Disposable pets

From the road, it looks like a typical rural dwelling. The only things visible from the gravel lane are a mobile home and a long, dirt driveway. Once on the property, there’s no barking or other evidence suggesting that at least two dozen dogs occupy a plot of land with their human caretakers.

Randy and Suzie Long start their days early. Five days a week, Suzie leaves the mobile home to drive to her Westport hairstyling business in Kansas City, 73 miles from the Akita Rescue operation they have established on their land in Williamsburg, Kan., 45 miles south of Topeka in Franklin County.

After his wife leaves, Long tends to the chores of taking care of at least 20 Akitas, two pot-bellied pigs and two horses, one of which had been maimed by its owner to collect insurance money. “There is not a typical day in what I do,” he says. “But there are constants that have to be maintained.”

Long visits the two rows of large dog runs and waters, feeds, and gives treats to all the dogs, then plays with them so the dogs get a consistent dose of human interaction. Kennels are cleaned several times a day and when he is not tending to the physical needs of the animals, Long does administrative work: answering e-mails about rescues, setting up rescues in other states and wading through the paperwork necessary to obtain a 501 C (3) non-profit status with the IRS for the Akita Adoption and Rescue of Mid-America.

“This will allow for donations to be tax deductible for individuals and corporations. It would also allow for more effective fund-raising designed to improve our facilities, hire some staff, help defray the medical bills for the dogs we care for and increase our outreach,” Long says.

Randy and Suzie Long’s rescue is just one of the hundreds of grassroots animal rescues that have cropped up in Kansas and Missouri. For more than a year, the Longs lived on the property in just a pop-up trailer with no running water or electricity. They took their life savings and bought the property to operate their rescue. They became involved in rescue work five years ago when they were seeking to adopt an Akita from the founder of a Akita rescue who was retiring.

“There really was a huge need for rescue in this breed because there was no other rescue,” Long says. “I haven’t seen any changes (for animal welfare) that I can attribute to improvements in the laws. Pets are still sold by millers and backyard breeders without proper vaccinations and wormings, too early, and without the least in terms of education or advice for purchasers.”

The Akitas are ancient Japanese hunting dogs that date back 2,500 years. They are large dogs similar to Malamutes or Huskies, and can weigh up to 150 pounds. “They were originally used in mating pairs to hunt the Yezo bears,” says Long. The Japanese later started breeding the dogs to make a larger and tougher breed for fighting. Since then, Akitas have been used as retrievers and police dogs.

The dogs are extremely friendly to humans and fiercely loyal to their owners. Because of their size, they are not a particularly popular breed and have gained somewhat of a tainted reputation — like many other breeds — because some owners illegally fight and exploit them.

“People still try to use them for fighting, and many (Akitas) also need to be kept away from other dogs of the same sex,” Long says. “Like with any breed a person is thinking of getting, the dog should be researched to see if it would be compatible with the family.”

At least half of the dogs at the Long rescue site come from puppy mills (Missouri ranks as the No. 1 puppy-producing state; Kansas follows a close second) and the rest were voluntarily relinquished by their owners.

“I have heard them all,” Long says while handing out treats to the anxious but friendly dogs. “From one person who said she got new carpet and the dog didn’t go with the new decor, to one person who told me her dog had a special ability to carry and transfer poison ivy on its skin.”

A few times a week, Long travels to Ottawa to pick up damaged sacks of donated dog food from Wal-Mart; to Melvern to haul water to their cistern and to Guy & Mae’s, a restaurant in Williamsburg that donates meat trimmings for the dogs.

“I don’t like to leave the place for long,” he explains. “We have been harassed by someone who doesn’t like us being here since we moved in. They have called the local sheriff and told him we are doing animal experiments and turned us in to the state several times. Of course, their complaints are always dismissed.”

Long’s facility is properly licensed as a rescue, a privilege he says costs him $200 a year. “We aren’t making money doing this and it only costs $100 more to operate a puppy mill in the state,” he says.

Worse yet, last New Year’s Eve morning, on the Longs’ wedding anniversary, Randy Long left the farm for only a couple of hours to buy a doghouse and when he returned found two of his dogs shot in their runs. “The one that didn’t recover was such a sweetie,” he recalls. “He was my own personal dog and was only 18 months old. He had been shot in the neck from about five or six feet and most likely didn’t die right away. I could tell by the blood trail that he was standing on his hind legs in his run to greet whoever shot him. That dog had never even barked or growled at anyone in his life.”

The local sheriff came out and filed a report, but the shooter has yet to be caught. “I don’t do a lot of things because I feel bad, because Randy almost never leaves here,” Suzie Long says. “We can’t leave them alone.”

