It was still dark when the nine volunteers left that morning. Black metal crates rattled in the back of the passenger vans they had secured for their trip. One woman chugged coffee and noshed on Swedish fish candies to stay alert. For others, adrenaline was enough.
The group wore matching T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “Put a little hound in your heart.” Above the text was an illustration of a small dog with its nose to the ground. Anyone familiar with the breed knows that beagles are always – always – sniffing for something.
The people in the vans were from Triangle Beagle Rescue of North Carolina (TBR), a nonprofit organization that does exactly what its name suggests: it rescues beagles in and around the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area – also known as the Triangle of North Carolina. But on 26 July 2022, TBR was taking its efforts out of state, to rural Cumberland, Virginia, a three-hour drive north.
There, in a sprawling 322-acre facility, were nearly 4,000 beagles that needed rescuing.
A few weeks earlier, the Humane Society of the United States had announced that it would be removing the beagles from the site, which is owned by an animal-breeding company called Envigo. Investigators who entered the facility had identified numerous gross violations of federal law governing the treatment of animals, including untreated diseases and injuries, cages laden with feces, and moldy food.
According to the terms of a court settlement, the Humane Society had 60 days to get the beagles off the premises. The operation would be the largest in the organization’s history and require the support of partner groups nationwide. More than 120 signed up to help by taking a portion of the dogs. TBR was one of them.
The organization is run by a tight-knit team of volunteers, almost all of them women. The dogs they rescue, usually from local shelters, are fostered in people’s homes until they’re adopted. “Everyone is doing this out of the goodness of their heart,” said Leann Tenbusch, a board member and the group’s marketing coordinator.
Goodness is a big part of it; so is the volunteers’ love of beagles. Tenbush’s family adopted a beagle puppy when she was in college and has been smitten with the floppy-eared breed ever since. Amy Adams, another board member, read about beagles in the World Book encyclopedia as a kid and begged her parents to get her one; now she has two of her own, in addition to the ones she fosters.
“They’re the sweetest dogs alive,” said volunteer Tracey Shepherd, who when we spoke was wearing earrings in the shape of pawprints. “Every single one of them, I just want to pick them up and squeeze them.”
There was never a question whether the group would help with the Envigo rescue; how many beagles they could take was another matter. TBR usually has between 40 to 50 dogs in its foster homes. Doubling that number seemed both ambitious and insufficient. “When there are 4,000, how do you feel like you can make a difference?” Adams said.
The number of dogs wouldn’t be the only challenge. The Envigo beagles had spent their entire lives at what amounted to a factory farm. They weren’t used to human touch, toys, or even grass. They were traumatized and skittish. Caring for them would require patience and vigilance. “These dogs are not for Instagram,” Tenbush said. “They’re projects.”
After some back and forth, the board settled on 100 beagles, to be rescued in two batches. The organization also decided to keep taking in local dogs. Why should they suffer while the Envigo beagles were in the spotlight? TBR would just have to boost its capacity that much more.
“We did not stop,” Tenbusch said. “We went for it.”
Beagles are the quintessential American dog. Norman Rockwell seemed to agree, including beagles in his paintings of mid-century domestic bliss. So did artist Charles M Schulz: Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s loyal, quirky dog in Peanuts, is a beagle.
Then again, my assessment is biased. I didn’t come to this reporting assignment by chance: raised two hours east of the Triangle, I’ve been following TBR’s work for several years because, like the volunteers, I’m a beagle fanatic.
I didn’t have a dog growing up, but my best friend did – an easygoing beagle named Roger, with soulful eyes and a hitch in his step. In 2016, when my husband and I were looking for a dog to adopt, I spied a small black-and-tan beagle mix at a rescue event. Feeling a familiar tug at my heart, I scooped her up and refused to let other prospective adopters pet her as my husband navigated the paperwork we needed to fill out to take her home. We named her Magnolia.
Beagles are gentle and companionable, which make them excellent pets. They are also amusing dogs, as idiosyncratic as they are tenacious. “Smart, independent and easily bored,” the Westminster Kennel Club notes in its description of the breed, “they will get in trouble when unsupervised”.
That trouble often involves food: beagles will eat anything, anytime, anywhere. A few years ago, while my husband and I were out of our apartment, Magnolia got into a large bag of kibble and ate until she couldn’t any more. We returned home to find an engorged beagle lolling on the couch. (Her food is now kept in a large plastic bucket with a top that clamps in four places.)
