CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Envigo, the troubled dog breeding and research facility in Cumberland County is blaming COVID-19 for its multiple animal welfare violations. Their response comes as Virginia lawmakers pursue bills to crack down on Envigo.

Eight of the 11 bills aimed at providing more oversight at the facility are moving forward in the General Assembly.

Speaking before a Virginia House sub-committee, Carmen Wilbourn Vice President of North America Operations at Envigo said the pandemic created a perfect storm. She says a combination of a higher number of dogs and low staff is what led to 39 federal animal welfare violations.

Wilbourn said, “We were highly impacted by Covid-19 with our customers, um, they stopped ordering animals from us.”

Wilbourn went on to tell the lawmakers, “And at the same time, we were having trouble maintaining and attracting staff through the pandemic.”

USDA inspection reports found hundreds of dead puppies attributed to unknown causes. The reports showed Envigo had just 17 workers on staff to care for more than 5,000 beagles.

Susan Seward with the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association told the subcommittee it was unacceptable. She said, “This is woefully inadequate, and that is why we are ending up with 300 dead puppies.”

Envigo which breeds the dog for medical research claims it’s taken steps to improve conditions. They said they’re adding staff by increasing the starting salary to $16 an hour. They are also offering a $5,000 signing bonus for all positions. Envigo said it has enhanced cleaning processes and is treating all animals the USDA found to have medical issues.

“I invite all of you to come out and visit the facility to see first-hand,” said Wilbourn to lawmakers.

Still legislators were disturbed by the repeat violations like kennels with a build up of feces, dirt and grime, sick beagles and dead dogs. Multiple lawmakers like Del. Robert Bell pushed forward with bills to increase transparency and hold Envigo accountable.

“I was appalled and honestly dumfounded, ” said Bell.

The delegate’s bill would prohibit the sale of dogs or cats for experimental purposes if the dealer like Envigo has been cited for three or more critical animal welfare violations.

Among the other bills moving forward is legislation in the senate that would create an animal welfare oversight officer to inspect operations at Envigo and a measure to close a loophole that allows Envigo to escape state animal cruelty charges.

“We have got to have some meaningful change,” Seward said.

Dozens of animal advocates from animal control to the Virginia Coalition for Beagle Protection lined up to support the bills. One of those supporters, Holly Hazard, said “These animals individually don’t have anyone to speak for them but us.”

Envigo opposed much of the legislation arguing it would put them out of business and that would hurt the economy in Cumberland County. However, Envigo did welcome more oversight.

Some critics have pointed out Envigo could have just stopped breeding dogs when customer orders were down and staff was low. Following the hearings, 8News wanted to directly ask Envigo about that and other questions. Wilbourn declined telling us “no comment.”