Facing mounting financial and legal hurdles, a company that owns a struggling research beagle breeding facility in Cumberland, Va., said last night it would close the facility, which until recently provided dogs to universities, major drug manufacturers and the National Institutes of Health.
Due to the increasing cost of bringing the complex of several large buildings into compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), “We have decided to no longer invest in this facility and it will be closed,” the president said and CEO of Inotiv, Robert. Leisure says in a statement.
Inotiv is a contract research organization that has become a major supplier of research animals through recent acquisitions, including its November 2021 purchase of Envigo, owner of the Virginia facility. Inotiv claims to be the second largest supplier of research beagles, producing approximately 25% of the dogs used in the United States. Since taking over Envigo, the number of dogs at the Cumberland complex has gone from around 5,000 to around 3,000.
Animal welfare activists cheered the planned closure, but said they were unconvinced that Inotiv, which holds tens of thousands of other AWA-regulated research animals at other sites , is committed to their well-being.
“Just shutting down this heinous facility is not enough,” says Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute, an animal rights group. “What about the more than 40,000 animals on his other sites? Given its shocking animal welfare record, we believe Inotiv’s license should be permanently revoked. (The facility is licensed to breed and sell animals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA]who is responsible for enforcing the AWA.)
Inotiv is committed to humane animal protection, one of its senior officials countered during a US court hearing yesterday; the hearing was part of the proceedings in a lawsuit filed by the United States last month to try to force the company to comply with the AWA. In the 7 months since acquiring the facility, “We have made incredible efforts to try to resolve the issues initially raised by the USDA,” said John Sagartz, Chief Strategy Officer of Inotiv. “We take them very seriously.”
Inotiv’s decision to shut down the embattled facility comes as USDA inspectors have documented more than 70 AWA violations there since July 2021. This prompted the state of Virginia in April to enact legislation preventing the company to sell more beagles if it committed a single additional grave. violation after July 1, 2023. Then last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ), in a first such lawsuit against a research breeder, sued Envigo for violating the AWA and seized 446 animals that its veterinarians determined to be “in acute distress”.
Inotiv first hinted publicly at its plans during yesterday’s hearing, when the company’s lawyers told US District Court Judge Norman Moon they were ready to shut down the site. Still, during the hearing, Sagartz claimed the company had made great strides in improving the facility.
“Progress has been rapid and dramatic,” on indicators such as puppy mortality and the number of pending physical and dental exams, he told the court. In a separate filing yesterday, the company said it had improved floors, installed generators, raised salaries and moved veterinary staff from other Inotiv facilities to Cumberland.
But Amy Katherine Taylor, an animal crimes investigator with the Virginia attorney general’s office, wrote in an affidavit that during an inspection on June 8, she found 10 dogs crammed into a pen, temperatures of 30°C to 32°C enclosure, lethargic puppies, empty or missing water bowls, insect infested food, dogs fighting without staff noticing and dogs hold in their own feces and urine, which had accumulated on floor mats.
At the hearing, where Taylor also testified, attorneys for the DOJ and Inotiv argued over the disposition of the remaining 3,000 dogs. (A temporary restraining order currently in place prevents the company from selling or giving away dogs without approval from DOJ attorneys or the judge.) The company wants to be able to sell the dogs to research clients. But DOJ lawyers insist that until Inotiv fully complies with the AWA, it should only be allowed to give away the dogs.
Animal rights activists have echoed this argument. “Each of the 3,000 dogs still imprisoned [at Cumberland] should be released into good homes,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which published an undercover investigation on the Cumberland site in November 2021.
The fate of the beagles could require a full trial to decide unless the two sides reach a compromise on whether to sell or give them away, Moon said during the hearing. He asked them to try to reach an agreement while he considered whether to grant the government a preliminary injunction that would keep the dogs in Cumberland through a trial.