Beagles consistently rank in the American Kennel Club’s top 10 most popular breeds. But for as much they are loved in this country, beagles are exploited in equal measure. They fill the cages of shelters in regions where hunting is a popular pastime. Beagles were bred to track and chase small game using the 225m scent receptors packed into their noses. When a hunting dog grows old or otherwise proves no longer useful, owners can be quick to dump them. Magnolia flinches at loud sounds – a chair scraping across the floor can send her scurrying. The people who liberated her from a shelter in Caswell county, North Carolina, told us that a hunter had probably gotten rid of her because she was gun shy.
Beagles are also popular subjects in lab experiments for the same reasons so many families take a shine to them. “Beagles are docile, people-pleasing and very forgiving,” notes the Beagle Freedom Project, which advocates for reforming animal testing policies and procedures. “They are easy to ‘maintain’ in cages and do not have a tendency to bite when being hurt.”
This is where Envigo enters the picture: The company profits off dogs – as well as rodents, rabbits, and macaques – that are “purpose bred” for use in medical testing and other scientific research. Based on publicly available data, the Humane Society reports that, in 2020, more than 250 institutions across the country used dogs in experiments. These entities, which include research universities, pharmaceutical corporations, and government agencies, are clients of companies like Envigo.
The facility in Cumberland, which whelped and warehoused beagles before shipping them to buyers, was the second-largest of its kind in the country. It might have stayed that way if not for animal rights activists.
The site was subject to the stipulations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which was signed into law by Lyndon B Johnson. Incidentally, Johnson owned beagles and once spurred public outrage when, in a meeting with guests at the White House, he lifted one of his dogs up by the ears until it cried out. (“Ears are for hearing, not for pulling,” balked the Humane Society of Texas.) But the abuse that an undercover investigator found at the Envigo facility makes what Johnson did seem like child’s play.
The investigator, deployed in 2021 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), kept a log of the horrors she witnessed while working as an animal caretaker for $12 per hour. Puppies were crushed to death in overcrowded enclosures; others fell into open drains and died. Unqualified staff performed medical procedures on beagles. In some instances, staff euthanized dogs without sedation.
The Peta investigator found evidence that Envigo staff tried to conceal the facility’s abuses from federal inspectors, who visited on a routine basis. When they did identify wrongdoing, inspectors reported it, but the information had never led to Envigo being fined, prosecuted, or otherwise punished for breaking the law. “If there’s no enforcement, that doesn’t help any animals,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of Peta’s Cruelty Investigations Department.
Armed with its findings, Peta went to the US Department of Agriculture and demanded action. After a series of government inspections, on 18 May 2022, law enforcement descended on the Cumberland facility with a search warrant. They seized records, computers and more than 100 dogs determined to be in “acute distress”. The next day, the Department of Justice filed a complaint against Envigo for repeated violations of the AWA. Soon after, a judge issued a temporary restraining order, mandating that Envigo “immediately cease breeding, selling, or otherwise dealing in beagles at the Cumberland facility”.
Envigo quickly agreed to settle the case and accepted a permanent prohibition on breeding operations at the site. It also agreed to relinquish the remaining beagles in Cumberland, and the justice department worked with the Humane Society to develop a plan for distributing the dogs to rescue groups.
When the plan was announced, media fanfare ensued. People around the country – myself included – scrambled to donate money and supplies. Others offered to adopt the beagles; among them were Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
For Peta, the Envigo settlement was a rare victory. Still, Nachminovitch wasn’t ready to celebrate just yet. “Let’s get the dogs, make sure this is actually happening, before you break out the champagne,” she said. “You can chill it, just don’t pop the cork.”
She didn’t have to wait long: on 21 July, six days after the settlement was entered in federal court, a small army of animal lovers began the herculean task of moving 3,776 Envigo beagles to safety.
Beagles bred for research don’t have names. Instead, they’re usually identified by sequences of letters and numbers tattooed on their inner ears. The first dog removed from the Envigo facility was inked with “CMG CKA”. His rescuers rechristened him as Uno – the name, as it happens, of a cherished breed ambassador: the first beagle ever to win the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, in 2008.
Uno was driven off to his new life in Wyoming. Other dogs rescued that day – more than 400 in all – went to Wisconsin and southern California.
