A beagle looks out from a crate as it waits to be transferred from plane to van.

Toothless and ‘paltry’: Critics slam USDA’s fines for animal welfare violations

A government watchdog has repeatedly challenged the agency for the way it calculates fines. So far this year, more than half of the fines issued were for less than $9,000.

This beagle was rescued from Envigo, a research breeding center in Cumberland, Virginia, cited by USDA inspectors for dozens of welfare violations in five visits over the course of a year. The agency issued no fines, and the facility was closed in July. 
Photograph by Gregory Rec, Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

Three dead bats were found in a washroom at Colorado State University, where researchers study bat-borne viral diseases. A shade cloth in the bat enclosure was taken down to be cleaned, and when it “was unfolded the next morning … three perished bats were found inside,” noted a January 2020 report by an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act.

Colorado State University “developed new procedures and retrained husbandry staff” to ensure that no more bats get trapped and die in the shade cloth, the report said.

Two years later, USDA inspectors found another dead bat, stuck “in the folds of one of the roosting tarps.” The bat appeared dried out and was “readily visible” without the inspector having to move the tarp, the February 2022 report says.

Colorado State keeps more than 1,900 animals, including 650 Jamaican fruit bats for its Center for Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases and 350 sheep for its Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory, as well as horses and cows.

In April 2022, the USDA fined Colorado State University $5,800, citing veterinary and animal-handling violations of the Animal Welfare Act that contributed to the bats’ deaths and noting “an accumulation of feces and deteriorating hay” in November 2021 and February 2022 in various sheep, horse, and cow enclosures. The fine also covered the university’s failure “to construct and maintain a perimeter fence of adequate height,” which the USDA said had allowed a bobcat to enter and kill eight sheep.

On April 30, 2022, animal care staff at the university found a fallen tarp, “which resulted in the death” of 20 bats. The deaths were reported to the USDA, but no additional fine followed.  

“CSU takes exceptional care to ensure the safety of animals,” says Greg Harrison, assistant vice president of strategic communications at the university. It “always strives to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act” and CSU’s labs “typically exceed standards.” After the initial bat deaths and prior to the USDA fine, Harrison says the university “instituted additional measures to protect bats,” including having staff inspect the shade cloth before it was sanitized and changing the color of the cloth so the animals were more visible.

The university “self-reported to the USDA” the recent deaths of the 20 bats, and “we took corrective action on our own,” he adds. “Despite thorough review, it is not clear why the cloth fell. Since that incident, we changed how the cloth is managed, and did so before the USDA action.”

The maximum fine the USDA can impose for an animal welfare violation is $12,771 per day, according to a 2022 rule posted by the agency. Often, however, penalties are so small that violators consider them merely “a cost of doing business,” according to numerous reports from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which audits the agency.

A total fine of $5,800 for violations by Colorado State University, which received a $6.7-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund a new bat research facility—especially for violations that involved animal deaths—“is deeply troubling,” says Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law Program at Vermont Law School. That fine, she says, is less than 2 percent of the maximum $306,504, considering the nature and number of offenses and the number of animals affected. (In October, the USDA awarded the university more than $12 million for research on sustainable agriculture.)

In an email, USDA spokesperson Andre Bell said the agency is “unable to comment further on enforcement actions” but encouraged review of the Animal Welfare Act’s section on civil penalties.

So far this year, the USDA has issued fines to 22 facilities—animal exhibitors, research institutions, and breeders—for violations of the Animal Welfare Act that include animal deaths, prolonged suffering, dirty enclosures, and inadequate veterinary care. More than half the fines, which the USDA posts online, were less than $9,000, and most were for veterinary care problems.

The USDA calculates fines using an internal penalty worksheet, which takes into account such factors as the severity of the violations, the facility’s history, and the size of the business, according to the Animal Welfare Act. National Geographic submitted a records request for the worksheet, but the agency declined to share it because it could allow licensees “to circumvent proposed penalties” and could “otherwise undermine investigations." 

“What will it take for the USDA to do something meaningful, if repeated animal deaths and animals forced to stand in their own feces for months on end isn’t enough?” Winders says, referring to the bats and sheep at Colorado State University. “The USDA is trying to make a show of enforcing the law,” she adds. “People are continuing to violate the law—and in some cases, probably doing the calculations to say it's worth the risk.”

A history of low—or no—fines

In reports dating back to 1995, the OIG has repeatedly challenged the USDA’s method for calculating fines. In 2010, the OIG called out the agency for “excessive” reductions of fines. In 2014, the OIG noted that in 2012, the USDA’s fines “were reduced by an average of 86 percent from [the] Animal Welfare Act’s (AWA) authorized maximum penalty per violation.”

Meanwhile, in June 2021, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sued the USDA for its “non-enforcement policy on the Animal Welfare Act,” in part for the agency’s reluctance to impose meaningful fines. The suit is pending.

