Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Oversight Of Breeders: Agency Faulted For Not Cracking Down On Violations

OVERSIGHT OF BREEDERS: Agency faulted for not cracking down on violators

Dogs peered out of filthy, overcrowded cages, their fur matted and covered in feces. Not far away, flies flitted around two dead Pomeranians. Pups shuttered in a dark pen. 

Animal welfare activists say those conditions prompted them to press the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2001 to shut down a dog-breeding facility in southwestern Minnesota operated by Reuben Wee.

But for four years, they say, deplorable conditions persisted and dogs died before local authorities -- and not the USDA -- intervened and charged Wee with animal cruelty. Wee was convicted in September 2005 before being sentenced to 30 days of house arrest and barred from breeding dogs, according to Paul Malone, a Murray County attorney who prosecuted Wee.

The USDA's inaction predictably drew fire from animal welfare activists. But it also highlighted complaints from within the USDA's ranks that the agency is simply not enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, which bans the inhumane treatment of animals held in breeding and research facilities.

In recent years, the USDA has opted to educate breeders about requirements under the Animal Welfare Act instead of imposing fines or shutting down facilities. 

For example, the USDA in 2004 opted not to fine Heartland Kennels -- which sent at least 123 pups to local pet shops in 2005 -- after citing the facility for repeated violations that include confining dogs to cramped, dirty cages that offer no protection from the wind, rain and snow.

In a letter to the facility, the USDA said its run of violations used to result in fines or closure, but current policy "is to encourage compliance through education and cooperation rather than legal action."

"The more we educate them, the more likely they are to be in compliance," USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said. "Once they are educated, we see a decrease in noncompliance."

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who said the USDA has failed to protect dogs, plans to call for an oversight hearing this month into the agency's handling of breeding facilities. 

"I think there is a desire by the USDA to let the industry regulate itself," said Kucinich, who has two dogs. "Where is the compassion? These are poor, defenseless creatures who rely on human kindness and trust for their own survival, and it is the worst type of cruelty to subject animals to these kinds of conditions. The cruelty is compounded when you understand it's all for profit."

U.S. Rep. Joe Schwartz, R-Battle Creek, the only Michigan representative on the committee that oversees the USDA, acknowledged enforcement problems at the agency and said he supports an investigation. 

"We need to get the enforcement of this more teeth," Schwartz said.

The USDA's Office of Inspector General has criticized the agency since the 1990s for failing to adequately crack down on violators. And in a blistering September 2005 report, the inspector general found an ineffective monitoring and inspection system and concluded the USDA failed to take action against "violators who compromised animal health."

That report -- and earlier investigations dating back to the 1990s -- found that the USDA has issued insignificant penalties to violators and often made no follow-up inspections. In those reports, inspectors and USDA veterinarians complained that breeders exploited the lax enforcement and endangered animals.

The Inspector General's office would not discuss its reports. USDA officials referred questions about the investigations -- and the agency's work -- to Holladay, who said the agency has stepped up its enforcement in the past year.

Frustrated with lax enforcement, the nonprofit Companion Animals Protection Society (CAPS) sent its own investigators undercover to almost 1,000 facilities in the past six years and found most violated the Animal Welfare Act. The investigations were documented with pictures and videos, and many, they said, came soon after USDA inspectors reported no violations.

CAPS' videos show sick and dead dogs, animals crammed into wire cages and puppies covered in feces and mud. Gaping wounds and lesions marked matted dogs. USDA inspection reports for those same facilities show minimal violations and penalties. 

Deborah Howard, CAPS president, said she has made seven trips to Washington D.C. in the past four years, most recently this month, to urge lawmakers to start a federal investigation into the lax enforcement, but to no avail.

"The lack of enforcement is an old issue because enforcement efforts have increased," Holladay insisted, saying the number of cases handed over to the agency's investigative division has doubled in the past year.

But a USDA inspector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency does not allow employees to speak to the media and he fears retaliation, said he and his colleagues are beset with low morale as leadership demands second and third chances for some of the worst offenders.

"When morale is low, you have inspectors doing half of what they normally can do," the inspector said. "Animals are dying for no reason. It's despicable."

"It's hard to get sympathy from the USDA," Howard said. "The USDA is contributing to the puppy mill problems. If the USDA properly enforced the Animal Welfare Act, there would be 1% of the puppy mills that operate today."

About 100 USDA inspectors are responsible for monitoring more than 6,000 commercial dog breeders and dealers across the country and an additional 14,000 zoos, carnivals and research labs. 

Ed Green, a Washington D.C. attorney who lobbies for more USDA enforcement, said the agency has a "cumbersome, incompetent bureaucracy" that fails to use its limited resources wisely. 

"The USDA has a broken culture," Green said. "They just do things the same old way because that is how they've always done it."

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