Susan Franz’s kennels landed on the Humane Society of the United States’ “Horrible Hundred” list for the third time this year after an inspection found a multitude of fleas and a dog with a crusted lesion on her neck and red, inflamed skin on her rear legs. Four dogs listed in her records were nowhere to be seen. One was dead, Franz said, and the others had been “donated,” the report said.
Franz’s Belton, Texas, business was among 55 repeat offenders in the 2017 report, intended to warn the public of problem puppy mills and puppy dealers in the United States.
Earlier inspections of the kennels turned up a dehydrated puppy and piles of abnormal looking feces on the floor of one kennel that were crawling with worms, according to the Humane Society.
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A woman who answered the telephone at the number listed for the kennels hung up and a message seeking comment was not returned.
Five years after the Humane Society’s first report, it continues to find horrendous conditions across the country — emaciated dogs with open, festering wounds, rats feces in food, and puppies with mange. Its “Horrible Hundred” is not meant to be comprehensive, but to expose conditions prevalent among disreputable dog breeders and brokers.
The Humane Society publishes the list each year to draw attention to the persistence of problem, but this year the task was more difficult than in the past. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed thousands of animal welfare inspection reports from its website, citing privacy concerns and litigation.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said it has reposted many of the inspection reports, except those that contain personal information that is protected by the federal Privacy Act. Only reports involving individuals or homestead businesses have not been restored, said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the inspection service. She said the USDA did not know how many reports had been reposted versus how many had not.
“They put a tiny sliver of the inspection reports up in a difficult search format,” countered John Goodwin, the senior director of the society’s Stop Puppy Mills campaign, who accused the USDA of protecting breeders who had abused or neglected animals.
This year’s report was compiled from state inspection records in those states that inspect puppy mills, USDA records preserved before the agency removed them, court records, consumer complaints, investigator visits and media reports, the Humane Society said.
It showed Missouri topping the list for the fifth year with 19 kennels followed by a three-way time among Ohio, Kansas and Pennsylvania, each with 12. Last year, Iowa had the second largest number of kennels, then Kansas, Ohio, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
But if the USDA has made it more difficult for the public to obtain inspection reports, progress in curbing puppy mills has been made in cities and towns across the country, Goodwin said. Two hundred and fifty-one local governments have outlawed the sale of commercially raised puppies in pet stores, up from 100 at the beginning of last year.
Opponents of the legislation — who argue such laws could shut down businesses — have backed state-wide laws pre-empting such local laws. Arizona and Ohio have approved pre-emption laws, though they are under appeal, Goodwin said.
Goodwin noted that of the top 25 pet retailers, only one, Petland, still sells puppies, and it questioned the USDA’s decision to remove the inspection reports and called for a balance between privacy and transparency.
“As a responsible pet store chain, Petland has established buying standards that are based on inspections conducted and reported by USDA inspectors,” its president, Joseph J. Watson, wrote in a letter to the USDA in February. “Petland stores are required to obtain USDA inspection reports for every puppy that originated from a regulated kennel. Access to reports via the (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) website is critical in this effort.”
Dog sales make up less than 2 percent of the pet industry’s $70 billion yearly business, Goodwin said.
Puppy mills typically keep their dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary kennels, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. To maximize profits, female dogs are bred repeatedly with little time to recover between litters and they are killed when they can no longer reproduce, it says. Puppies often arrive at pet shops or in new homes with diseases ranging from parasites to pneumonia, it says.
Many people do not know that the mother of a puppy bought in a pet store is trapped in a cage at a puppy mill, according to Goodwin. And dogs ordered online sight unseen were also likely born in a puppy mill. He recommends adopting a pet through a shelter or a rescue organization or if bought from a breeder, insist on seeing how the mother dog lives. Reputable dealers want to screen potential buyers to make sure their puppies are going to good homes and so do not sell them in stores.
There could be up to 10,000 puppy mills in the United States, although an accurate count is difficult because breeders often operate out of view and with no oversight, the ASPCA says. Some 1.8 million puppies are born in such conditions each year, according to estimates.
Many of the puppy mills are in the Midwest, especially in rural areas where family farms have been devastated by industrial agriculture and some have turned to breeding dogs to make a living.
Missouri is centrally located and has more than 100,000 farms. In the 1980s, most of the dogs were being raised in chicken coops because the chicken business had been taken over by conglomerates, Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. In the 1990s, the same situation occurred with hogs. The problem has been hard to tackle because many kennels are hidden away, according to the alliance.
Missouri has made progress in eliminating more than half of its puppy mills — from 2,000 kennels in 2011 to 800 now, according to the alliance. There are 50,000 fewer breeding dogs confined in puppy mills as a result.
The drop was a result of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, passed in 2011, which increased the standards of care and for the first time gave the state’s attorney general the power to prosecute kennels, according to the alliance. A special unit was established in the Attorney General’s Office, the governor appropriated an additional $1.3 million and the number of inspectors was increased from seven to 18.
The state began requiring continuous access to water and the outdoors for the dogs, hands-on veterinary exams, improved floors and space requirements that at least double the federal standard, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Facilities with violations are inspected more often, and those with substantial and ongoing facilities are to be closed.
But now the alliance and other animal welfare groups are gearing up to fight any rollback of regulations. As Gov. Eric Greitens reviews all regulations with the goal of eliminating those that affect businesses negatively, they are urging the public to oppose any repeal of ones governing puppy mills.
“We know the dog breeding industry is committed to repeal of regulatory protections,” Kathy Warnick, the president of the Humane Society of Missouri, said in a statement on the group’s website. “Many caring, passionate Missourians and animal welfare organizations worked very hard for years to put into place regulations protecting the thousands of dogs in breeding facilities.”
The governor’s office did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The USDA enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966 and most recently amended in 2008, and which sets basic standards for animals bred for sale. The Humane Society and other animal welfare groups have criticized the standards for being so minimal that licensed dealers can keep hundreds of dogs in small, stacked cages with no exercise as long as they are provided with basic provisions such as food and water. They want breeders to be required to provide more space for the dogs, regular exercise, better veterinary care and the removal of wire floors in the cages.
Last year, the USDA revoked the licenses of seven puppy mills that had appeared in past “Horrible Hundred” reports, but the Humane Society called such revocations rare. More than two dozen of the problem puppy mills identified in its last few reports have closed, but it charges that many puppy mills are never inspected at all and others are protected by inspectors who fail to record violations accurately.
An internal audit at the USDA in 2010 indeed found that its own enforcement process was ineffective against problem breeders and dealers. Its inspectors took little or no action against most violators, relying instead on educating them about the regulations, a strategy that seems not to have worked. The audit noted that from 2006 through 2008, when 4,250 violators were re-inspected, 2,416 had repeatedly violated the Animal Welfare Act.
In addition, the USDA inspection service leveled minimal fines even after Congress had tripled the maximum penalties allowed, and it reduced the fines awarded to encourage violators to pay rather than demand a hearing, the audit said.
And some large breeders circumvented regulations entirely by selling animals over the internet, the audit found.
After the audit, the inspection service created standard procedures for all inspectors to follow, hired a kennel specialist, and sought stiffer sanctions in cases involving problematic breeders or dealers, it said. It revised the definition of retail pet store to ensure that animals sold over the Internet and by phone- and mail-based businesses are better monitored for overall health and humane treatment, it said.