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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 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.

“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 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 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 inspectors cite for serious violations.

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 after that report was published 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 examples is the case of Iowa dog breeder Debra Pratt. Her facility, in the New Sharon area in Mahaska County, 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, while not having adequate records of the dogs on hand.

• Karen Baker,  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 23 dogs this past summer, she said. They enjoy being with the dogs, which are housed in a dairy barn they work in to keep clean, 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. In May 2013, he was cited for having two dogs with dental problems and two cats at his facility had eye infections. He said inspectors do a lot of good, but “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 what became known as “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.

“If you look at her history, it is just amazing how often she was cited,” said Mary LaHay, director of Iowa Voters for Animals. “And the problem is that the USDA gives these folks so many chances. And that is their protocol…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 APHIS inspector John Lies wrote that more than three dozen dogs in Pratt’s care were receiving necessary veterinary care. The report does not state from whom the dogs were receiving 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, inspection reports show.

APHIS cited Pratt for 51 noncompliance issues in the year and a half starting with 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 Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship reached a settlement agreement with Pratt on June 21, 2013, to revoke her permit and fine her $7,800.

IowaWatch attempted to reach Pratt for comment, including via certified mail, but received no response.

THE WORST ANIMALS ENDURE

An Office of Inspector General 2010 audit report of the Animal 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 USDA officials have taken several steps to address concerns in the critical 2010 audit 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 has 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.

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.

Kathleen Summers, the Humane Society of the United States’ outreach and research director, said inspections are needed, but have to be done more promptly than is happening now.

Summers cited as a comparison a dog owner who keeps in a cage around the clock an underweight dog whose ribs are showing. “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,” Summers said.

“But dogs in puppy mills don’t seem to have the same protection.”

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This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Lyle Muller of IowaWatch assisted with this report.

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