Iowa shutters Pratt puppy mill, but what took so long

Iowa shutters Pratt puppy mill, but what took so long
Dogs with cherry eye, skin issues and other health problems were common at Debra Pratt's puppy mill. Photo courtesy of the USDA.

It’s finally the end of the road for one of Iowa’s most notorious puppy mills. Thanks to an agreement with the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Debra Pratt has lost her state permit to operate her puppy mill. After years of USDA violations and an auction where most of her stock was sold to the highest bidder, Pratt is finally prohibited from continuing to operate her commercial dog-breeding operation.

“To see another animal abuser taken off the USDA-licensee list is a good thing,” says Mary LaHay, founder of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals. Her organization educates about puppy mills and works to change the laws in Iowa that regulate the industry. “One more down and many more to go.”

The settlement and penalties

Last month, Pratt reached a settlement with Iowa’s Department of Agriculture that has resulted in her permanently losing her permit to operate a dog breeding operation. She’s now prohibited from operating a breeding operation or leasing her property or dogs for the same purpose.

This is an areal shot of Debra Pratt's puppy mill.

This is an areal shot of Debra Pratt’s puppy mill. Photo Courtesy of Iowa Animal Welfare Alliance.

Although the state statute calls for a three-year penalty, Dr. David Schmitt from Iowa’s Ag Department says part of her settlement was a permanent ban. In Iowa, those with permits and a USDA license may sell wholesale (to brokers, pet stores, etc).

Pratt was also fined $7,800 by the state of Iowa – the largest fine issued by the state for puppy mill violations. On the federal level, at least two larger fines of $12K and $17k were issued to dog breeders in Iowa by the USDA in other cases. While the fine seems large, it’s miniscule compared to the amount of cash the auction of her dogs generated back in April.

The story behind the Pratt puppy mill

To people familiar with the case, the question is – why did it take so long? For years, she’s had a growing list of violations during USDA inspections. She also made the top 100 worst puppy mills in a list generated by the Humane Society of the United States. She was on the watch list for animal advocates around Iowa.

When her dogs went up for auction in April, seasoned animal rescuers were sickened and appalled by what they saw at her puppy mill (see story) and called it one of the worst puppy mills they had ever seen. There were discarded dog carcasses, bones and tufts of fur scattered around the mill, feces infested cages and a stench so bad, it made many people ill.

Here are a few of the dogs that lived in the substandard conditions at Debra Pratt's puppy mill. Photo courtesy of USDA.

Here are a few of the dogs that lived in the substandard conditions at Debra Pratt’s puppy mill.
Photo courtesy of USDA.

Rescuers that pulled dogs from this puppy mill reported a litany of problems caused by years of abuse and lack of veterinary care (see Project Mercy and Victor’s story). A large number of the breeding females had Brucellosis, a canine venereal disease that may also be passed to humans

“It’s sad, but puppy mill owners can do pretty much do whatever they want, the dogs are their property,” says LaHay. “Unfortunately, there are not enough USDA inspectors to do the proper checks. The inspectors also don’t have much in the way of teeth enabling them to pursue civil penalties against breeders. They would need to go to the state to have criminal charges filed and it’s only through that route that animals could legally be confiscated by law enforcement agencies.”

So in this particular case, Pratt’s puppy mill racked up violations year after year. Each time the USDA came through, it got progressively worse. The ventilation was bad and cages were caked in feces. There was inadequate food, water and veterinary care. The list goes on in on. Finally, a team of three investigators visited the puppy mill this spring to tabulate the long list. Pratt allegedly made a deal with the USDA to auction her dogs to prevent forfeiture.

Turning to other agencies

Cases like this were the norm at the Pratt puppy mill.

Cases like this were the norm at the Pratt puppy mill. Photo courtesy of USDA.

So then, why rely on the USDA? First of all, it’s almost impossible for independent investigators to properly document what goes on at puppy mills in Iowa. The state has a stringent Ag Gag bill that prohibits anyone who is not law enforcement from taking photos at farms and breeding operations without permission. If you’re caught, the fines are worse than those for animal abuse. That makes it much more difficult to document in undercover investigations. Although it’s up for debate whether the law covers commercial dog-breeding operations, it has been a deterrent to those who would pursue undercover investigations.

County officials could step in and prosecute under local animal cruelty laws, if they have probable cause. However, counties are very vulnerable to the cost of rescuing, housing, offering veterinary care and other costs that quickly add up when mills are closed down. Costs skyrocket the longer dogs are housed prior to the case going to court.

The impact of the Pratt case

“The good news about this case is that it got a lot of news coverage from the people who went to the puppy mill and saw how bad it was,” says LaHay. “That spotlight helped bring a lot of awareness to what is going on in Iowa puppy mills. It also helped us connect with the many great reputable farmers in our state that don’t want to be associated with that type of business in their industry. It’s sanctioned animal abuse hiding behind the skirts of the USDA.”

Another view of the Pratt puppy mill.

Another view of the Pratt puppy mill. Photo Courtesy of Iowa Animal Welfare Alliance.

LaHay says the work being done in Iowa in the fight against puppy mills has had an impact on the industry. In the past several years, the number of federally licensed puppy mills in Iowa has decreased from 450 to 233.

“Although this is the tip of the iceberg, I think we’re reaching a tipping point on getting the word out about this industry and the Internet has had a lot to do with that,” adds LaHay. “It’s so much more than subjecting dogs to inhumane conditions. It also creates a significant consumer protection issue. And then there’s the tax issue. This is a multi-million dollar industry and many times, sales and income taxes are not being paid.”

In the meantime, animal advocates in the state continue to watch Debra Pratt’s New Sharon, Iowa location for any activity. Since she’s not reached an agreement with the USDA, there’s concern that her business could start up again somewhere outside of Iowa.

Puppy Mill Awareness Marches and Walks

Iowa Friends of Companion Animals hosts a Dog Walk in Des Moines Saturday for Puppy Mill Awareness Day.

Iowa Friends of Companion Animals hosts a Dog Walk in Des Moines Saturday for Puppy Mill Awareness Day.

September is National Puppy Mill Awareness Month and this weekend many organizations will be holding events to shine the light on this cruel industry. On Saturday, Iowa Friends of Companion Animals will hold their Fourth Annual Awareness Walk at Gray’s Lake Park at 2101 Fleur Drive in Des Moines. The Puppy Mill Project and Chicago-area rescues will march on Michigan Avenue from Noon to 2 p.m. for the second straight year. The march stars in front of Tribune Tower on the Southeast side of the street (Details here).

If you’d like to read additional stories about puppy mills, check out these links.

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    I am a crazy cat lady and puppy mill warrior that blogs to advocate and educate about pet issues. In American animal controls, millions of pets are abandoned each year and an estimated 4 million die just because there are not enough homes. It truly seems like it’s Raining Cats and Dogs.

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