Facing growing financial and legal hurdles, a company that owns a troubled research beagle breeding facility in Cumberland, Virginia, said last night it will shutter the establishment, which until recently supplied dogs to universities, major drugmakers, and the National Institutes of Health.
Because of the growing cost of bringing the complex of several large buildings into compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), “We have decided we will not be investing further in this facility, and it will be closed,” Inotiv President and CEO Robert Leasure said in a statement.
Inotiv is a contract research organization that has become a major research animal supplier through recent acquisitions, including its November 2021 purchase of Envigo, which owns the Virginia facility. Inotiv says it is the second-largest supplier of research beagles, producing about 25% of the dogs used in the United States. Since it took over Envigo, the number of dogs at the Cumberland complex has dropped from about 5000 to about 3000.
Animal welfare activists applauded the planned closure but said they have little confidence that Inotiv, which holds tens of thousands of other AWA-regulated research animals at other sites, is committed to their welfare.
“Closing only this abhorrent facility is not enough,” says Eric Kleiman, a researcher with the Animal Welfare Institute, an animal advocacy group. “What of the over 40,000 animals at its other sites? Given its shocking animal welfare record, we believe that Inotiv’s license should be permanently revoked.” (The facility is licensed to breed and sell animals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], which is charged with enforcing the AWA.)
Inotiv is committed to humane animal care, one of its senior officials countered in a U.S. court hearing yesterday; the hearing was part of proceedings in a lawsuit the United States filed last month in an attempt to force the company to comply with the AWA. In the 7 months since it acquired the facility, “We have been making incredible efforts to try to resolve the concerns raised initially by USDA,” John Sagartz, Inotiv’s chief strategy officer, said. “We take them very seriously.”
Inotiv’s decision to shutter the beleaguered facility comes as inspectors from USDA have documented more than 70 AWA violations there since July 2021. This prompted the state of Virginia in April to enact a law preventing the company from selling more beagles if it committed a single additional serious violation after 1 July 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 its veterinarians determined to be “in acute distress.”
Inotiv first hinted publicly at its plans in yesterday’s hearing, when company lawyers told U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon they were prepared to shut down the site. Still, at the hearing, Sagartz claimed the firm had made big strides in improving the facility.
“Progress has been swift and dramatic,” on indicators such as puppy mortality and the number of pending physical and dental examinations, he told the court. In a separate filing yesterday, the company said it has upgraded flooring, installed generators, increased salaries, and transferred veterinary staff from other Inotiv facilities to Cumberland.
But Amy Katherine Taylor, an animal crime investigator with the office of Virginia’s attorney general, wrote in an affidavit that during an inspection on 8 June, she found dogs packed 10 to an enclosure, enclosure temperatures of 30°C to 32°C, lethargic puppies, empty or missing water bowls, food infested with insects, dogs fighting unnoticed by staff, and dogs standing in their own feces and urine, which had pooled on floor mats.
At the hearing, where Taylor also testified, DOJ and Inotiv lawyers sparred over the disposition of the remaining 3000 dogs. (A temporary restraining order now in place prevents the company from selling or giving away dogs without signoff from either the DOJ lawyers or the judge.) The company wants to be able to sell the dogs to research clients. But DOJ lawyers insist that, until Inotiv comes into full compliance with the AWA, it should only be permitted to give the dogs away.
Animal rights activists echoed that argument. “Every one of the 3000 dogs still imprisoned [at Cumberland] must be released to good homes,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, a senior vice president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which published an undercover investigation of the Cumberland site in November 2021.
The fate of the beagles may take a full-blown trial to decide, unless the two sides can compromise on the question of selling or giving them away, Moon made clear at the hearing. He asked them to try to come to an agreement while he weighs whether to grant the government a preliminary injunction that would keep the dogs at Cumberland throughout a trial.