More often than not, rather than handing out fines, the USDA doesn’t issue any, says Robert Hensley, legal advocacy senior counsel at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals. Since 2017, the USDA hasn’t collected any fines from licensed dog breeding facilities, even in cases of extreme cruelty or neglect, according to the ASPCA. For example, inspectors documented dozens of welfare violations at Envigo, a research breeding facility in Cumberland, Virginia, where more than 5,000 dogs were found crowded in barren, moldy cages. In five visits over the course of a year, the USDA didn’t confiscate dogs or issue fines. The company agreed to shut down the facility in July, and the dogs were surrendered for adoption.

When the USDA does nothing, Hensley says, “that certainly does not deter the bad behavior—if anything, it encourages it because it communicates to the regulated community that there won't be any consequences.”

Even when the USDA issues higher than usual penalties, the amounts generally aren’t close to the maximum allowable, Winders says. For example, the USDA fined the cargo company Alliance Ground International $22,000 in August after 18 dogs were found “in cages without food or water and covered in fecal matter.” Company staff also found a French bulldog dead in its kennel. Even though Alliance previously had a clear record, Winders says, the fine for those violations could have come close to $460,000.

Eric Kleiman, a researcher at the Animal Welfare Institute, criticizes the USDA’s fining system. With such “pathetic fines,” he says, facilities like these “can act with impunity, with resulting animal suffering, because they know [the USDA] will not act with any force.” Such small fines fly “under the radar” of public scrutiny and reflect the toothlessness of USDA enforcement, he says.

The USDA ‘coddles research’ 

In October 2019, staff at Lovelace Biomedical Research Institute, a private research company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, found a two-and-a-half-year-old male cynomolgus macaque dead in its enclosure. A necropsy found “little to no” body fat, “marked dehydration,” and “prominently recessed eyes.”

In May 2022, the USDA fined Lovelace $6,200 for three violations between August and November 2019, two of which related to the deaths of this and another cynomolgus macaque. For these problems, Winders says, the USDA could have fined the company $293,733.

In 2020, Lovelace Biomedical Research Institute earned more than $76 million in revenue.

Lovelace Biomedical did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In August 2022, the USDA fined a Bedford, Massachusetts, laboratory owned by Labcorp—which uses rabbits, dogs, pigs, and other animals in its drug development experiments—$3,375 for three violations dating from October 2018 to May 2021. The violations resulted in one rabbit being euthanized after staff “failed to properly handle” the animal, which injured itself while escaping from a damaged restraint device, and the death of another unidentified animal that was “the direct result of the personnel failing to correctly configure” an anesthetic machine during a procedure. In that case, Winders says, the fine could have been up to $38,313.

Last year, Labcorp earned more than $16 billion in revenue.

These infractions predate Labcorp’s acquisition of the Bedford facility, according to a statement by the company. “Labcorp prioritizes compliance and quality in all that we do,” it said. “The Bedford site has transitioned to Labcorp’s personnel training practices, standard-operating-procedures, and our culture of care commitments, which includes strict standards of ethical conduct.” Toxikon, the company that owned the Bedford facility at the time of the violations, earned $40 million annually.

The USDA “coddles research,” Kleiman says. The fines issued to Colorado State, Lovelace Biomedical, and the former Toxikon lab “are all paltry amounts for so many reasons, including but not limited to the severity of the citations—all involving animal deaths—the deep pockets of these wealthy research facilities, and the history … at all three,” he says.

Kleiman’s criticism echoes a 2005 report by the OIG calling for higher fines for research facilities violating the Animal Welfare Act. It pointed out that the amounts don’t vary according to whether the offender is “a small farmer that breeds dogs” or “a research facility with billions in assets,” making penalties for larger facilities “negligible.”

The Animal Welfare Act also allows for fines to be based on a facility’s compliance history. In 2011, the USDA fined Lovelace Biomedical $21,750 for violations including needlessly painful or distressful medical procedures and inadequate housing, which resulted in a monkey choking to death when he got caught on a hook in his enclosure. But since 2014, Lovelace has had 12 severe citations, many involving animal deaths.

In December 2021, after dog breeder Daniel Gingerich racked up more than 200 Animal Welfare Act violations—believed to be the most ever by an Animal Welfare Act licensee—in December 2021, bipartisan lawmakers introduced a congressional bill called Goldie’s Act. It’s named for a golden retriever the USDA found emaciated in multiple inspections of his breeding sites over the course of four months. A veterinarian later euthanized the dog, and in October 2021, the USDA revoked Gingerich’s license. The act seeks to prohibit the USDA from discounting maximum fines by 10 percent or more.

“The agency is no longer working to protect the animals and serve the public,” Hensley says. “It works on the industry's behalf.” Goldie’s Act “gets to the heart of some of the problems” that recur at the USDA, he says, by requiring the agency to carry out annual inspections at all facilities, to confiscate suffering animals, and to alert local law enforcement about instances of animal abuse.

The USDA needs to rethink its process for issuing fines, Kleiman says—though he believes the entire agency, which he says “has failed to adequately enforce the law” for decades, needs to be overhauled. “I can’t tell you how sick and tired I and other animal protection advocates are of opining, once again, about yet another [USDA] enforcement failure,” Kleiman says. “Thirty years of OIG reports, Congressional scrutiny, public pressure, media [exposure] and yet, what really changes?”

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact

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