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Medical research dog breeding facility blames COVID-19 for dozens of disturbing animal welfare violations

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – Envigo, Cumberland County’s troubled dog breeding and research facility blames COVID-19 for its multiple animal welfare violations. Their response comes as Virginia lawmakers pursue bills to crack down on Envigo.

Eight of the 11 bills aimed at strengthening the supervision of the establishment are progressing through the General Assembly.

Speaking before a Virginia House subcommittee, Carmen Wilbourn, vice president of North America operations at Envigo, said the pandemic had created a perfect storm. She says a combination of higher dog numbers and low staffing is behind 39 federal animal welfare violations.

Wilbourn said: ‘We have been heavily impacted by Covid-19 with our customers, uh, they have stopped ordering animals from us.

Wilbourn went on to tell lawmakers, “And at the same time, we were struggling to retain and attract staff during the pandemic.”

USDA inspection reports have found hundreds of dead puppies attributed to unknown causes. Reports showed that Envigo had just 17 staff to care for over 5,000 beagles.

Susan Seward of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association told the subcommittee this was unacceptable. She said: “It’s woefully insufficient, and that’s why we end up with 300 dead puppies.”

Envigo, which breeds the dog for medical research, says it has taken steps to improve conditions. They said they were adding staff by raising the starting wage to $16 an hour. They also offer a $5,000 signing bonus for all positions. Envigo said it improved cleaning processes and treated any animals the USDA found had medical issues.

“I invite you all to come and visit the facility to see firsthand,” Wilbourn told lawmakers.

Still, lawmakers have been bothered by repeated violations like kennels with an accumulation of feces, dirt and grime, sick beagles and dead dogs. Several lawmakers like Del. Robert Bell introduced bills to increase transparency and hold Envigo accountable.

“I was appalled and honestly stunned,” Bell said.

The delegate’s bill would ban the sale of dogs or cats for experimental purposes if the dealer like Envigo has been cited for three or more serious animal welfare violations.

Other pending bills include legislation in the Senate that would create an Animal Welfare Oversight Officer to inspect operations at Envigo and a measure to close a loophole that allows Envigo to escape charges of animal cruelty.

“We need to have meaningful changes,” Seward said.

Dozens of animal advocates, from animal control to the Virginia Coalition for Beagle Protection, lined up to support the bills. One such supporter, Holly Hazard, said: “These animals individually have no one to speak for them but us.”

Envigo opposed much of the legislation arguing that it would put them out of business and hurt Cumberland County’s economy. However, Envigo welcomed more oversight.

Some reviewers have pointed out that Envigo could have simply stopped breeding dogs when customer orders were down and staff were weak. After the hearings, 8News wanted to ask Envigo directly about this and other issues. Wilbourn declined to tell us “no comment”.

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