New violations found at Va. beagle breeding center, which recorded 300 ‘unknown’ puppy deaths

The controversial Cumberland facility, owned by Envigo, has long escaped state oversight despite a history of deficiencies

By: - November 15, 2021 6:38 pm

Beagles enclosed in kennels at a breeding facility owned by Envigo in Cumberland, Virginia. Federal regulators and animal welfare groups have uncovered critical violations within the facility, including hundreds of puppy deaths with no causes listed. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)

A controversial beagle breeding facility in Cumberland is once again the subject of state and federal scrutiny after an inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture uncovered more than 300 puppy deaths attributed to “unknown causes” over a six-month period this year, with the agency faulting the facility for dangerous housing, inadequate veterinary care and a lack of recordkeeping.

The deaths were only one component of a July visit that found dozens of animal safety violations and critical deficiencies in the facility’s operations. Federal inspectors reported an “accumulation” of feces, urine and insects below kennel floors, infestations of flies and ants in dog feeders and another 71 beagles that were injured after dogs in adjoining kennels were able to bite their ears or tails through the wall. Those dogs were subsequently euthanized, “however substantial or minor” the injuries were, officials found.

A second report, completed after the same inspection, detailed a host of additional violations, including more than a dozen dogs with health problems including severe dental disease, skin lesions and eye infections. Inspectors found hundreds of puppies and adult dogs housed in kennels where the temperature exceeded 85 degrees for hours with no way of cooling the building. And more than a dozen female dogs were deprived of food for nearly two days while nursing their puppies, part of the facility’s “standard operating procedure” for weaning, inspectors found.

“Metal automatic food dispensers which were normally mounted on the doors of each cage were turned around and left on the doors of the cage, so that the dogs could see and smell the food but could not eat it,” the report found.

It’s the second time in less than five years that inspectors have found serious problems at the facility, owned by Envigo, a global biotechnology company valued at more than $500 million (in September, the company was purchased by Inotiv, a drug discovery firm). For decades, the Cumberland facility has bred thousands of beagles a year for research, supplying hospitals, universities and federal partners with a steady stream of dogs for medical and veterinary experimentation.

The 2021 inspection coincided with an undercover investigation conducted by the Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has accused Envigo of animal cruelty. Daphna Nachminovitch, the senior vice president of PETA’s cruelty investigations group, said an investigator from the welfare group was hired as an animal care technician and worked at the facility from April to November. 

Over that time period, the investigator collected photos and video showing dead puppies, including a dog that appears to be eviscerated, and workers with no formal veterinary training who conducted medical procedures on the dogs. In a 14-page affidavit submitted to federal regulators, the PETA investigator said dogs were routinely euthanized with no sedation and that cages were power-sprayed with beagles still housed inside them.

In many cases, the investigator’s testimony is backed by federal findings. Both PETA and the USDA, for example, reported unsafe housing conditions that trapped dogs and puppies between kennel walls and doors, injuring them, as well as lactating dogs that were deprived of food.

Both PETA and federal inspectors found that lactating beagles were deprived of food in an effort to stop milk production and wean puppies. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)

“This facility, which belongs to a multi-million dollar company, can’t be bothered to provide these dogs with basic necessities of life,” Nachminovitch said. “Nobody pets them, nobody loves them or respects them or shows them kindness. They don’t get to enjoy any aspect of being a dog.”

Federal reports directed Envigo to correct the deficiencies, but the USDA would not say whether it planned to take additional action against the facility in light of PETA’s investigation. “I can only confirm that we’re aware of the situation,” agency spokesperson Andre Bell wrote in an email last week.

Envigo did not answer a list of questions on the reported violations. The company released a statement in response to the welfare group’s investigation, saying that “many of these allegations we know to be misleading and lacking important context.”

“However, any allegations towards our staff or our company are taken seriously,” the company added. “We have launched an investigation to assess whether any improper actions occurred within the facility.”

A lack of state oversight

Despite years of complaints from animal rights activists, the Cumberland breeding center has long evaded state scrutiny. Virginia code regulates commercial dog breeders and allows state officials to investigate potential violations. The law, however, specifically exempts animals bred for research purposes.

In 2020, the Virginia Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment, backed by Gov. Ralph Northam, that would have closed that loophole. The same year, state lawmakers killed legislation from Sens. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, and Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, that would have largely prohibited breeding dogs and cats for research purposes within state lines. 

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, addresses the Senate during the floor session of the Virginia Senate inside the Science Museum in Richmond, VA Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

“This is icky business, let’s face it,” said Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, in an interview last week. “But these dogs do provide life-saving research.” Virginia Tech, one of the institutions that’s purchased dogs from Envigo, also opposed the bills, which spokesperson Mark Owczarski said would have limited the school’s ability to “obtain and care for animals used for teaching purposes.”

State lawmakers have largely been sympathetic to Envigo’s claims that complying with existing rules for commercial breeders would harm operations at its Cumberland facility. As chair of the state’s companion animals subcommittee, Marsden sponsored the 2020 legislation that, if amended, could have subjected Envigo to state oversight. But Marsden later opposed the change, telling senators it would put the Cumberland facility out of business. 

Virginia’s laws governing commercial breeders only permit them to maintain 50 breeding dogs a year — far lower than the number of beagles currently bred by Envigo. However, localities can independently authorize more dogs after a public hearing.

In the absence of state oversight, animal welfare groups have largely stepped in to do their own monitoring. While the USDA found deficiencies with the facility during a routine inspection in 2017, Boysko said her legislation was spurred by drone footage collected the same year by the animal rights group SHARK, showing hundreds of beagles packed into pens and barking frantically. 

PETA also advocated for Boysko and Stanley’s bills, in addition to the amendment that would have subjected the Cumberland facility to state oversight. Nachminovitch said the welfare organization first became concerned after the USDA’s report on the facility in 2017. Those worries grew after the General Assembly failed to pass legislation in 2020.

“There was a promise made that the facility would then comply with voluntary inspections by the state,” Nachminovitch said. Boysko described the pledge as a “gentleman’s agreement” between Envigo and state officials, and both she and Stanley — as well as PETA — believed the visits wouldn’t occur with more than 24 hours of notice.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax

That didn’t happen. In emails exchanged in August of 2020, Charles Green, deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, wrote that the “PHB’s view” — referring to the Patrick Henry Building, where the governor’s administrative offices are located — was that state veterinarian Dr. Charles Broaddus “conduct a mutually agreed informational visit, not an unannounced inspection.” 

PETA obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared them with the Mercury. Broaddus did conduct an announced visit in September and found “apparently healthy dogs,” according to an email he later sent to Boysko’s office.

“That’s what, in politics, you would call a compromise,” Stanley said. “But to me, it’s a cop out. And the end result is what you now see happening at Envigo. So, I’m pissed about it.”

Nachminovitch said the same frustration over the lack of oversight is what spurred PETA to conduct its own undercover probe. The welfare group said it’s now cooperating with an investigation of the facility by federal regulators, but the findings could also finally drive a shift in state laws. 

Marsden, Boysko and Stanley all said they’re discussing bills for the upcoming General Assembly session this winter. Stanley declined to provide details, saying he didn’t want to give Envigo and its supporters a chance to contest the legislation before it’s filed. But both he and Boysko said they wanted to see beagles at the facility offered the same protections as any other dog in Virginia.

“Everything they’re doing inside that facility would be a crime if a private citizen did it to their own pet,” Stanley said. “We have a statute called cruelty to animals, and it’s a felony. So, I fail to see the distinction.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

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. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.