By Kathy Mordini
Who’s looking out for the dogs in Iowa’s puppy mills
Debra Pratt’s puppy mill, one of Iowa’s most notorious, was finally shut down as of the last weekend in April. The dogs were auctioned off at the facility in New Sharon, Iowa. As the last of the dogs left the facility, animal advocates in the Midwest have been left with more questions than answers.
The auction itself, which was held at the puppy mill instead of an offsite location, was disorganized and fraught with confusion. However, it was what rescuers saw at Pratt’s mill that was even more disturbing. From the animal debris on the property to the condition of the kennels, the sights, sounds, and smells were jarring to even the most experiences rescuers.
“There were tufts of fur and bones peeking out of the top soil, sporadically littered across the farm,” says Amy Heinz of A Heinz 57 Pet Rescue and Transport. Her group had been at an Amish auction the previous day and thought they had seen the worst then. “There were little dog bodies left like garbage to decompose and disappear as if their lives had no meaning.”
“This was one of the worst we’d seen,” since Molly Marino of the Chicago English Bulldog Rescue. Her organization saved 23 dogs through the auction. “The ammonia stench was so bad the experienced rescuers were vomiting and had to leave the kennel. The dogs were stinky, covered in sores, full of skin infections, ear infections, tail infections, and eye ulcers.”
“There were so many; hundreds of dogs living in such horrific conditions,” added Heinz. “My mind was almost paralyzed trying to comprehend, or justify, or make any kind of sense as to how this could possibly be allowed in the State of Iowa, by the USDA, and just the simple laws of humanity and our innate sense of right and wrong.”
Problems at the Pratt mill were not new. The USDA had found repeated violations during inspections going back several years that have been documented on the USDA’s Animal and Plant inspection site (APHIS). As far back as three years ago, the operation had been sited for poor ventilation, lack of proper care for the dogs, and veterinary issues. Although certain problems had started to escalate according to USDA reports, the mill continued to operate.
Then in late March, there was another inspection. Instead of just one inspector, three came to the property. That inspection resulted in a 19-page report highlighted by an unheard of 25 violations from one inspection. Those violations provided detailed information on health issues for the dogs that had been ignored, severe matting, poor kennel conditions, lack of veterinary care, and more–all clear violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
It appears that that inspection may have been the end of the road for Debra Pratt’s puppy mill business. The auction was held the end of April.
Removal of dogs from the mill
“We think it was a deal between her and the USDA—a quick thing that she had to get out—no one talked about the terms between the two,” says Nancy Harvey of the Iowa Voters for Companion Animals. She was there to observe and help pull and transport dogs for other rescues. “We do know that there were rescues that came in and pulled at least 100 dogs out of her place in early March, well before the auction.”
Many of those dogs also had serious health issues and authorities were contacted at that time. Although Harvey was shocked by what she saw on sight, she wasn’t surprised. Her organization was very familiar with Debra Pratt’s puppy mill and the continued bad reports.
“Our organization has a wall of shame for really horrible puppy mill people,” says Harvey. “Inspectors will take pictures of the dogs that are suffering and not doing well. One of her dogs was featured on the wall of shame. We knew that her puppy mill definitely stood out as very bad, with horrible inspections over and over.”
Who’s watching the mill?
As a USDA licensed breeding operation, Pratt’s puppy mill was subject to USDA inspections, which could have resulted in that organization pulling her license. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) does inspections at state-licensed facilities, but not those licensed by the USDA unless a formal complaint is filed. IDALS issues USDA licensees an operating permit, but has no regular oversight of them. Sometimes local humane organizations or law enforcement step up and investigate, closing facilities down.
“There are no checks and balances and no one is watching the USDA,” says Harvey. “We have tried to get local law enforcement to take action on this business and others based on the reports. We need more for probable cause to get a warrant for the sheriff to be allowed on the property. There often isn’t enough time or a good way for us to get that documentation.”
A couple of other things stand in the way of local enforcement. Iowa has a strict “Ag Gag” bill. Under this law, anyone who gains employment in an agricultural facility under false pretenses and records what is going on without permission of the farmer is guilty of a criminal offense. If you’re caught and convicted, you face serious misdemeanor charges greater than anyone accused of animal abuse will face.
