DES MOINES — For five years running, Iowa has held an outsized place on the national Humane Society’s annual publication of problematic commercial dog breeders.
Advocates for humane treatment of animals say Iowa’s role as an apparent safe haven for habitually offending dog breeders — often called puppy mills — has been created by lax animal cruelty laws, weak enforcement of those laws and powerful farming groups that resist stricter regulations they fear could encroach into agricultural territory.
Those who have resisted stronger regulation of dog breeders and stronger penalties for offenders say advocates have exaggerated the problem and stricter laws would make it tougher on dog breeders in good standing.
The Humane Society of the United States recently published its fifth Horrible Hundred, an annual report that highlights problem dog breeders across the country. Of the 100 facilities listed, nine are from Iowa. Seven of those are repeat offenders, listed in previous years.
The 2016 list included a dozen Iowa facilities, the second-most in the nation.
That comes as little surprise to Iowa advocates, who for years have been imploring state lawmakers to strengthen the state’s inspections process, animal cruelty laws and punishments for offenders.
“If you spend time looking at inspection reports, the same (dog-breeding) sites that have been problems show up over and over again. It demonstrates, at least to my eyes, that those run-of-the-mill citations aren’t taken seriously because they continue to occur over and over again,” said Tracey Kuehl, a regional director based in the Quad-Cities for Iowa Friends of Companion Animals, a volunteer organization and advocacy group. “They continue to allow these historically and continually poor operators to remain in business without any punitive action to quit doing what they’re doing.”
The Humane Society defines puppy mills as dog breeding operations that do not consistently meet the dogs’ physical, psychological and behavioral needs due to inadequate housing, shelter, nutrition, sanitation, veterinary care and other services.
Iowa has more than 250 puppy mills, according to advocacy groups. The highest concentrations are in the state’s northwest corner, in north Iowa, and in the southeast corner, according to a map compiled by Bailing Out Benji, an Ames-based nonprofit organization founded in 2011 that publishes materials regarding commercial dog breeders.
Inspector citations of commercial dog breeders can range from minor, like missing or improper paperwork, to more serious, like health issues with the dogs.
Among the inspector citations of Iowa breeders in the recent Humane Society report: Dead mice floating in the dogs’ drinking water; eye and dental diseases; a “thick, yellow-green” discharge covering a dog’s eye; deep cuts and oozing wounds.
“No one would guess the cruelty that is happening inside these doors,” said Sybil Soukup, executive director of the Humane Society of North Iowa.
The number of puppy mills has dropped from more than 450 in 2009, according to advocates. But they say stronger laws and punishments would deter breeders from mistreating dogs and bring that number down even more.
Advocates have called for changes to state law, including:
• More state inspections. Currently, the state defers to federal inspectors. But advocates say federal inspectors are understaffed and overworked, and are not required to notify the state of some violations.
• A more clear definition of animal cruelty, and a more clear separation of the definitions of companion animals like dogs and cats, and livestock like cows and pigs.
• Stronger penalties and fines for offenders, especially repeat offenders.
A bill that would have strengthened penalties for animal cruelty passed the Democrat-led Iowa Senate in 2016, but was not considered by the Republican-led Iowa House.
A 2015 bill that would have, among other things, required the state ag department to conduct inspections, did not make it out of committee.
David McDonald, president of the Cedar Rapids Kennel Club, registered in opposition to the 2015 bill.
“In the end, we want fair and equitable laws, and we want responsible breeders, and we want responsible shelters,” McDonald said. “I think the current laws, for the most part, take care of that.”
Dan Zumbach, a state senator from Ryan and a farmer, said farmers are concerned stronger animal cruelty laws could add regulatory burdens to their farming operations.
“Legislation tends to drift, so you always have to be very careful on how you word legislation so it doesn’t have unintended consequences, to ensure the laws intended for companion animals don’t carry over into the livestock industry,” Zumbach said.
Advocates insist their goal is to deter bad breeders, not regulate farmers.
“A lot of them fear if we start targeting large-scale dog breeders, next year we’re going to target hog farmers,” said Bailing Out Benji founder Mindi Callison. “That’s not the case. That’s not the intention of what we want to do.”
Zumbach said he thinks advocacy groups exaggerate inspection reports and provide misleading information to generate support for their cause.
He said infractions sometimes are as simple as “a dirty window or a light bulb out.”
“You have to be very careful that you don’t simply use that term of an infraction as something that works against an animal owner,” Zumbach said. “You put a blanket situation out there and you really hurt some good folks.”
Zumbach accused advocacy groups of presenting “false information” to state lawmakers.
“That really tunes your ears and eyes open to make sure the information you get is accurate,” Zumbach said. “They’ve created an arena where they can’t be trusted.”
While her group was not named by Zumbach, Iowa Friends of Companion Animals president Mary Lahay bristled at Zumbach’s allegations, especially that lobbying groups are spreading false information.
“Everything that we share, everything that we provide, especially to legislators, because we realize we’ve just got to be squeaky clean on everything we tell them, we can back up with USDA data,” Lahay said. “So if (Zumbach) is not trusting what we’re telling him, he must not trust the USDA, either. Because everything we give them comes direct from the USDA.”
Lahay also discounted Zumbach’s suggestion that some inspectors’ reports include minor infractions like dirty windows.
“Good grief,” Lahay said. “Like the USDA has time to spend reporting on dirty windows. ... In fact, we contend that (inspectors) far under-report the problems. We have images that show the kinds of things that they report in these inspection reports.”
Callison said she thinks if advocates are going to achieve any legislative change, they must convince people, including state legislators and dog breeders without a history of citations, that stronger animal cruelty laws would be good for all of those groups.
Callison’s organization takes in dogs from puppy mills and helps get the dogs to no-kill shelters for adoption, and helps point families who want to buy a specific breed of dog to what she called “reputable” breeders in the state.
The work of Bailing Out Benji has been featured in the documentary “Dog by Dog,” which is available on Amazon.
“(Achieving legislative change will take) getting the world to see this issue isn’t black and white. It can’t be rescuers vs. breeders. It has to be rescuers and reputable breeders vs. puppy mills,” Callison said. “The only way (breeders) are going to start supporting legislation is when they don’t feel we’re threatening them.”
Advocates said the work of tracking puppy mills has become much more challenging since a Feb. 3 decision by the USDA to remove inspectors’ reports from its website. The department cited court rulings and privacy laws in removing the reports. The department said individuals may request reports, although federal government responses to Freedom of Information Act requests often take months or years.
Such records were valuable for advocates tracking dog breeders with multiple citations and for people who wanted to research breeders before buying a dog.
“It’s really in a shroud of secrecy. I’m really upset,” Soukup said. “All of a sudden those records are just gone.”