Dog breeders in Iowa who repeatedly do not comply with the Animal Welfare Act are allowed to continue raising and breeding dogs – sometimes in horrible conditions – while federal inspectors give the cited breeders time to correct violations.
An IowaWatch review of inspection reports revealed that it often takes multiple U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service noncompliance citations, issued for problems posing the most serious risk to an animal’s health during inspections, before the agency decides to enforce against the facilities it has identified as substandard.
Animal rights activists say this is happening beyond Iowa, as well.
“Even when the USDA does go out and writes people up, there is just no enforcement effort to put these people out of business,” Bob Baker, a nationally recognized animal rights expert and executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, said.
The reason is due process. At the federal level, animals may remain in these conditions because the Animal Welfare Act, enacted to protect animal health, requires that the USDA give facility operators time to make corrections before enforcement action is taken, USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said.
Iowa law allows for confiscating animals at the state level but only at the end of legal proceedings. “They have legal rights and we have to get through the process, you know, before any confiscation could occur,” Dustin VandeHoef, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said about breeders under investigation by state inspectors.
Federal inspectors say they have increased their inspections at dog breeding facilities after the Office of Inspector General issued a scathing 2010 review on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, known by its initials APHIS.
But cases continued to exist in Iowa in which dogs lived in unclean or unsafe conditions while breeders got multiple chances to correct problems inspectors found, documents IowaWatch reviewed and interviews revealed.
One of the most notorious recent examples is the case of Debra Pratt. Her facility, in the New Sharon area in central Iowa, became known as The Pratt Mill before it effectively was shut down.
From Aug. 10, 2010, until June 21, 2013, inspection reports indicate Pratt operated a facility that consistently housed dogs in dangerous conditions, despite being cited for violations during that time and being given time to correct them.
Other examples in USDA inspection reports IowaWatch examined during a four-month investigation include:
- Julie and Carolyn Arends, whose Julies Jules near Jewell consistently had substandard conditions for animal health from 2010 into 2013.
- Gary Felts, of Kingsley, who four months after being cited Nov. 19, 2013, for having rusted surfaces, dirt and grime in facilities that housed animals was cited for the same substandard conditions on March 26, 2014, all while not having adequate records of the dogs on hand.
- Karen Baker, of Redding, who from February 2011 to October 2012 was allowed to operate a facility that USDA inspectors continually cited for unsanitary conditions that included a buildup of dog and rodent feces. APHIS records through June 3, 2014, showed Baker’s facility remained in what was rated semi-poor conditions. She had consistent indirect noncompliance issues, reports show, but has not been cited for direct noncompliance issues.
Iowa has 249 USDA Animal Care Breeder/Dealer licensed facilities and most have good inspection records.
VandeHoef said state agriculture and land stewardship officials work with local sheriffs and county attorneys when trying to determine how to handle breeders who do not have good inspection records. They seek legal action against breeders suspected of violating the law and work with animal shelters and human societies to house confiscated animals, he said.
CONSTANT CARE REQUIRED
In early 2013 David and Joane Cline, of Sully, were cited for having animals with dental problems and skin matting two months after being cited in December 2012 for the same problem again, except this time more animals had health problems, inspectors said.
Conditions at the Clines’ facility improved to the point where they had no violations in a November 2013 inspection, nine months after the previous inspection. But a June 2013 inspection was scratched because no legal adult was available to assist, records show.
Joane Cline told IowaWatch she and her husband take care of their dogs and the dogs’ health.
“We keep the veterinarian documentation for the inspector, but the inspectors don’t pay any attention to that. They just tell us to do as good as we can,” she said. “It’s not cheap to have your dogs’ teeth cleaned and pulled.”
The Clines have a small outfit, with around 23 dogs this past summer, she said. They enjoy being with the dogs, which are housed in a dairy barn, she said.
“We clean our facility as good as we can with it being a dairy barn,” she said. “In the summer time, they have personal fans, but it’s not air conditioned. And we do have the doors open all the way around. … And then in the wintertime we put straw in and we close the barn doors and leave the lights on. If it gets too cold we put blankets in front of them.”
