State inspections at Iowa dog breeding facilities are supposed to take place on a “surprise” basis, but some of Iowa’s biggest offenders have their inspections scheduled at their convenience.
Although the United States Federal Department of Agriculture is responsible for federal animal welfare law enforcement, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship also plays a role. Under Iowa law, all USDA licensed commercial dog breeding facilities operating in Iowa must also have a permit or license from the state Department of Agriculture.
The state does not perform routine inspections at these USDA approved facilities. The state Department of Agriculture has released information indicating that if it receives a complaint about such a facility, it will forward it to the USDA and may “assist USDA with an inspection” or take ” additional measures ”not specified.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture says in a guide published for breeders that its inspections of these facilities are “unannounced.” But state records show that even when dealing with ranchers with a history of serious and recurring violations, state inspectors don’t just inform ranchers of the exact time and date. on their next visits, they consult the breeders as to the most appropriate times. for them.
For example, Kurt and Hollie Pille of St. Anthony, Iowa, run a breeding operation that has been cited for many problems and is among the 100 worst puppy mills in the country.
In January of this year, state inspectors visited Pilles facilities and reported that some dogs had no protection from the cold and most only had frozen water in their kennels.
Other issues discovered during the January inspection included a “lack of roofing” in an outhouse that put dogs at risk, filthy conditions and dogs exposed to unfinished walls and exposed insulation they risked. to ingest.
Iowa Department of Agriculture inspector Stephanie Black wrote in a January report that “bassets do not appear to be adequately protected from the elements and wind. It is the licensee’s responsibility to ensure that all animals are protected from freezing and that the litter cannot be blown away.
Later in January, Black returned to the facility and wrote that “the roof of the large outbuilding remains in question,” but added that the dogs inside the building were “protected from falling debris with a change. sufficient structural “. Black’s report suggested there were too many animals for Hollie Pille to take care of, stating: “The population is currently 34 dogs in adult care. The conversation about the reduction will continue.
In early February, Black was heading to the facility to perform another inspection. In his notes on this visit, Black indicated that it was a pre-arranged date. She wrote: “Scheduled for 10:30 am. During the trip, the appointment was canceled due to a personal and family emergency. I will try to reschedule the week of February 8, 2021. “
Black then emailed Hollie Pille and said: “Thanks for asking Kurt to contact me to reschedule today’s meeting.” I currently have Monday or Wednesday of next week available, if 10:30 am is fine with you. Let me know what day.
Hollie replied: “Let’s do Wednesday at 10:30 am, I’ll see you then.”
Black replied: “Hollie: My Wednesday is already booked. My first opportunity in your area is Friday February 12 or Tuesday February 16. Do any of those mornings work for you at 10:30 am? “ According to Black’s notes, Hollie never responded.
In February, Black visited the facility. In her notes, she wrote: “On this day Thursday, February 25, 2021, 10:54 am, I am attempting an unannounced inspection. The residence seems occupied, with the usual cars on site. The front door is not accessible on foot due to loose canines. I tried a text message and a phone call. Ms. Pille seems to be avoiding regulation. I sat in the vehicle in the driveway for twenty minutes.
In March, Black returned and found the facility to be in full compliance. She wrote that although the roof of the outhouse was still in poor condition, the four dogs housed there were “protected by a covering of sections of fence”.
She also noted that the walls that were once covered with exposed insulation were now covered with plastic sheeting and that she had a “realistic discussion” with the owner about “heated bowls or buckets of water for the winter 2021 “.
State agency: some inspections must be announced
Iowa Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Keely Compass said the agency tries to make all of its inspections unannounced, but adds that this is not always possible.
“If we go there a number of times and can’t reach someone, we might need to set aside an hour,” she said.
Animal advocates say this process makes no sense: All a dog breeder needs to do to avoid a surprise state inspection is violate federal regulations that guarantee inspectors access to any licensed facility during normal business hours.
As this violation rarely results in a sanction, a breeder is at risk by simply refusing to come to the door or answer the phone.
“We have often heard that ranchers who are not ready for inspection will simply not answer the door and accept a minor ‘unavailable’ violation, instead of getting more serious violations,” said Mindi Callison. of Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa-based company. animal rights group.
“It does a huge disservice to the animals in their care because inspectors don’t see how these animals live year round. We saw it in the case of the Daniel Gingerich puppy mill, where he refused entry to an inspector and said, “Just quote me for refusing the inspection.
Gingerich is a Wayne County rancher who now faces state and federal penalties for dozens of animal welfare law violations. Federal officials say that this summer, Gingerich has repeatedly refused to let them into a barn on his property in Seymour, telling inspectors to simply write to him for denying them access. Eventually, inspectors got inside and found 27 dogs Gingerich had allegedly hid there under “unsanitary” conditions, including dogs that were dead, emaciated, or left without water.
Callison said it is important for inspectors “to keep an eye on the facility, even when making an appointment” there must be consequences for denying inspectors access. Nebraska, she said, imposes a re-inspection fee of $ 125 on ranchers in such cases, and also charges them a fee based on the inspector’s mileage.
Under the Trump administration, the USDA moved away from surprise federal inspections. In 2018, the agency sent licensees a letter announcing a pilot project that would use scheduled and advertised inspections to determine whether they would improve “the effectiveness of our inspection program and improve the humane treatment of animals.”
This proposal died after animal rights groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animalsprotested. At the time, the organization said the planned and announced inspections “gave puppy mills enough time to clean up unsanitary conditions and temporarily conceal ailing animals.”
Asked how often dog breeders in Iowa are notified in advance of the specific time and date of a state inspection, Compass said she would follow up on this issue with “the animal team ”of the department and would report. The agency has not yet provided this information.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch recently requested access to all emails Black has exchanged with the Pilles. A representative from the Iowa Department of Agriculture said the access charge would be $ 25 per hour to retrieve emails, plus 25 cents per page. The Capital Dispatch declined the offer.