Animal welfare advocates disappointed with ‘watered down’ testing transparency bill – The Virginian-Pilot

Animal welfare advocates disappointed with ‘watered down’ testing transparency bill – The Virginian-Pilot

A bill intended to increase transparency at animal testing facilities is heading to the governor’s desk — but advocates say it’s been gutted almost past the point of recognition.

“I am disappointed that it was so watered down,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, a Fairfax Democrat who introduced the measure.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Franklin Republican Sen. Bill Stanley, originally would have directed animal testing facilities, including state agencies and universities, to submit annual reports to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The reports would have included information about the number and type of animals used and the costs associated with the experiments.

Boysko said modern technology, such as computer modeling and cell samples, allows a gradual shift toward other research methods that might be less expensive. She wanted the state to start tracking current data to use a baseline to compare.

Toward the end of the legislative session, after the bill passed the House and the Senate, it went into a conference committee with another animal welfare measure from Del. Michael Webert, R-Marshall. A conference committee is a small panel of House and Senate members created to meld similar legislation. That’s where it was substantially changed, in part due to pressure from higher education lobbyists, according to one lawmaker who was part of the discussion.

“The way the bill came out of conference, it doesn’t include all the animals who are involved in research and it doesn’t require them to present the information to the state, which was the whole point,” Boysko said.

Instead, the final bill requires animal testing facilities to share links on their websites to the reports they submit to the federal government. These reports only include animals covered by the federal Animal Welfare Act, which leaves out some species, like mice and rats, commonly used for experiments.

The final version of the bill also includes provisions from Webert’s measure, such as requiring animal testing facilities at universities to inform leadership — including the president, dean and board of trustees — if they receive federal citations for “critical noncompliance” with the Animal Welfare Act.

Boysko’s original bill would have additionally created whistleblower protections for workers at the facilities who reported potential animal welfare violations. But that provision was nixed before the bill went into conference, and Boysko said she spoke with various legislators and stakeholders and believed the bill had support.

“Everybody seemed to be in a comfortable position,” she said. “I don’t quite understand what happened, but something obviously did.”

Boysko, one of three Senate conferees, said the unexpected revisions came from the conference committee’s counterpart in the House. Conferees in that chamber included Webert, Herndon Democrat Irene Shin and Harrisonburg Republican Tony Wilt.

Shin said House conferees were not opposed to Boysko’s bill.

But after legislation has been melded together by a conference committee, it must be sent back to the House and Senate for approval. Shin said House conferees were told many delegates would no longer support the measure if the group didn’t essentially nix Boysko’s bill.

“Quite frankly, we had a ton of lobbyists who were in opposition, primarily higher education lobbyists,” she said, adding they spoke to legislators privately after the bill had progressed instead of testifying during public hearings.

Shin said it was “incredibly infuriating” these discussions took place behind the scenes. But she agreed to the changes in order to give the legislation any chance of surviving.

“I am optimistic that we can get to a place one day where we can hold higher institutions to the same standards as our animal shelters so we can understand how many animals die in their care,” she said. “That seems like a reasonable place to land.”

Wilt and Webert were not immediately available for comment.

Boysko had hoped to build on recent reforms. The General Assembly passed several bipartisan laws last year to strengthen protections for animals being used or bred for experiments.

Those bills, which Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law, came about due to concerns regarding Envigo, a company that breeds dogs to sell as research animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave one of its centers in Cumberland County dozens of citations for the severe mistreatment of beagles and overall poor facility conditions.

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Boysko’s bill this year had support from several animal welfare organizations, including the Virginia Alliance for Animal Shelters, the Humane Society of the United States and Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Molly Armus, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said complete data is needed to paint a full picture about the state of animal testing in Virginia.

“If we don’t have a baseline established of just how many animals are being used and how much funding is being used, it makes it difficult for us to go back and advocate for investments into non-animal test methods,” she said.

Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of PETA’s cruelty investigations department, said the organization is grateful to Boysko and Webert for their work.

Many facilities that handle animals — such as animal shelters or wildlife rehabilitators — must submit reports to the state about the number and type of animals they handle, she explained.

“Virginia’s publicly-funded universities that still use animals in experiments should strive for similar transparency and accountability,” Nachminovitch wrote in an email. “While this legislation is a step in the right direction, (the final version) does not go nearly far enough. Our work isn’t done, and we will be back.”

Katie King,

Animal welfare advocates disappointed with ‘watered down’ testing transparency bill – The Virginian-Pilot

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