RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Federal officials have accused a company that runs a Virginia facility breeding dogs for research of violating animal welfare law and recently seized at least 145 beagles found to be in “acute distress,” according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The Envigo RMS facility in Cumberland County has been under increasing scrutiny for months, drawing concerns from animal rights groups, members of Congress and Virginia lawmakers, who passed animal welfare measures this year intended to tighten up the facility’s requirements and strengthen state oversight.
Repeated federal inspections since Envigo acquired the facility in 2019 have resulted in dozens of violations, including findings that dogs had received inadequate medical care and insufficient food, were housed in filthy conditions, and some had been euthanized without first receiving anesthesia. Hundreds of dogs have also been found dead at the facility, according to inspections.
“Despite being on notice since July 2021 that the conditions at its Cumberland facility fall far below the (Animal Welfare Act's) minimum standards, Envigo has failed to take the necessary steps to ensure that all of the beagles at its facility are provided humane care and treatment and that the Cumberland facility is operating in compliance with the (act)," said the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
Court records do not list an attorney for Envigo. A spokesman said the company was working on a statement and would have a response at some point Friday.
According to the complaint, agents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General and other law enforcement officers began executing a federal search warrant at the facility Wednesday. As of Thursday's filing of the complaint, 145 dogs and puppies veterinarians found to be in acute distress had been sized, the lawsuit said.
The government is requesting that a judge declare Envigo has repeatedly violated the Animal Welfare Act and restrain the company from further violations.
“Envigo is failing to meet the minimum standards for handling and housing the beagles, resulting in the unnecessary suffering and, at times, death of beagles at the Cumberland Facility," the complaint said.
According to the complaint, the facility has housed up to 5,000 beagles since July 2021. It alleged staffing has been “paltry” and the attending veterinarian has failed to provide and oversee adequate care.
“Rather than spend the money to meet the minimum standards ... Envigo has employed a paltry number of employees and elected to euthanize beagles or allowed beagles to die from malnutrition, treatable and preventable conditions, and injuries resulting from beagles being housed in overcrowded and unsanitary enclosures or enclosures that contain incompatible animals,” the complaint said.
It cites a finding from a July 2021 inspection report that found Envigo had euthanized dozens of beagles over the course of months rather than provide care for injuries caused when a body part like an ear or tail was pulled through a kennel wall by a dog next door.
As for the dogs that have been found dead, the complaint alleges animal care technicians with no formal training are allowed to make the decision about whether a necropsy should be performed.
Medical records reviewed during the July 2021 inspection indicated that for 173 puppies, Envigo staff could not identify a cause of death because the bodies had already begun decomposing.
The complaint noted that inspectors have found unsanitary conditions, including an “extensive, widespread pest problem,” overcrowded enclosures and buildups of feces, urine and other waste.
Envigo, which has a business mailing address in Indiana, registered as a Virginia LLC in 2019, the complaint said. It acquired LabCorp’s Covance Research Products business, including the Cumberland facility, in June 2019.
The company has worked to make improvements at the site, including reducing the total number of dogs on site, raising pay, increasing staff training and enhancing cleaning processes, according to a statement a spokesman provided The Associated Press earlier this year.
In March, Virginia’s U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, called for federal inspectors to strip the facility of its license. And a month earlier, U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria and six other representatives wrote to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, raising similar concerns about why Envigo’s license had not been suspended.
PETA, the Norfolk-based animal rights group, conducted a months-long undercover investigation into the facility in 2021 and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October of that year, prompting inspections, senior vice president Daphna Nachminovitch said Friday. The group has been sounding the alarm about the facility for months.
Nachminovitch credited federal officials for “finally” taking “decisive action.”
“PETA finds suffering like this every time we crack open an operation like Envigo, and this needs to be the beginning of the end for this hideous beagle-breeding mill,” Nachminovitch said in a statement.