In Virginia, why can corporations treat animals in ways that would land individuals in jail?

November 22, 2021 12:01 am

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)

“Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” – Mark Twain

Who doesn’t see red reading the solid reporting that Kate Masters presented in the Mercury last week about allegedly inhumane treatment of beagles at a corporate dog-breeding facility in Cumberland?

I certainly did. As a matter of full disclosure, I love dogs. Deep down. They’re my weakness. I associate myself fully with the wisdom of Mark Twain in the prologue to this commentary.

As my wife astutely observes, babies reach out to her, but the dogs come to me. True. I own that.

So I seethed when I read that problems, which I reported on in a news story about the facility nearly two years ago, had persisted and there is still no effective state mechanism for regulating the Cumberland canine gulag.

Then I wondered how this is even possible.

Virginia law regulates commercial dog breeders. But a loophole in the law gives a complete pass to businesses that breed animals for medical research, leaving the state powerless to look into conditions at the Cumberland facility.

In the 2020 legislative session, a bill that would have closed the loophole died after it was discovered that it would have inadvertently shut the facility down. Another bill that would have largely banned the breeding of dogs and cats for research in Virginia also failed in that session.

The conditions at the facility owned by the multinational biotech company Envigo first came to light because of sleuthing by the Norfolk-based animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The federal government does have regulatory authority over the facility. The Animal Welfare Act vests that authority in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the law has few teeth, according to an overview by the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University that says the vast majority of animals used in research are excluded from the protections provided for in the AWA. 

The USDA investigated the Envigo Cumberland facility after PETA posted its findings. An inspection this year found that more than 300 puppies died in the first six months and 22 days of 2021 from causes and circumstances that will never be known thanks to inadequate or non-existent recordkeeping. It’s all contained in a 14-page official USDA report and a follow-up report if you have the heart to read them.

But what is the USDA doing about it? Damn little other than writing reports and responding to emails from reporters, it seems, making it indistinguishable from the rest of today’s federal bureaucracy.

“I can only confirm that we’re aware of the situation,” an agency flack told Kate in an email earlier this month when she inquired whether further regulatory action would be forthcoming.

Before you start tweeting and penning letters to the editor labeling me an anti-business bleeding heart, hear me out. I realize the need for some medical research involving animals. I don’t like it and, given leaps in supercomputing simulation and microbiological analysis, I question how much of it is absolutely necessary.

It’s beyond debate, however, that animal testing by corporations and research universities has yielded treatments and medicines that save and prolong human life and improve veterinary outcomes. Virginia Tech is among the research universities that take in beagles from the Cumberland Envigo compound. The whole issue is – and should be – subject to a robust and continuing bioethics debate.

It’s also beyond question that the developers of those treatments often charge kings’ ransoms for access to those life-saving drugs and treatments in an American healthcare system that toes a fine line between free market capitalism and extortion. Each passing quarter, pharmaceutical giants continue to post lusty earnings, seemingly little of which goes into humane care for animals in places like the Cumberland facility. The PETA findings and USDA reports depict a world into which dogs are born to suffer and most will never know what it’s like to snuggle in a human’s lap, chase a tennis ball or have a name beyond a serial number.

Not that a corporate breeding mill can make all the dogs’ lives the stuff of heartwarming Hallmark Channel movies. But is it asking too much that so monied an entity as Envigo at least ensure that nursing mother dogs are regularly fed, that kennels are kept clean, that puppies are not left to die by the truckload and that dogs aren’t jammed together cheek-to-jowl in cages?

I was not alone in seeing red over the disclosures in Kate’s reporting. So did state Sen. Bill Stanley. He’s a conservative country trial lawyer whose practice is based in a log homestead near Smith Mountain Lake.

So last Tuesday, he drove up to Cumberland where he joined Senate colleague David Marsden, D-Fairfax, in meeting with Envigo’s brass and its lobbyists to, as he put it, “read them the riot act.”

Stanley succinctly frames the double standard in Virginia public policy that exempts research breeders from state animal protection laws that apply to the broader public. What the USDA reported at Envigo’s Cumberland facility could result in a felony animal cruelty charge if done by a private person or commercial breeders, he noted.

In 2020, Stanley, a Republican who represents a Southside district, and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, authored an unsuccessful bill that would have severely curtailed cat and dog breeding for research. He favors holding research breeders to the same standards as organizations that take in rescue animals and offer them for adoption. He said he is drafting legislation for the upcoming session that also would make research breeders more accountable to the state, require better treatment for the animals and set up ways to find “forever homes” for animals past their usefulness to science.

“In the balance of the equities here, I don’t see the utility compared to what these dogs go through, especially in the 21st century. We’re still using these arcane methods to find medical breakthroughs and solutions?” Stanley said.

Stanley said Envigo seemed receptive to some of his ideas, particularly turning over beagles to “releasing agencies” such as the Humane Society for private adoption rather than euthanizing them. In addition to legislation, Stanley said he is also drafting those terms into a memorandum of understanding that would compel both parties to work out an agreement.

“I said, ‘Look, we’re going to adopt out all these dogs, we’re going to find forever homes for these dogs. Of course, it helps ease the capacity problem, it helps ease the caring problem – the unintentional neglect – and, ultimately, it’s good PR for you, too,’” Stanley said.

For Stanley, humane treatment for the beagles of Cumberland and the prospect that they can someday love (and be loved by) people is no abstract concept. His dog Daisy – “the best dog I’ve ever had,” he calls her – was once interned at Cumberland.

Out in the part of Virginia where Stanley is from, old-timers have a saying that rivals Twain’s wisdom, and it carries a good measure of truth: “You can tell a lot about a fellow from how he treats a dog.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]