Missouri tops the 'Horrible Hundred' puppy mill report yet again. Missouri dog breeders are pushing back.
Missouri pet breeders and the Humane Society of the US agree on one thing: Missouri animal welfare standards for dog breeders are higher than federal ones.
Earl Light's Corn Creek Kennel operation in Phelps County was prominently included in the Humane Society of the United States' ninth annual "Horrible Hundred" report documenting animal suffering at what it calls "puppy mill" dog breeders.
So were 20 other Missouri breeders.
The Washington, D.C.-based group released the latest report Monday, decrying "dogs languishing across the country in puppy mills, many of which are licensed and still in business despite years of animal care violations."
Violations covered by the report include ones "for injured and emaciated dogs, dogs and puppies exposed to extreme weather, and dogs found living in filthy conditions," HSUS said.
For the ninth consecutive year, Missouri topped the list with 21 dog breeders portrayed as "puppy mill" operations. Ohio was the runner-up, with 16. Because of the patchwork of animal-welfare laws across the 50 states, it's impossible to consider their report a list of the "worst dog breeders," HSUS said.
"There are approximately 10,000 puppy mills in the U.S., and many puppy mills are not inspected at all, thus no verifiable records on their conditions exist," report-writers argued.
HSUS says its report is assembled each year based on "combing through" federal and state inspection records for violations and other evidence of suffering animals, along with a review of "consumer complaints and undercover footage."
What do Missouri dog breeders say?
Even so, Missouri pet breeders pushed back on "Horrible Hundred" findings.
"Ninety percent of it is a lie," Light, with Corn Creek Kennel, said Tuesday when asked about the report. "We're inspected by the state, we're inspected by the USDA, and we've got to be in compliance with all of it."
Differences between state and federal animal-welfare enforcement were a key theme in this year's "Horrible Hundred" report. HSUS bemoaned a yearslong drop-off in USDA inspections, roughly coinciding with the start of the Trump administration in 2017.
Now that the Biden administration is running the country, USDA enforcement could improve, a key HSUS official told the News-Leader a few hours after the report was published. "But that remains to be seen," said John Goodwin, who serves as the Stop Puppy Mills campaign senior director at HSUS.
States are more effective on animal welfare than the feds, Goodwin said.
"The state regulators are definitely doing a better job than the USDA," Goodwin told the News-Leader shortly after HSUS released the 2021 "Horrible Hundred."
The News-Leader reached out to the USDA's animal welfare inspection division, which did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
For at least three years, the Humane Society report argues, USDA inspectors haven't revoked "a single dog breeder license or penalize(d) any problem dog breeders under the Animal Welfare Act."
Light's operation is an example of this divergence between state and federal enforcement, HSUS argues in the first few pages of "Horrible Hundred."
The new report says Missouri inspectors cited Light's operation last year "for issues such as kennel flooring covered in feces, cages rusting apart, matted dogs and more." USDA hasn't done an inspection since May 2019, the "Horrible Hundred" states, though Light told the News-Leader he'd seen the USDA inspector "roughly about a year ago" and that he's talked to the inspector since.
Light said if a visiting state or federal inspector shows up at his operation, he tells them about an issue "right up front."
"Look, I find stuff that I don't like and everything like that, and also I've got a small farm, so I'm busy all the time," the 84-year-old Light argued. "Sure, I miss something once in a while, I don't deny that."
If an inspector shows up before Light has his cleaning done for the day, he said, "they ought to be able to tell the difference between, excuse my French, the new (expletive deleted) and the old (expletive deleted)."
Missouri inspectors cited Light's farm in 2020 because kennel flooring was covered in feces, cages were rusted and dogs' fur was matted, HSUS reported.
A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Agriculture verified that those specific citations were correctly reported by HSUS and that a photo of a dog in a rusty cage at Light's farm cited in "Horrible Hundred" was authentic.
