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A beleaguered breeder faces a record $35 million fine for mistreating its beagles

 Beyonce, a beagle with one ear, pictured at Homeward Trails Animal Rescue in Fairfax, Va., in 2022 after being rescued from the Envigo breeding and research facility.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Beyonce, a beagle with one ear, pictured at Homeward Trails Animal Rescue in Fairfax, Va., in 2022 after being rescued from the Envigo breeding and research facility.

Almost exactly two years after thousands of beagles were rescued from unsafe conditions at a breeding facility in Virginia, the company behind it has agreed to pay a record $35 million in fines.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Virginia announced on Monday that Envigo RMS LLC — which owned and operated the now-shuttered Cumberland County facility — pleaded guilty to conspiring to knowingly violate the Animal Welfare Act by failing to provide adequate veterinary care and staffing.

Meanwhile, Envigo Global Services Inc. pleaded guilty to a felony of conspiring to knowingly violate the Clean Water Act by failing to properly operate and maintain the wastewater treatment plant at that same facility.

Prosecutors say that not only harmed the health of dogs at the facility but also led to “massive unlawful discharges” of untreated wastewater into a local waterway.

“Everyone victimized in this precedent-setting animal welfare case deserved better: the workers, the beagles, the environment and the community,” Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator David Uhlmann said. ”Envigo deserves every dollar of its record fine.”

Inotiv, Envigo's Indiana-based parent company, must pay what federal prosecutors call the largest-ever fine in an animal welfare case.

It starts with a total criminal fine of $22 million ($11 million for each violation). The company must also pay some $1.1 million to the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force and $1.9 million to the Humane Society of the United States for their assistance in the investigation.

It must also pay the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation $3.5 million “to benefit and restore the environment and ecosystems” in Cumberland County and spend at least $7 million to improve Envigo's other facilities and personnel in line with federal standards.

Inotiv also agreed to pay for a compliance monitor to oversee its operations at about 20 other facilities in North America and Europe, according to member station WVTF. It must also continue not to breed dogs and serve a probationary period of three to five years, among other provisions.

In a “statement of contrition” issued Monday, the company expressed regret and said it hopes others will learn from its experience.

“In committing the crimes identified in the charging document, and by not making the necessary infrastructure upgrades and hiring the requisite staff, we fell short of our standards for animal and environmental welfare and apologize to the public for the harm caused by our conduct,” it said.

Formal sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 7.

Dogs destined for research for labs were rescued from dire conditions

Beagles rescued from the Envigo facility wait for medical procedures at Paw Prints Animal Hospital in Waldorf, Md., in 2022.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Beagles rescued from the Envigo facility wait for medical procedures at Paw Prints Animal Hospital in Waldorf, Md., in 2022.

Envigo, which breeds and sells laboratory animals for research, has been the subject of animal rights groups’ complaints and federal investigation dating back years, specifically over its Virginia facility.

In 2021, an undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) documented the abuse and neglect of the beagles there, including more than 360 puppies lying dead among their littermates, staff depriving nursing mothers of food and unqualified workers cutting puppies out of sedated dogs’ abdomens before euthanizing the mothers.

PETA filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which corroborated those findings — and reported other troubling observations, like dogs being denied veterinary care and dying after falling into a drain — in several inspections of its own. It hit the facility with more than 70 Animal Welfare Act violations in 10 months.

“Envigo’s conduct led to the deaths of hundreds of dogs and harm to thousands more,” Todd Kim, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said at a press conference Monday. “The cycle continued until law enforcement and the Justice Department stepped in.”

In May 2022, federal authorities searched the facility and seized more than 450 dogs who were in “acute distress.”

“Dogs were subject to euthanasia without proper sedation,” Kim said on Monday. “Food was withheld from nursing mothers. Dogs lived in overcrowded kennels cleaned so infrequently that feces accumulated. Dogs were given non-potable drinking water and, at times, food contaminated with maggots and other insects. Envigo knew all this, and more. And yet Envigo failed to take sufficient action to bring this facility into compliance.”

He added that Envigo had received some $16 million through the sale of nearly 15,000 dogs between 2019 and spring 2022 but didn’t put the necessary money into facility upgrades and hiring competent staff because it “placed profit before compliance with the law.”

He said investigators also found that Envigo wasn’t investing the requisite funds to bring its on-site wastewater treatment plant into compliance with federal law, even as it increased the amount of water that went into it.

It used water “laden with fecal matter” to flush the troughs below the dogs’ kennels, he said, and discharged more than 600,000 gallons of inadequately treated wastewater into a nearby creek.

In July 2022, under a consent agreement and with the assistance of the Humane Society of the United States, some 4,000 beagles were transferred out of the facility and into more than 100 animal shelters and foster homes across the country. The facility ceased operations that September.

By that point, the Humane Society said, all 3,776 beagles — once nameless, toyless and destined for research labs — were on their way to their new families, including some big names.

One went to Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry; another was adopted by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to become the state’s First Beagle. A third even competed in the 2023 Puppy Bowl.

More than a dozen rescued dogs and their owners gathered in the D.C. area last September to celebrate their first “beagle-versary,” at an event organized by the Humane Society. The dogs played together in the grass and ate cupcakes, many wearing “Envigo survivor” bandanas.

“Last time we saw these dogs, all they knew was life in a mass-breeding facility,” Jessica Johnson, a senior director of its Animal Rescue Team, said at the time. “Seeing them here with their adopted families a year later is amazing — I hope that this is all they remember."

Animal activists welcome the accountability and want more

Thousands of rescued beagles, some pictured playing at Homeward Trails in August 2022, have since been adopted by families across the U.S.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
Getty Images
Thousands of rescued beagles, some pictured playing at Homeward Trails in August 2022, have since been adopted by families across the U.S.

Animal rights groups applauded the news on Monday, thanking advocates for their work and calling for even greater accountability.

“Envigo executives chose to collect more than $11 million off 10,000 beagles’ misery, rather than addressing systemic violations they knew about, and criminal charges for them and others responsible for the cruelty in Cumberland must be next,” PETA said in a statement.

The Virginia-based Homeward Trails Rescue Alliance, which says it was the first group to sign an agreement with Evigo to rescue 500 dogs from its property, said on Facebook that it is “THRILLED to see this day come.”

“Each time we left that property we looked back with a broken heart seeing all the remaining Beagles who were going to be sent to cruel laboratories,” they added. “And now they are closed.”

The Humane Society said in a statement that it is “grateful that those responsible for their suffering are being held accountable.” But it said there is more to be done.

Even though the Cumberland facility is closed, Inotiv owns multiple companies and facilities that breed and sell animals — including rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice — for research. It is also a major supplier of endangered long-tailed macaque monkeys to U.S. labs, PETA notes.

The Wall Street Journal reported last August that the company was under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission into whether its imports of monkeys violate anti-foreign bribery laws. A company representative told the outlet it was cooperating with the probe.

The Humane Society said its 2021 investigation of one of Inotiv’s contract testing labs in Indiana revealed dogs being given high doses of substances even when vomiting, feverish and unable to stand.

“The animals spent their days behind bars and were subjected to painful procedures such as being force-fed substances via stomach tubes, injections and multiple blood draws,” it added. “Most of the animals were killed at the end of the studies, as is typical for any drug testing.”

The organization is urging Inotiv and the larger industry to seek alternatives to animal testing, including 3D printing and artificial intelligence.

It is also calling on members of the public to urge their elected officials to support the Better CARE for Animals Act, which would give the DOJ more tools to enforce the Animal Welfare Act “and ideally, intervene faster at facilities with documented violations to save the lives of suffering animals, like these beagles, before it is too late.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.