Five days later, the volunteers from TBR arrived in their vans. The Envigo site comprises several long, low concrete and metal buildings surrounded by chain-link fencing and razor wire. A line of vehicles sat waiting to reach the facility’s entrance and pick up their beagles. Next to the TBR vans was a horse trailer dispatched by a rescue group in Oklahoma. Photos and videos weren’t allowed, nor was the use of cell phones. Rescuers could not initiate conversation with any Envigo employees they encountered. US marshals were present to make sure everyone followed the rules.
Finally, it was TBR’s turn. The team pulled up to the entrance, and the transfer happened fast: one beagle after another, into the vans. Amy DeMuth, a TBR volunteer, made sure to whisper “I love you” to each dog as she placed it in a crate. Then came a request: TBR was taking four nursing mothers – could it accommodate their puppies, too? The TBR volunteers answered with a characteristic yes.
The ride back to the Triangle was euphoric. If there was a downside, it was the smell. “As soon as the dogs got in the vans, they pooped everywhere. They were throwing up,” Tenbush said. The fluids and excrement turned into a foul sea on the floor of the vans, which volunteers later called “the slosh”. More than once the team had to pull over so that a passenger – a human one, that is – could get sick on the side of the road. (On the second trip to Cumberland, the volunteers would come equipped with Vick’s VapoRub to apply under their nostrils and bath mats to line the floor of the vans.)
The TBR team drove the beagles straight to Sunny Acres Pet Resort, a grooming and boarding business in the Triangle that had offered up its facilities for the day. There, volunteer Lisa Rodgers made sure to get a soapy hand on the dogs. “I bathed all of them,” Rodgers said, her voice inflected with a Southern lilt. She gently showered each beagle with water, starting at its neck and working down. She treated it like a baptism. “It meant a lot to me to be able to meet every one of them and be part of the beginning of their new life,” Rodgers said.
Once they were clean and checked out by a vet, the dogs were off to their foster homes. TBR had nearly doubled its foster capacity for the rescue and developed training materials intended to help caretakers navigate the Envigo beagles’ special needs. The organization doled out supplies – leashes, harnesses, pee pads – that had been arriving at volunteers’ homes in veritable mountains, thanks to a robust response to an Amazon wish list. “I would try to open my door to go outside,” Tenbusch said, “and it would be blocked.”
By the time the last beagle was processed, the volunteers who’d driven to Cumberland were bone tired. Still, there was more work to do. “I came home with eight puppies I had to take care of, and with poop in my bra,” Amy Adams said with a laugh.
Next up: preparing for the second trip to Cumberland, and placing all the Envigo dogs in permanent homes.
Michael Wlodarski wasn’t looking to adopt another beagle – not yet, anyway. His grief was fresh: his beloved beagle, Scout, had died in May. Still, Wlodarski got approved by TBR to be a foster, and when he heard about the Envigo rescue, he enlisted a group of friends from his CrossFit gym to spend a day at Sunny Acres, pitching in as the second batch of beagles arrived from Cumberland in early August. “We got them out of their crates, weighed them, read off the numbers in their little ears,” Wlodarski said.
TBR asked Wlodarski if he could take one of the dogs home, just for now. He agreed and drove off with a handsome male puppy, long and lean. Wlodarski named him Loki. It didn’t take long for Loki to become a “foster fail”. In a matter of days, he was officially Wlodarski’s dog.
As it happens, Scout was also an Envigo rescue, a testing subject in a lab at the hospital where Wlodarski did his transplant medicine rotation while studying to become a physician’s assistant. The lab didn’t need her anymore, so he took her home. When she got sick, Scout declined so fast that it took Wlodarski by surprise. But meeting Loki made it feel like kismet. “It’s sad, but it’s almost like she left a space for me to be able to take in another dog,” Wlodarski said.
The first night at Wlodarski’s house, Loki was fine in his kennel, but unsure about the world outside it. Little by little, he got more comfortable with his new home. Soon he was reaching milestones, including walking down stairs, which he’d never encountered at the Envigo facility, and making noise. “At first there were no sounds,” Wlodarski said, “no barking, no howling”. Then Loki found his voice. He took to standing on the back porch and barking at, well, everything: lawn mowers, squirrels, seasonal decorations. “It’s like he’s learning how to become a dog,” Wlodarski said.
Tracey Shepherd noticed immediate differences between Green Goblin, the Envigo beagle she fostered, and other rescue dogs she’d cared for in the past. Green Goblin was scared of metal bowls, possibly because he saw his reflection in them. He didn’t know how to jump onto furniture. Blankets frightened him.