Rodnie Kelley, of Kellerton in southern Iowa, saw his share of APHIS inspectors last year. An August 2013 inspection at his facility turned up two violations – an exposed live wire about an inch from the top of an enclosure where two cats were living and clutter in a hallway leading to the dog kennel.
At the start of the year, in January 2013, he had been cited for hair, urine and feces that built up in animal enclosures; for having one dog with dental problems; and two dogs with matted hair. He took care of those problems by the next day, a follow-up inspection report states.
“You just have to keep everything up to snuff,” Kelley said in an IowaWatch interview.
In May 2013, Kelley was cited for having two dogs with dental problems and two cats at his facility had eye infections.
Kelly said the inspectors do a lot of good. However, “some of them don’t actually know what they are doing,” he said.
“Some of the younger ones, I mean, like: there was a kitten that had a sore eye. And kittens get sore eyes a lot of time. And you just have to doctor them and they clear up. And one young guy (inspector) asked me if I had taken it to the vet. And if I had, the vet would have looked at me like, ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ Just things like that.”
Kelley said he had 15 dogs this past summer. “You don’t get rich,” he said. “It’s something I have done my whole life.”
CLOSING THE PRATT MILL
Debra Pratt has become a poster child for the kind of animal neglect that coins the phrase “puppy mill”. In her case, the phrase evolved into “The Pratt Mill”.
From Aug. 10, 2010, to June 21, 2013, inspection reports IowaWatch reviewed show, Pratt operated a facility that consistently housed dogs in dangerous conditions. For example, on Aug. 10, 2010, APHIS inspector John Lies noted on a report no fewer than 10 bulldogs that had the disorder cherry eyes. On Feb. 1, 2012, Lies noted frayed wires in the dogs’ enclosures that presented sharp edges on which the dogs could cut themselves.
Pratt’s operation was one of several of concern for Mary LaHay, director of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals.
“Debra Pratt showed up on my radar almost immediately because her inspection reports from the get-go were starting out bad,” LaHay said.
“If you look at her history, it is just amazing how often she was cited. And the problem is that the USDA gives these folks so many chances,” LaHay said. “It’s like the clock completely resets. It’s like none of those previous things ever happened.”
Pratt continued operating her facility with a steady number of noncompliance issues until an April 3, 2013, inspection, when conditions became worse. Lies wrote that more than three dozen dogs in Pratt’s care were receiving necessary veterinary care, although the report does not state from whom the dogs were receiving that care.
One of these dogs was an English bulldog with a marble sized mass on the inside corner of the right eye. Another of the dogs, a male poodle, had lesions on his feet that were ¼-inch in diameter. These were cited as repeat direct noncompliance issues because dogs in her care had been found in previous inspections in egregious conditions.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship performed joint inspections with APHIS and started to pursue, with the Iowa Attorney General’s office help, the revocation of her permit and civil penalties. The department reached a settlement agreement with her on June 21, 2013, to revoke her permit.
Pratt was cited by APHIS for 51 noncompliance issues in the year and a half that started Feb. 1, 2012, records IowaWatch examined show. Of those, 19 were repeat noncompliance issues, and more than three dozen dogs in her care had health conditions that demanded veterinary care.
The state fined Pratt $7,800. IowaWatch attempted to reach Pratt for comment, including via certified mail, but received no response.
Kathleen Summers, the Humane Society of the United States’ outreach and research director, classified Pratt’s operation as one of Iowa’s worst in a report titled “A Horrible Hundred: 100 Problem Puppy Mills.” She sees a bigger problem with how federal inspectors handle these particular facilities.
“These people are getting chance after chance after chance,” Summers said.
“The problem is they (animal inspectors) are relying mainly on these once-per-year inspections, and sometimes the USDA doesn’t even inspect once per year. Sometimes they go out and the breeder isn’t home or he or she pretends not to be home. And then the USDA goes away and doesn’t come back for a year.”
THE WORST ANIMALS ENDURE
An Office of Inspector General 2010 audit report of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service criticized the agency for choosing up to that time to take little or no enforcement action against violators. Another criticism in the report was that APHIS had little effect gaining dealer and breeder compliance because it focused heavily on educating breeders about the Animal Welfare Act, at the expense of inspections and enforcement.
