US breeder Envigo pleads guilty for mistreating beagles, gets $22 million fine

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Research animal breeder Envigo pleaded guilty in Virginia on Monday to federal animal welfare and environmental crimes, resolving a two-year U.S. Justice Department probe into its mistreatment of thousands of beagles.

Indiana-based Envigo agreed to pay $22 million in fines - $11 million of which represented the largest-ever Justice Department fine in an animal welfare case - plus $13.5 million more to support animal welfare and environmental projects, cover law enforcement expenses and improve its own facilities.

Envigo, acquired by Inotiv in 2021, is one of the leading suppliers of animals for medical research in the United States. Its clients include major pharmaceutical companies, universities and the federal government.

Envigo in 2022 forfeited some 4,000 beagles, some of which were adopted by celebrities including Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. It pleaded guilty on Monday to one misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate the Animal Welfare Act and one felony count of conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act, after it refused to fix its wastewater treatment equipment and allowed excess animal feces to be discharged into a nearby creek.

The company is also required to retain an independent corporate monitor.

"Envigo placed profit before compliance with the law," said Todd Kim, who leads the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Inotiv in a statement said that the agreement allows it to "comprehensively resolve this matter" and "end uncertainty around the investigation."

The guilty plea over the Clean Water Act violation could lead the Environmental Protection Agency to disqualify Envigo as a federal contractor.

Federal investigators in May 2022 executed a search warrant at Envigo's facility in Cumberland, Virginia amid concerns about its mistreatment of thousands of beagles.

The seizure of the dogs came after inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service documented dozens of violations at Envigo in 2021 and 2022. Problems included dangerous flooring, failing to provide veterinary care, unsanitary conditions, euthanizing dogs without anesthesia, under-feeding mothers nursing puppies and failing to document the cause of death for hundreds of puppies.

The company has ceased operations at the Cumberland facility and is no longer breeding or selling dogs.

PETA, an animal rights group that conducted its own investigation into Envigo, on Monday urged the Justice Department to hold company executives personally accountable.

"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," said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA's senior vice president of cruelty investigations.

In court filings, prosecutors said on Monday that Envigo refused to fire a veterinarian referred to only as "AV," despite repeated complaints by employees - including concerns that AV mishandled the surgeries of five dogs.

"Staff rejection of AV's authority, paired with AV's inadequate veterinary skills, led to multiple additional improper and inadequate veterinary practices at the Cumberland Facility," prosecutors wrote.

The veterinarian resigned from the company in April 2022, according to the court filings.

Prosecutors also said the company conspired with others to avoid spending money to upgrade its wastewater system, while it continued to breed and sell beagles despite being unable to manage the waste disposal.

The Justice Department previously subpoenaed U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and managers to appear before a grand jury to question them about why the agency took no enforcement action against Envigo despite the history of violations. Two of the top managers who oversaw the inspections have since left the USDA. No one from the USDA has been charged.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Rod Nickel)