Shepherd knew Green Goblin would require a specific kind of adopter. “The applications that were coming in, a lot of people wanted a dog that was a cuddler or would go on long walks on the beach,” Shepherd said. “But he doesn’t even like to walk on a leash.”
TBR typically gets between 50 and 100 adoption applications in a given month. In July and August, it was inundated with more than 600, and volunteers quickly got to work. There were follow-up interviews and home visits. “We don’t just give dogs out to anybody,” Tenbusch said.
About a month after he was rescued, Shepherd found a match for Green Goblin: a family with another dog, two small kids and a big yard. “He loves to go out there and sniff all the smells,” Shepherd said. Green Goblin, now called Ozzy, also doesn’t seem to mind the family’s two cats. “One of them got up too close to him, and he just walked away,” Shepherd said. “I think he looked at it and thought: ‘this is a really weird-looking dog.’”
An Envigo dog named Daisy might think the same thing about the chickens she now shares a home with. In August, Daisy joined a brigade of rescue beagles – Mickey, Barney, Buzz and Little Buddy – and 69 chickens on a bucolic piece of property in Hillsborough, a quiet corner of the Triangle, owned by a retired couple named Donna and Malcolm Pinkston. When the Pinkstons heard about the Envigo operation, Donna reached out to Peta directly. On a Friday morning, she got a call asking if she and Malcolm could come up to Virginia the next morning. They were there by 9.30am.
The Pinkstons knew they wanted to add a female beagle to their family, and they had about 20 to choose from. In a way, though, it felt like Daisy picked them. “She’s the one that came up and started chewing on my fingers,” Malcolm said. Daisy slept on Donna’s lap on the ride back to Hillsborough.
At first she refused to stray far from Donna and Malcolm’s feet. She wasn’t sure what to make of a dog bed or of the dog doors her new brothers used to get in and out of the house. Then one day, Donna looked down to realize Daisy wasn’t there. She’d gone out the dog door into the back yard with Buzz, a small triumph. Now the Pinkstons needed her to realize she could come back inside the same way she went out. “We left the flap up for a few days,” Donna said, “and finally she did it.”
Daisy also started “singing” with her brothers. Beagles are known for their distinctive howl, which some breed enthusiasts call an arooo. “Who wants to sing?” Malcolm would ask, and off the dogs would go, each in his – or her – own register.
The last beagle was removed from the Cumberland facility on September 1. The same week, Peta honored a group of Virginia state lawmakers who earlier in the year, as the federal government was preparing its legal action against Envigo, had lobbied for the passage of historic legislation.
The so-called “beagle bills”, which became law by unanimous vote, will enhance protections for animals bred for research. As of 1 July 2023, no breeder in Virginia that has even one citation for a direct or critical violation of the AWA will be able to sell animals. “No other state has passed something like that,” Daphna Nachminovitch said. “We certainly hope other states will.”
At the celebration of the legislation’s passage, guests received cookies decorated with a picture of a beagle holding a champagne bottle in its mouth.
All of the Envigo dogs that TBR rescued, a grand total of 129, have been adopted. (Four were returned by their initial adopters – through no fault of their own, volunteers assured me – and quickly rehomed.) Michael Wlodarski talked his friend Nick Wolters, who’d never owned a beagle, into adopting one. “He was laying on his back for scratches,” Wolters recalled of meeting his dog, Leo, for the first time. “How was I going to say no?” Now Wlodarski and Wolters take their dogs on walks together and bring them to TBR social and fundraising events.
The Triangle denizens I spoke to hope public attention on beagles won’t fade now that the Envigo dogs have been saved. Malcolm Pinkston considers rescuing beagles a spiritual matter. “Beagles are a higher being,” he rhapsodized, closing his eyes at the thought. “If we lead good lives, and we’re lucky, we’ll come back as beagles.” I told him I couldn’t agree more.
In October, TBR volunteers once again piled into vans early in the morning. This time, they were headed south. More than 300 dogs had been seized by law enforcement in an effort to combat illegal breeding and dog fighting in York county, South Carolina. TBR would be taking 26 beagles and, in a matter of weeks, finding them the homes they deserved.
It was a big rescue by the group’s old standards, but the Cumberland trips had introduced a new normal. “Nobody quit,” Amy Adams said, “and nobody cried.” If they could handle Envigo, they could handle anything.