Virginia lawmakers pass new regulations for controversial beagle breeding facility

‘Virginia has been responsible for ignoring this mess for a long time’

By: - March 8, 2022 4:49 pm

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)

After a series of federal animal welfare violations — including more than 300 puppy deaths attributed to “unknown causes” — Virginia lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to impose new regulations on a controversial beagle breeding facility in Cumberland. 

Tuesday’s vote marked a victory for animal welfare advocates, who have spent years attempting to bring the breeding center under state oversight. Owned by Envigo, a global biotechnology company, the facility breeds thousands of dogs every year, supplying hospitals, universities and federal partners with a steady stream of dogs for medical and veterinary experimentation. 

The facility first attracted statewide attention in 2017, when inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recorded several violations during a routine inspection of the facility. The same year, an animal rights group published drone footage that showed hundreds of beagles packed into pens and barking frantically.

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

But legislative efforts to expand state oversight stalled in 2020 and weren’t renewed until this year’s session, after the facility was cited for more than two dozen animal safety violations. In July and October, federal inspectors recorded critical deficiencies including 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. 

In the second report, officials found that 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. The inspection also uncovered more than a dozen dogs with health problems including severe dental disease, skin lesions and eye infections, along with hundreds of puppies and adult dogs housed in kennels where the temperature exceeded 90 degrees for hours.

The inspections coincided with an undercover investigation conducted by the Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has accused Envigo of animal cruelty. From April to November, a PETA employee worked as an animal care technician at the facility, ultimately reporting that dogs were routinely euthanized with no sedation and that cages were power-sprayed with beagles still housed inside them in an affidavit to federal regulators.

“When you look at the inspection reports, you see this is a facility that didn’t even bother to fix simple things like sanitation issues,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of PETA’s cruelty investigations group. “And so many of these bills are simply seeking to hold Envigo accountable for failing to meet basic federal standards.”

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Lawmakers approved five different bills related to the facility, including identical pieces of House and Senate legislation that would ban Envigo from selling animals if the company was cited for additional Animal Welfare Act violations. 

The law isn’t scheduled to go into effect until July 1, 2023, largely thanks to lobbying efforts on the part of Envigo. After that date, the Cumberland facility would be banned from selling dogs for a single critical violation or three or more non-critical violations.  

Another bill from Sens. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, would close a long-standing loophole that exempts so-called “research animals” from Virginia law regulating commercial dog breeders. The legislation clarifies that beagles bred at the Cumberland facility count as companion animals unless they’re actively involved in clinical experiments, allowing state inspectors to investigate potential cruelty violations. 

Virginia State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, right, records a vote during the reconvene session to order at the Science Museum of Virginia Wednesday April 22, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The Senate is meeting in a remote location due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. (AP Photo/POOL/Steve Helber)

“That is a significant change because it means Envigo would be required to comply with the same standards as anyone else in Virginia who owns or breeds dogs,” Nachminovitch said. A final bill from Stanley and Boysko would require the facility to offer unneeded dogs up for adoption before killing them.

Nachminovitch said the adoption requirements became particularly important to animal welfare advocates after PETA learned that Envigo had donated 177 dead dogs to Virginia Tech in October, a week before federal regulators conducted a second inspection of the Cumberland facility. 

To become law, all five bills still need to be signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has not yet signaled a position on the legislation (Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment). But pressure has continued to mount on the facility since its federal inspection reports became public.

Last month, Congresswoman Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, co-signed a letter with six other representatives calling on the USDA to rescind the facility’s license after the violations were uncovered. The agency has yet to take disciplinary action against Envigo and still has not posted the findings from an additional inspection in November.

It’s still unclear if federal regulators will take any action to force changes at the breeding center or protect the dogs that still remain on-site (representatives for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service did not respond to multiple inquiries sent by the Mercury in November). 

But state lawmakers describe this year’s legislation as a critical step in regulating the facility, which “has been operating under the radar and without state oversight since 1961,” Stanley and Boysko said in a joint statement last month. 

“Virginia has been responsible for ignoring this mess for a long time, and we are not going to leave that stain on the commonwealth,” they added.

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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.

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