"It does not live up to the animal care standards Missouri has in place, specifically the broken kennel that created sharp points along the top," the spokesperson, Sami Jo Freeman, told the News-Leader by email Tuesday. "Corn Creek Kennel was issued a violation following this inspection and we continue to monitor the facility with inspections."
Freeman said Corn Creek Kennel was inspected in August 2020, October 2020 and January 2021 and that Missouri inspectors "will be following up again soon."
'Our laws in Missouri are harsher' than feds, dog breeder says
Cleaning issues are often exaggerated in the "Horrible Hundred," argues Ann Quinn. Like Light, she's a Missouri pet breeder. As the News-Leader previously reported, Quinn's Dreamaker Farms operation is located in Niangua, and Quinn serves as publicity director for the Missouri Pet Breeders Association. MPBA publishes a pet-breeder directory and a quarterly magazine to share its perspective, Quinn said.
Quinn referenced a recent "write-up" pertaining to a Missouri dog breeder. "They wrote her up for the dirt on the doggy doors," Quinn said. "Doesn't (the inspector) know it's been raining for weeks and of course there's got to be dirt around?"
A USDA write-up is a serious issue for a dog breeder because brokers and pet stores often won't work with a breeder that's earned a citation, Quinn said.
But Quinn's assessment of Missouri enforcement versus the federal government's was actually similar to the one offered by Goodwin, the Humane Society Stop Puppy Mills campaign director.
"State inspectors are doing a better job because our laws in Missouri are harsher laws than the USDA has to deal with," Quinn said. "The state is appropriate, but the feds are way off base."
The agriculture department isn't the only government authority watching out for suffering animals. The Humane Society noted that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office has been "cracking down on some of (Missouri's) most notorious repeat offenders," citing legal actions taken against three Show-Me State breeders in recent months.
"I think that's been a bright spot," Humane Society's Goodwin said. "Missouri has always been at the center of the puppy mill world, with a large number of puppy mills in Missouri.... when some of the highest elected officials in the state realize that taking action to at least shut down the very worst ones, it's a very good, popular thing to do."
A spokesperson for Attorney General Schmitt declined to comment for this report.
Goodwin said he and the Humane Society support more information-sharing between government agencies on animal-welfare violations. For example, he'd like to see USDA report violations to local sheriffs, he said.
"But we've just been glad that Missouri Department of Agriculture has continued to cite people, including people who you would think were completely fine with the law, if you were only looking through USDA," Goodwin said.
Petland stores criticized
The Humane Society report also criticized Petland stores for selling dogs from some of the "Horrible Hundred" breeders, including ones in Missouri. A spokesperson for Petland, Elizabeth Kunzelman, said the 2021 puppy mill report "is rife with misinformation and false statements about Petland."
"HSUS alleges eight of the 100 breeders listed are linked to Petland, and some of the suggested links are questionable and/or outdated at best," she told the News-Leader in a Tuesday email. Kunzelman added, "Unlike HSUS, at Petland we actually visit breeders and work with them on their continuous education programs. At Petland, we care about where American families will obtain their next pet and we support responsible American breeders."
Goodwin, with HSUS, wasn't buying it. "Petland claims to have a breeder pledge that they make their breeders sign, and they claim to have all the standards," he said. "And yet every year, we find numerous examples of people in the 'Horrible Hundred,' who have sold at Petland stores, and don't come close to meeting those standards that they tout to their customers."
Missouri data on animal welfare inspections
Freeman, the spokesperson for the state agriculture department, said Missouri's passing rate for pet-breeder inspections over the last 5 years is 89 percent. Missouri inspectors performed roughly 2,900 inspections per year in 2019 and 2020; up from roughly 2,580 in 2016 and 2017, she said.
"The vast majority of Missouri’s licensees meet the animal care expectations outlined in state and federal law," she said.
HSUS advised that families who want to get a dog "can avoid contributing to this cycle of suffering and heartbreak by refusing to buy a puppy from a pet store or Internet site, or from any breeder they have not met in person and carefully screened," echoing the advice of many other animal welfare advocates.
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