Animal advocates take aim at Boone County puppy mills

Animal advocates take aim at Boone County puppy mills
The dogs where stacked high and deep at Kimber Lettier's Boone County puppy mill. Photo courtesy of Brandy Semonich.

Animal lovers in Chicago have some strong company in the fight against puppy mills in Illinois. A passionate group of animal lovers near Rockford is taking aim at Boone County puppy mills and working to make it more difficult for them to do business. Led by animal welfare advocates and the daughter of a local breeder, they are making things happen in their community.

To date, the group has staged awareness protests, uncovered two Boone County puppy mills and become the voice for the voiceless at the Boone County Board and elsewhere. The latest battle started with an altercation at a local puppy mill that has continued in court. This week the battle moved to the county board as advocates started to put the wheels in motion to make it more difficult for puppy mills to do business in their community.

The Lettier Kennel

The latest chapter of the story started with a routine inspection by Boone County Animal Control at Kimber Lettier’s kennel. At some point during the inspection, she reportedly attacked an animal control officer and was arrested and charged with assault. After the incident, she started to call local breeders to warn them about surprise inspections.

The English Bulldogs at Semonich's family kennel. Photo courtesy of Brent Lewis Rockford Register Star.

The English Bulldogs at Semonich’s family kennel. Photo courtesy of Brent Lewis Rockford Register Star.

“My mom is a breeder and received a call from Kimber Lettier warning us that the county was harassing breeders and claiming she was assaulted,” says Brandy Semonich. “When mom’s inspection happened, we asked about Lettier and found out that she was accused of assaulting the animal control officer. Lettier had invited us to come over and check out her operation…so we did.”

Semonich’s mother has been breeding English Bulldogs for over 20 years and is well-regarded for her work. Semonich is also a vet tech. Both women know what lengths the family has gone to carefully breed, care for and socialize their dogs. They weren’t quite prepared for what they found at Lettier’s kennel – a full-scale puppy mill – much like the animal control officer described.

“Lettier told us her kennels were pristine, but that description was not even close,” says Semonich. “She had kennels stacked up and dogs were kept in small cages. There was blood in the cages. It’s like the videos you see from humane investigations…it was just horrible.”

The campaign against puppy mills

That’s when she decided to mobilize and speak out. She had permission to take photos and video and she took them and then shared the photos on social media. Semonich wasn’t really sure who to contact to take her story further.

Kimber Lattier and her dogs. Photo courtesy of Brandy Semonich.

Kimber Lettier and her dogs in her Boone County puppy mill. Photo courtesy of Brandy Semonich.

She eventually connected with Angels 4 Animals, a Rockford advocacy group that protests outside pet stores and works to get the word out about puppy mills. That organization had uncovered another puppy mill  in the community last year. The group mobilized volunteers to attend the court hearings for Lettier in Boone County.

“We quietly stood outside the court house to get the word out to the public before her hearing,” says Kathy Mehalko of Angels 4 Animals. “We wanted to attend the hearing and be the voice for the voiceless – her dogs. She threatened us in the courthouse and had to be moved away from our group even though we were silent observers.”

Lettier pled not guilty and is scheduled to appear in court again on April 9th. As her story has progressed, Semonich and Mahalko made another discovery – Lettier’s operation never should have been open under current county law. Her five-acre property is less than the 10 acres required for a breeding operation and never passed the approval test for neighbors in a five mile radius. She received a special use permit anyway to open up her operation.

Now that that authorities are involved and the spotlight is on the operation, the Lettier Kennel is closed according to Mehalko. Most of the dogs have been moved to Lettier’s mother’s kennel in Tennessee and just a few dogs remain on the property. The battle moved to the county board on Wednesday.

Breeders against breeders

At this point the board is not taking action and encouraged the supporters to take their ideas to zoning and licensing committees. Speaking at the county board meeting, Semonich encouraged the board to adhere to the original laws that include the mandatory 10 acres or more and neighbor approval.

More dogs at Lettier kennel

More dogs at the Lettier Boone County puppy mill.

“A good breeder would never, ever have their dogs in stackable cages or have numerous breeds,” adds Semonich. “We’d like standards that outlaw that and also that require outdoor exercise areas. No puppy mill would follow those laws because it would cost them too much money to do it correctly.”

Along with tougher laws for those breeding dogs in Boone County, she’d also like to see the county enact the same legislation approved in Chicago March 5. That is when the city council outlawed the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits in the city’s pet stores. Boone County’s one pet store doesn’t currently sell cats, dogs or rabbits…but she’d like to prevent new stores that may open in her community from selling pets.

“Since I started to speak up, I have heard from 30 to 40 breeders that are behind what I’m doing 100 percent,” she adds. “Puppy mills give legitimate breeders a bad name. If we don’t speak up against the puppy mills, the whole industry looks terrible. My mom’s dogs are raised in the house and sleep in our beds. They are part of the family – not crammed in crates. She is also very picky about who purchases one of her dogs. Puppy mills don’t care – they just ship them off.”

Getting the word out

Mehalko and Angels 4 Animals held protests in Rockford last year to get the word out about the pet store and puppy mill connection. Their first protest of this year will be at the Cherryvale Mall on April 12. Both Furry Babies and Petland have stores in that area.

Angels 4 Animals held protests outside Furry Babies and Petland in Rockford.

Angels 4 Animals held protests outside Furry Babies and Petland in Rockford.

Mehalko is the person that sounded the alarm last year on the Christianson Kennels. After an inspection where violations were highlighted, Christianson had several dogs euthanized instead of fixing violations (see the story here).

“Boone County’s Animal Control is a very small operation and it’s not a great place,” adds Mehalko. “It’s the least of the worries in the county. I would also like to see laws passed that required licensing fees and fines to set up a fund that would cover the cost of caring for animals as puppy mills are shut down.”

Along with the mall protest, Angels for Animals will be at the Boone County Court House on April 9 at 1:30 for the next court appearance for Lattier. They are also preparing to introduce their own pet store ordinance in Winnebago County (Rockford). Learn more about Angels 4 Animals here.

Learn more about puppy mills in these stories:

Update: Since this post went live, Winnebago County Board member John M. Guevara has championed this cause and has stepped up to get the ball moving for a Companion Animal Protection Act in that county.

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    Raining Cats and Dogs

    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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