Feds hide info on worst puppy mills

By Clark Kauffman
Des Moines Register

Ten of the nation’s 100 worst puppy mills are based in Iowa, according to a new report from the Humane Society of the United States.

But federal policies make it almost impossible for the public to find out exactly where they are or who is running them.

Iowa has long been home to some of the most troubled dog breeders in the nation. This year, Iowa has 10 breeders on the Humane Society of the United States’ “Horrible Hundred” list, an annual compendium of puppy mills deemed by the nonprofit to be among the worst in the country.

Only two states have more facilities on this year’s list: Missouri with 23, and Ohio with 13.

According to the Humane Society report, dozens of dogs in federally licensed, privately run Iowa facilities have been found dead, neglected, injured or suffering from untreated diseases.

At least one of the 10 Iowa facilities in the new report has a Class B dealer license, which means it is authorized to sell not only its own animals to pet stores and other retailers, but dogs bred by third parties.

The report is based on inspection data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In February 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump took office, the USDA removed from its website all the animal-welfare inspection reports that for five years had been publicly accessible as part of a searchable database.

A few months later, the reports resurfaced on the USDA site, but with the names of the facilities, their street addresses and their owners blacked out, making it impossible for people to attribute the violations in the reports to a specific facility.

The USDA initially promised to provide nonredacted versions of those same reports to anyone who filed a formal, written Freedom of Information Act request for the documents.

However, many of the people and organizations that have followed that procedure say they have waited months for a response, only to be given reports that are even more heavily redacted.

Over the past year, Tracey Kuehl, an animal-welfare advocate from Davenport, has filed more than 150 FOIA requests for USDA inspection reports. She said that on average she has had to wait 154 days for the documents — and in each case, she said, the inspectors’ findings have been blacked out.

One of the requests was for reports pertaining to Happy Puppies, a Cincinnati, Iowa, operation run by Henry Sommers.

After waiting nine months for the records, Kuehl received 199 pages of reports — but all of the inspectors’ findings, along with the accompanying photographs, were entirely redacted. Forty-one videos shot inside the kennel also were withheld.

The USDA, Kuehl said, told her that the potential “embarrassment or harassment of the licensee” outweighed the public’s interest in the inspectors’ findings.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the USDA will soon begin testing “announced inspections” — whereby facilities will be told in advance when to expect a visit from government inspectors.

The USDA said the move is intended to improve “the efficiency of our inspection program.”

The Humane Society of the United States is now suing the USDA for access to nonredacted inspection reports, arguing that consumers “cannot realistically use or rely on” the released versions to assess either the facilities being inspected or the federal government’s diligence in policing them.

The USDA hasn’t responded to the lawsuit.

Because some of the USDA’s redacted reports include the cities where the facilities are located and there is only one USDA-licensed facility in those cities, the Humane Society has attached names to some of the violators in its new report.

In other cases, the organization used nonredacted state inspection records to definitively identify certain operators.

Among the Iowa facilities on the 2018 list:

o  A Warren County breeder where inspectors found dogs that had maggots and beetle larvae in their food and animal enclosures that allowed dogs’ feet to fall through the mesh flooring.

o  A Bloomfield facility where a dead Chihuahua was found with a large, open abdominal wound that had gone unnoticed by the facility’s operator. During the same inspection, two other Chihuahuas were found with severely overgrown and curved nails.

o  An Appanoose County facility that was cited for multiple repeat violations. Inspectors observed a Yorkshire terrier that had one foot swollen to twice its normal size; a puppy that had swollen eyelids and yellow discharge from its eyes; and a bichon that had an open wound on her neck. During a 2015 visit at the same facility, several dogs were found with such advanced dental disease that they had missing teeth or couldn’t hold their tongues in their mouths.

o  A Chickasaw County facility where 14 dogs were found to be in need of veterinary care during a March 2018 inspection. One dog was bleeding from the mouth; another had a “completely red” and oozing eye; other dogs had patches of missing hair and irritated skin; and several dogs showed signs of dental disease or injured feet.

o  Dean Dekkers’ Double D Kennels in Sioux County, where inspectors reported dogs in unsafe enclosures that had inadequate living space and were polluted with excessive feces. The facility also was cited for insufficient staffing. During a state inspection last November, Double D Kennels received only conditional license approval after failing to meet several requirements related to ventilation, living space, waste disposal and veterinary oversight.

o  A Knoxville kennel where an inspector found an emaciated Shih Tzu nursing six puppies and an emaciated poodle who appeared “depressed and lethargic” with little body fat or muscle.

o  A Lucas County facility where inspectors found 17 dogs in need of veterinary care. Some of the dogs had infections, dental disease and other injuries, and one reportedly “cried out” in pain while being handled.

o  A New Sharon facility where inspectors reported two German shepherds with raw, open wounds and a dachshund that had signs of advanced dental disease.

o  Sioux Center’s Shaggy Hill Farm, an unlicensed kennel that has housed at least 140 dogs. Earlier this year, Shaggy Hill Farm was denied a license after a state inspector, who could hear “multiple dogs barking,” was denied entry.

o  A Unionville facility where dogs were found outside in January at a time when the temperature had dropped to 7 degrees. The dogs’ water bowls were frozen solid. One dog was in emaciated condition with its ribs and backbone showing; another dog was observed licking the snow; and a third was seen licking the ice in its water bowl. After an inspector told the staff to give the dogs water, the animals drank profusely, inspectors reported.