In a first, state bill would require nearly perfect welfare record for research dog and cat suppliers | Science

A major supplier of dogs and other animals for academic and corporate research, which was cited last year for dozens of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations at its Virginia beagle-breeding facility, was targeted by the state’s lawmakers this week. On 7 and 8 March, both houses of the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed a bill that would cripple a large facility run by a company called Envigo if a single serious animal welfare offense is documented there. The bill was sent yesterday to the desk of Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has 30 days to sign or veto it, although any veto could be overturned with enough votes from legislators.

The legislation does not specify Envigo by name but is clearly designed to apply to the firm, the leading research animal supplier in the state. The bill would make Virginia the first state able to punish research animal breeders for violations of the AWA, a federal law enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If it is signed into law, Virginia facilities that breed cats or dogs for research will be prohibited from selling the animals for 2 years if USDA inspectors document a single serious animal welfare violation, beginning on 1 July 2023.  Facilities would face the same penalty if they are cited for three lesser violations, or for refusing access to USDA inspectors twice consecutively. USDA itself can remove a breeding facility’s license after egregious, repeated violations, but that slow-moving regulatory process typically takes years. The agency confirmed today that it has opened an investigation of Envigo, the first step in such a process.

The Virginia law is “brilliant” for providing states an immediate means to police research breeders, which are frequently exempt from state animal cruelty laws, says Russ Mead, an animal law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School. “This new Virginia [bill] is a road map to states who want to shut down the cruelest operators.” He adds that “It should be the USDA, not the state of Virginia, shutting down breeders with AWA violations. But the dogs won’t care who ends the nightmare.”  

Americans for Medical Progress, a group that supports responsible animal research, declined to comment directly on the bill. But its executive director, Paula Clifford, emphasized the need for animal research in an emailed statement: “Animal studies in a wide variety of species—including limited research involving dogs—remain critically important for continued advancements in human medicine … [and] new veterinary treatments and medications.” 

Virginia lawmakers made it clear that they were responding to dozens of animal welfare act violations that USDA documented during unannounced inspections at Envigo’s nearly 5000-beagle facility in Cumberland in July and October 2021, as well as to an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), published last fall.  “We’re doing this because of what these reports have revealed. We’re doing this because of the film and footage,” State Senator William Stanley said at a subcommittee hearing last month.

three beagle puppies in a cage
A puppy’s front paws protrude through a large gap between the cage floor and gate, one of dozens of Animal Welfare Act violations found during a July 2021 inspection of Envigo’s Virginia facility.Rachel Perez-Baum/USDA

The 2021 violations documented by USDA included untreated, ill, and injured dogs; gutters overflowing with feces; dozens of dogs euthanized after being wounded by other dogs; and more than 300 puppy deaths that Envigo attributed to unknown causes and did not investigate. One staff veterinarian was responsible for about 5000 dogs. Of 39 citations issued last July and October, 19 were in the serious categories that would shut down sales immediately under the Virginia legislation.

“For dogs, Virginia is now poised to become a leader in Animal Welfare Act enforcement and we urge other states to follow in its steps,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of cruelty investigations at PETA. The advocacy group said its investigation included footage of workers with no veterinary credentials injecting euthanasia drugs directly into puppies’ hearts without sedation, and soaking dogs to the skin with water from high pressure hoses.

Envigo, which was valued at $545 million when it was acquired by the larger contract research organization Inotiv last year, said in a statement: “Envigo is following the Virginia legislative process and has provided relevant testimony during the committee discussions. We are proud of the investments and improvements we have made at the Cumberland, Virginia, facility and continue to work with policymakers to ensure the critical need for human and animal medical research is met in a safe and humane way.”

The company also said yesterday that it “has made significant progress in hiring and inventory reduction to drop our ratio of dogs to staff members from 167 to 115,” in part by adopting out more than 400 dogs.

Indiana-based Inotiv brought its top brass to the Virginia state capitol of Richmond to lobby against the bill. But CEO Robert Leasure and Jim Harkness, the company’s chief operating officer for research models and services, failed to persuade lawmakers: The bill was passed on votes of 98-0 and 39-0 in the House of Delegates and the Senate respectively.

Envigo has supplied beagles to research universities; government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH); medical centers such as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; and major drug developers including AstraZeneca and Genentech.

The NIH, which obtained beagles from Envigo under three contracts in the last 18 months, said on Tuesday that the most recent of those contracts, which expires on 12 March, will not be renewed. “No future purchases are planned” from Envigo, agency spokeswoman Emma Wojtowicz said in an email.

Three related bills were also sent to Youngkin’s desk on unanimous votes. They amend Virginia’s animal cruelty law to extend its protections to dogs and cats raised for research, require research breeders to adopt out cats and dogs they don’t need, and require breeders to submit records quarterly on all dogs and cats sold for research.

Correction, 9 March, 4:30 p.m.: This article has been corrected to give the correct first name of the governor of Virginia, and to note that one bill requires quarterly, not annual, submissions.