Who foots the bill?
Another issue is costs as well. These dogs were auctioned off and the operator made money. However, if law enforcement officials had stepped in and closed the operation down, the local community may have footed the bill to house and vet the animals and connect them with rescue. Farmers in Iowa face fines when livestock is found in this condition, the same should hold true for companion animal operations.
“In a perfect world, the USDA would have shut her down, and organizations like the Humane Society of the United States or APSCA would set up kennels and shelter to help with the rescue operation. They would help with vetting and expenses” says Harvey.
“What happened here was that the mill operator auctioned the dogs off and may have made money on the situation. The rescues bid to rescue the dogs and now are paying veterinary bills to get the dogs back to normal. It’s just wrong.”
Disarray and confusion at the mill
Everyone I spoke with has talked about all the confusion at this auction. Usually dogs are numbered and tagged and there is some paperwork for a health certificate that would at least have records of vaccinations. That wasn’t the case here.
“There was mass confusion on site at the auction,” says Harvey. “Dogs were not tagged or document and Pratt was sitting in a tent giving vaccinations. They finally called in a veterinarian to the site. It was the most disorganized auction I’ve ever seen.”
There are also questions that came up during the day as well. Heinz’s rescue had bid on a small dog that they named Victor. He looked rag-tag, but fine when they bid on him. By the time the rescue claimed him after the auction, his face was bloody and his jaw was broken to the point it couldn’t close. They’ve set up a Facebook page to keep Victor’s story in the public eye. Donations are also needed.
“The other thing that has us very concerned is that we don’t think all the dogs have been removed from the property,” says Harvey. “There was an old mobile home with moms and newborn or very young puppies. Those dogs didn’t go up for auction. We’ve been working to find out what happened.”
Other dogs that didn’t drive up the price ended up being sold for $10 or so. Harvey pulled a couple of Chihuahuas and has passed them to a friends rescue. In the meantime, the rescues that won dogs at auction are getting them spay/neutered and getting other medical issues handled by veterinarians. Then, the socialization begins since many of these dogs have not had a kind human touch.
The rescues that have pulled the dogs have been closely documenting abuse and other issues. Most are more than willing to work with investigators if charges are pursued. Heinz and another rescuer met with Charles Stream the new county attorney in the area in the days after the auction to follow up on the remaining dogs.
He called the manager of the Oskaloosa Shelter and asked her to drop everything and head to the property with the sheriff. Unfortunately, they didn’t go until the next day. By the time she went the following day, Pratt wasn’t answering her door and there had been ample time to remove any remaining dogs.
According to several people interviewed for this report, requests were made to IDALS and several other prominent animal welfare organizations—state, regional and national—to send representatives to this auction to oversee how the animals were handled. The hope was also that they would document any violations, health issues, and/or public safety concerns.
According to USDA records, Iowa has the second most licensed puppy mills after Missouri. As far as animal welfare laws are concerned, Iowa ranks 48 out of 50 states. Illinois ranks in the top five.
To learn more about the groups working to make a change in Iowa, check Iowa Friends of Companion Animals (IFCA) and Iowa Voters for Companion Animals. IFCA investigates and works on educating the public and lawmakers about puppy mills and the Voters organization works on new legislation for Iowa.
Chicago’s fight against puppy mills
In Chicago, The Puppy Mill Project continues to educate consumers about the connection between puppy mills and pet stores and Internet pet sales. The organization is working to tighten laws and has worked with several pet stores to stop selling puppies and move to an adoption model.
The organization’s annual Mother’s in the Mills benefit this Saturday at John Barleycorn’s at 149 West Kinzie in Chicago. The Puppy Mill Project holds their benefit on Mother’s Day weekend each year to remember the mother dogs left behind in the mills. This year’s event will honor Sonja Raymond and her family, owners of Chicago’s oldest pet store Collar & Leash. The store stopped selling puppies and kittens on April 1 and now hosts adoption events.
Kathy Mordini is an animal lover who has counted rescue pets as a member of her family since she was a child. As a writer, she is passionate about advocating for homeless pets and the rescues that give these pets a second chance. She also volunteers for The Puppy Mill Project. Read her pet rescue columns on the Examiner and her pet care columns on Doggy Woof.