APHIS wrote an action plan after the audit that includes shifting the focus from education for problematic dealers to enforcement.
The number of APHIS inspections nationally increased from 1,516 in fiscal 2010 to 2,606 the following year, according to USDA data IowaWatch obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request. They since have gone down, to 2,156 in fiscal 2012 and 1,882 in fiscal 2013, the last year for which complete data were available.
Espinosa, the USDA spokeswoman, wrote in an email that some states now enact and inspect for their own regulations. Moreover, inspections may be higher in one year than they are in another because of mandatory re-inspections in a given year, she wrote.
Espinosa wrote that USDA officials have taken several steps to address concerns in the critical 2010 report. They have created standard procedures, increased internal communications, provided frequent training for inspectors and their supervisors, created a compliance unit and changed how inspectors pursue enforcement actions, among other changes, she wrote.
Moreover, she wrote, the USDA issues monthly press releases about violators, has hired a kennel specialist, provides inspection information with state inspectors, and created an Animal Health and Welfare branch.
An IowaWatch analysis of APHIS inspection data, from a public database on its website and covering Sept. 27, 2010, through May 30, 2014, revealed that 7 percent of dog breeding facility inspections during that time resulted in direct noncompliance citations. Of those, relatively few breeders’ USDA licenses were suspended, revoked or terminated, and few were fined for not complying with the Animal Welfare Act.
During that time APHIS inspected 6,840 USDA-licensed dog breeding facilities and cited 483 direct noncompliance issues that pose the most serious risk to the animal’s health. Only 24 breeders were cited for having four or more direct noncompliance issues. APHIS brought enforcement decisions on 16 USDA licensed dog breeders.
Three of those 16 are from the Humane Society of the United States’ 2013 and 2014 catalogues of the worst puppy mills in Iowa: those run by Pratt, the Arendses and Felts.
Baker, of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, said that after more than 30 years of educating breeders with no avail, the USDA has to change something.
“Even when the USDA does go out and writes people up, there is just no enforcement effort to put these people out of business,” Baker said in an IowaWatch interview.
Gil H. Harden, assistant inspector general for the 2010 USDA audit, wrote that the APHIS Animal Care Unit’s enforcement process was ineffective in gaining breeder compliance with the Animal Welfare Act because agency leaders wrongly believed educating breeders on the law would promote compliance.
Moreover, the agency chose to take little or no enforcement action against violators, the report noted.
APHIS wrote an action plan after the 2010 report that includes shifting the focus from education for problematic dealers to enforcement.
Espinosa, the APHIS media relations contact, said in an interview that inspection protocol gives breeders multiple chances to fix husbandry practices for which a noncompliance issue has been cited.
She said inspectors who identify noncompliance issues give breeders a window of time in which the issue must be fixed. If the issue still exists when the inspector returns, the inspector writes it up as a repeat noncompliance issue and gives the breeder another time frame in which it must be completed.
APHIS steps after that may include opening an investigation. When determining that next step, the agency takes into account the seriousness of the noncompliance issues and the extent to which the breeder has or has not been in noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act, she said.
Summers, at the Humane Society of the United States, does not question APHIS’s shift toward more inspections. But, she said, she is concerned about the time APHIS takes to enforce action against breeders the Humane Society has identified as operating a substandard dog breeding facility.
Summers said more prompt inspections are needed. Even when a case appears before APHIS’ Investigation Enforcement Service, that branch usually has a backed-up caseload and short staff to deal with situations promptly. Meanwhile, dogs suffer.
“If you, as a dog owner, kept your dog in a cage 24/7 and he was under weight and his ribs were showing, and your neighbor called animal control, they very well could go out there and say, ‘Hey, do you have any medical records that show you have been treating your dog for whatever condition is affecting him?’” Summers said. “And if you didn’t have medical records showing that the dog has a verified condition that you have been treating, then they could confiscate your dog.
“But dogs in puppy mills don’t seem to have the same protection.”
Lyle Muller of IowaWatch contributed to this report.The Telegraph Herald (Dubuque), The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), Mason City Globe-Gazette and The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls) published all or portions of this report under IowaWatch’s mission of making its stories available for republication. Please support our nonprofit journalism with a tax deductible donation at this link.