Editorial: A warning to animal abusers in fittingly harsh penalty for company that horribly mistreated beagles

Editorial: A warning to animal abusers in fittingly harsh penalty for company that horribly mistreated beagles

Score one for the beagles. You might remember two years ago when a Virginia facility that bred thousands of animals for laboratory research got caught badly mistreating its dogs, under the noses of government inspectors.

The Chicago area, which has a world-class animal-welfare network, rose to the occasion and welcomed dozens of the abused pooches to new homes here. About 4,000 were adopted around the country: Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, famously got one, too.

Earlier this month, the feds announced a criminal penalty for the facility’s Indiana-based owner, and it’s gratifyingly severe. In the plea bargain, Inotiv Inc., via its Envigo subsidiaries, pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiracy to violate the Animal Welfare Act and conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

This was a rare criminal conviction of a company supplying lab animals, and the financial penalties were the largest imposed in a federal animal-welfare case. Inotiv will pay $35 million, including a $22 million fine. It also agreed to fund an independent “compliance monitor” with oversight powers, among other measures.

The company still will be permitted to sell everything from monkeys and rabbits to rats and mice for drug testing and other experiments, but it will not be breeding dogs again. Inotiv said it shut down its hellish beagle-breeding factory in September 2022 — months if not years too late.

A key whistleblower in this case was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA, an organization companies love to hate for its undercover investigations of animal cruelty. PETA publicized the sickening conditions at Envigo’s Virginia facility.

Dogs were kept in enclosures littered with moldy feces, stinking of sewage and overrun with fleas and cockroaches, according to PETA and inspection reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was supposed to have been on top of things all along.

The dogs drank contaminated water, ate rotten food and lived in cramped cages where workers stood by during vicious fights. Multiple dogs had their tails or legs pulled through the bars and mauled by those in adjoining cages.

Puppies died after being attacked, falling through drains or getting their heads caught in cage doors. Veterinary care was awful, with wounds being left to fester and unwanted animals were cruelly euthanized by injections into the heart, the investigators found.

Evidence showed that company executives knew about the problems: Employees complained about everything from the facility’s incompetent vet care to its stench, only to be ignored. Even after the USDA started to take the case seriously, its inspectors found that the violations continued.

The Department of Justice finally raided the place, and if there’s any lesson to draw from the ensuing scandal, it’s that companies responsible for protecting vulnerable animals need stronger checks and balances. It’s infuriating to think that USDA inspectors repeatedly documented the misconduct at Envigo but took no action, failing to enforce the law as taxpayers pay them to do.

At least Inotiv finally seems to have gotten the message. As it announced its plea bargain, the company published a “statement of contrition.” If former President Donald Trump and any other white-collar criminals need a model for how to accept responsibility for their crimes, this would be a good one. “We fell short of our standards for animal and environmental welfare and apologize to the public for the harm caused by our conduct,” Inotiv wrote. “We hope that others will learn from our experience.”

Sadly, animal cruelty is a fact of life in the U.S., and while we can all hope that others will learn from Inotiv’s experience, the current state of affairs is alarming. Euthanasia rates for unwanted pets have shot up as the cost of ownership has soared with inflation and owners have returned to offices, post-pandemic.

The Chicago area has made fantastic progress in animal welfare over the years, but it is feeling the latest crunch. Surrenders are up and adoptions down at shelters. Last year, Chicago’s Animal Care and Control euthanized more than 3,300 dogs, up almost 80% from two years earlier.

The city is running regular events and periodically waiving fees to encourage adoption at its 2741 S. Western Ave. facility. The public-private partnership that turned Chicago into a beacon for the humane treatment of pets needs help in this difficult time.

The beagle story inspired an outpouring of concern, turned a spotlight on the USDA’s lax oversight, and, as of this month, put animal abusers on notice that they indeed risk severe penalties. Let’s keep the momentum going to help mistreated and unwanted animals who are falling through the cracks today.

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