Science

Leading breeder of beagles for research slammed by animal welfare inspectors

A major breeding facility that ships thousands of beagles annually to researchers was cited for dozens of alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act in reports published last week.

The inspection reports from an unannounced, 10-day inspection in July at a Cumberland, Virginia, facility owned and operated by Envigo were published on 15 November by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enforces the animal welfare law.

USDA inspectors documented more than 300 puppy deaths in the previous 7 months that Envigo attributed to unknown causes and did not investigate. Inspectors wrote that they found 15 animals with undiagnosed illnesses and untreated injuries at a facility that employs one staff veterinarian for 3000 dogs and 2000 puppies. Inspectors alleged that 71 dogs were euthanized after dogs in neighboring enclosures pulled their ears or tails through the caging and bit them. Forty-eight additional dogs bore fight wounds and three more had been found dead from fight wounds, according to the report. The facility employs 39 people, a ratio of one employee for 128 dogs.

Inspectors reported that food was withheld from nursing mothers in an experiment to prevent mastitis, inflammation of the mammary glands. The mothers sniffed and pawed at out-of-reach kibble as their puppies whined, the inspectors wrote. A large group of nursing mothers and puppies—455 animals—were confined in illegally small spaces. In enclosures housing more than 1200 dogs and puppies, temperatures exceeded 33°C, inspectors alleged. One 3-week-old puppy was found huddled in the waste pan below his cage, dried excrement matted in his fur. Inspectors wrote that gutters under kennel floors were packed with “feces, urine, standing water, insects (both dead and alive) [emitting] an overpowering ammonia and fecal odor,” because, an employee told them, a pump had broken 6 days earlier.

“The depth and scope of this suffering is almost beyond words. These conditions did not spring up overnight and reveal a callous indifference to even the most basic precepts of animal welfare,” says Eric Kleiman, a researcher with the Animal Welfare Institute who has monitored inspection reports for decades and who reviewed the Envigo reports for ScienceInsider. Kleiman says he has never seen so many serious citations result from a single inspection at a single facility. “It’s really extraordinary.”

“The highest quality of animal welfare is a core value of our company and is central to our business,” Envigo responded in a statement. It added that it has spent $3 million over the past 5 years on “extensive upgrades and facility improvements” at the Cumberland facility. “While the USDA inspections reflected that we have improvements to make, we had previously initiated and are continuing to take the necessary corrective actions for all issues outlined in the reports,” the statement says.

About the undiagnosed, untreated animals, the contract research organization wrote: “After the USDA visited our facility, we immediately began to address the concerns and develop treatment programs for all animals identified. We do not neglect our animals and are committed to ensuring any sick animal receives the proper care they deserve.”

As to the heat, “The initial inspection visit took place in July and temperatures at that time of year in this part of Virginia are naturally high,” the company says. “Our team is conducting due diligence on installing a cooling system.” Envigo acknowledged it needed to be “more diligent” in keeping dog food free of insects.

Beagles are widely used in medical research—for instance, to study heart disease, eye disease, and drug toxicity—because they are docile and small. The Cumberland facility, in operation since 1961, sold nearly 5000 beagles for research in 2019, Envigo said in a 2020 presentation to the Virginia state veterinarian. Envigo acquired the facility in 2019 from a similar contract research organization named Covance. Earlier this month, Envigo was in turn purchased by Inotiv, another contract research organization, in a transaction that valued Envigo at $545 million.

Envigo has many leading research institutions and companies among its clients. Dogs from the Cumberland facilities were used in recently published studies by intramural scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as research institutions including the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Medical University of South Carolina, the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Temple University, Battelle, Charles River Laboratories, Genentech, AstraZeneca, and Allergan.

NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare “takes very seriously all allegations concerning animal welfare and appropriate animal care in NIH-funded studies,” according to an emailed statement from the agency. “NIH generally does not discuss whether or not animal welfare-related investigations are taking place, and NIH does not comment on ongoing investigations if such investigations are underway.” The agency currently has two active contracts purchasing beagles from Envigo.

University- and company-based researchers who have used dogs from the facility did not respond to requests for comment.

Envigo conducts research, as well as breeding animals, at the Cumberland site. Those studies, too, had many lapses, according to the reports. For example, Envigo failed to weigh fasting, lactating mothers as the experimental protocol required them to do, or to address their fasting-induced distress. Inspectors documented many record-keeping violations and alleged that Envigo failed to provide a rationale for the number of animals used in experiments that involved hundreds of beagles. The company, USDA added, lacked written ethics committee signoffs on its studies and refused to provide inspectors with written copies of study records, including descriptions of the procedures performed on the dogs.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also conducted a recently published undercover investigation of the Cumberland facility. Now that USDA’s reports are public, “We certainly hope that NIH looks at [their] findings and ours and reconsiders using taxpayer dollars to fund the suffering that has been exposed here,” says Dan Paden, PETA vice president of evidence analysis.

After PETA filed a complaint with the agency on 14 October, USDA conducted another unannounced, multiday inspection of the Cumberland facility beginning in late October. The resulting report is not yet public.

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