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Cumberland beagle breeders shut down by Feds; Virginia toughens laws

Siobhan Deeds holds her dog.
Siobhan Deeds, wife of Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), and Mila outside their home in Lexington. (Photo: Courtesy WMRA)

Jessie Knadler/WMRA

LEXINGTON — You wouldn’t know Mila’s bleak beginnings to look at her. She’s a cute, curious small white beagle who scampers around the yard of Siobhan Deeds, of Lexington. Deeds and her husband,  Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), adopted Mila in April.

"The first night we brought her home, he sent me a picture of Mila on the bed with him," Siobhan said. "And I just texted back that, do you know, this is the best day of her life. Thus far, she was in a cage with — she was literally in a cage with dead animals. It breaks my heart."

Sen. Deeds happens to be a beagle lover.

"Honestly, we'd got her, she didn't have any people skills, she didn't have any dog skills, living skills," he said. "I don't think she had ever been on grass before."

Mila was one of thousands of beagles bred for biomedical research by Envigo, a Cumberland County dog-breeding facility that was recently raided and closed by federal agents for, in part, amassing more than 60 violations of the Animal Welfare Act in less than a year. Since July, federal inspectors have found dozens of sick, wounded and suffering animals, as well as records of hundreds of puppy deaths that have never been investigated.

"I think they should probably all just close their doors and move on somewhere else," the senator said.

Bipartisanship is a rare thing in Virginia politics, but when it comes to dogs, the General Assembly rallied. Both the Republican-led House of Delegates and Democratic-controlled Senate voted unanimously to pass five bills that strengthen protections for dogs and cats bred for research. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the “ beagle bills” surrounded by members of both parties, animal rights activists and a bunch of beagles — including Mila — at a ceremony outside the Governor’s Mansion in early April.

Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) introduced a number of the bills, and spoke at the ceremony.

"[I]t is our obligation. It is our duty to make sure that we in the commonwealth of Virginia recognize their importance, recognize the importance of their lives and protect them for all that they do for us. And so this is a great day," Stanley said.

The situation at Envigo sheds a light on the practice of breeding animals for research, which is something a lot of people aren’t aware of.

"I think we need to be open to the notion that these kinds of businesses are out there," Sen. Deeds said. "I think that a lot of people would just be shocked to know that a facility that breeds beagles for the sole purpose of medical experimentation — people would be surprised that these facilities are in Virginia."

Millions of animals are used in medical experiments around the world every year, a practice that draws heavy criticism from activists such as PETA.

Dr. Cindy Buckmaster is with the  National Animal Interest Alliance, an advocacy group that seeks to educate the public on the reality of animal testing. It's a counter voice to PETA’s desire to end all animal testing. Buckmaster said that's not realistic right now.

"It's astounding to me that they don't know," she said. "And the reason they don't know is that the research community is squarely to blame for not having been open and transparent for many, many decades."

It’s not something the public likes to think about or be reminded of, yet many vaccinations, medications and treatment plans for diseases and injuries have been developed through animal research.

"At the end of the day, we’re not advocates for animals in research. We're advocates for the best science possible, and right now, that has to still include animals," Buckmaster said.

She concedes that if there’s a better model, such as stem cell technologies and other alternatives that don’t include animals, then scientists should use it. Until then, dogs like Mila should have the best care possible.

She’s also co-founder of an organization called  Homes for Animal Heroes, which seeks to find homes for retired research animals, specifically dogs.

Envigo has said it's cooperating with authorities and denies the allegations against it.

Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine released a statement praising the rescue of beagles from the Envigo facility. They advocated for the passage of the  Puppy Protection Act, a bill that they're sponsoring that would require breeders to house dogs in appropriately sized enclosures with solid ground and keep them on a regular diet and exercise routine.

Read the original story at WMRA.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.