frequently suffered from pneumonia, likely caused by poor sanitation and crowded conditions, and they had injuries on their paws and toes from inadequate flooring. Their food was contaminated with insects, mold and rodent droppings. 

Many dogs had overgrown toenails, which can easily catch and tear in the grated flooring. Others  were observed with thinning fur, bleeding wounds, scabs all over their bodies, or reddened, swollen ears. One dog had a large mammary tumor that was ulcerated and bleeding. 

Drone footage of the Cumberland facility recorded just last year shows dogs exhibiting abnormal behavior indicative of mental distress, including barking frantically, turning in circles in their cages or runs, and incessantly leaping up and down. As someone who has lived with dogs all my life, and who provided working dogs in the U.S. Air Force with veterinary care, I was horrified at what could only be termed systematic disregard for the health and well-being of these dogs. 

To make matters worse, the dogs endure this neglect only to be sold to a laboratory, where the suffering continues: The rest of their brief, tragic lives consists of nothing but experiments that subject them to mental and physical anguish. Beagles, who are gentle, loving dogs eager to please their human companions, are the breed of choice at this facility.

PETA has learned that Virginia Tech purchases dogs from this massive breeding mill in Cumberland despite its disturbing record on animal welfare and apparently has a long history of doing so. According to currently available state documents, Virginia Tech purchased at least 55 dogs from Envigo in 2018 and 2019 and has a six-year contract in place to continue buying animals for experiments and training exercises. 

Federal oversight of commercial dog-breeding facilities has historically been insufficient to ensure compliance with minimum animal welfare standards. The USDA’s Office of Inspector General has repeatedly found that its animal care (AC) division has not adequately inspected facilities or enforced animal welfare laws.

An exposé published last year in The Washington Post detailed the extent to which the current administration has weakened oversight of facilities even further. Data recently released by the agency reveal that USDA AC has only 104 inspectors — down from 126 in 2014 — to carry out animal welfare compliance inspections of 12,851 sites, including commercial breeding facilities, laboratories, zoos, circuses and airlines. As a result, animals in such facilities are even more vulnerable to neglect and mistreatment and more dependent on state laws for protection. 

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the commonwealth that would have added a layer of state oversight for vulnerable dogs at facilities like Envigo. It would simply have required such facilities to comply with basic state animal welfare laws. Unfortunately, the common-sense bill was voted down by state legislators.

When universities like Virginia Tech provide financial support to dog-breeding companies like Envigo, they are condoning and perpetuating animal suffering and neglect. Virginia Tech should do what’s right and show that it values animal welfare over profit and convenience.

Ingrid Taylor, D.V.M., is a research associate in the Laboratory Investigations Department of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

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