Long says the local sheriff did what he could to find the shooter. Even if he is caught, however, it’s likely the case may not be prosecuted. Rural county prosecutors who have to try animal cruelty in the courts often find themselves overworked and understaffed, with too many cases to handle. And because breeders are supposed to be regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and state health departments, many local prosecutors are hesitant to cross the line and criminally prosecute commercial facilities. The USDA is only allowed to bring administrative charges against commercial breeders, which could include penalties of fines or shutting down the facilities.

Jackson County, Kan., located about 30 miles north of Topeka just off Highway 75, has its share of puppy mills, according to animal welfare activists. They say one of the most horrific of those, called the Nielsen Farm, operated on the outskirts of Holton, Kan., for years.

“I went in there very stupid. I thought all people cared for animals until I visited that place,” says Patty Bowser, president of the local Heart of Jackson Humane Society. “I was very naive at that point.”

At the time, Bowser was a groomer in a veterinarian’s office when she first came in contact with Amy Nielsen, the owner of the puppy mill. Nielsen brought one of the dogs into the clinic because it wouldn’t breed or grow hair. “The dog was completely stressed. I cleaned her up and told (the owner) to take her home and give her some love,” Bowser remembers.

Bowser says she mistakenly assumed Nielsen cared for the animals because she had brought one in to the vet. Bowser later learned the dog was most likely only brought in so she could recover and breed again.

Bowser says she went to the farm twice thinking she could help some of the dogs by grooming them there. “There were cages stacked upon cages, and the dogs in the upper cages would urinate and it would just fall onto the dogs in the lower ones. It was like a concentration camp for animals,” she recalls.

Bowser claims after she witnessed Nielsen pulling a dog’s teeth without the benefit of anesthesia, she could never go back. “It was sickening. I had never seen anything like it in my life and all because she didn’t want the vet bills.”

Local animal activists had been complaining to the Kansas Animal Health Department and to the USDA about the Nielsen Farm. Both agencies are responsible for oversight of breeding facilities in Kansas. The USDA is charged with enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which is supposed to ensure those animals in commercial breeding facilities and circuses have adequate food, shelter, and medical and other basic care.

“Some of the laws regarding state and federal laws overlap,” explains Peter Wood, research associate for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

When seemingly no action was taken in the Nielsen Farm case, animal activists called PETA and one of their undercover investigators went to work at the Nielsen Farm. “We have this terrible place on tape,” says Wood. “One of the USDA inspectors came in supposedly to do an inspection, glanced at the dogs and then asked one of the Nielsen employees out for a date.”

Rumors and allegations about the Nielsens’ closeness to the USDA had circulated through Jackson County for some time. Activists allege that Bill Nielsen, Amy’s husband, once worked for the USDA as a supervisor and that he had friends at both the state and federal levels who controlled the inspections. “The inspectors would always call before they came out — just to make sure they were home,” quips Bowser.

Craig Reed, an administrator for the USDA, wrote a letter dated Dec. 17, 1999, to a California resident when she complained about possible violations of the AWA on the Nielsen Farm. The letter stated: “The PETA report also alleged that the Animal Care employee (USDA inspector) had a conflict of interest, claiming that he had a previous relationship with the facility owner, ‘a former USDA employee and supervisor,’ and that he had engaged in a personal relationship with a facility employee. The allegations regarding possible misconduct by the Animal Care inspector are being evaluated by our Agency’s Human Resource Division and by the Resource Management System and Evaluation Staff.”

Jim Rogers, public relations coordinator for the USDA, did not return phone calls to confirm that Bill Nielsen had worked for the USDA. However, a source who wished not to be identified says she spoke with a USDA employee this past week and was told that Nielsen used to work in a department that is now known as Risk Management.

When PETA completed its undercover work and the local Topeka media turned their attention toward the operation, the Nielsens decided to hold an auction and close the farm. Undercover PETA investigators and local animal welfare activists infiltrated the sale held last October and were able to buy dogs being auctioned.

While still lobbying the state of Kansas and the USDA to act on complaints, which would only bring administrative charges against the Nielsens, PETA also wrote Jackson County Prosecutor Michael Ireland and asked that criminal charges be filed against the Nielsens for violations of the local animal cruelty laws.

PETA’s tactics, which sometimes have been described as radical and violent, have often alienated the middle-of-the-road and more conservative animal activists. Ireland says he found Peter Wood to be a “rude and insensitive jerk.” In both a telephone interview and in a letter to Wood dated Feb. 22, 2000, Ireland expressed that he has limited resources and that he has to choose his fights.

“When I have a 36-year-old male who puts peanut butter on his penis so his three-year-old neighbor girl can lick it off, and 36-year-old mothers who burn their two year old with a cigarette lighter, I choose to find those more important than a dog not having adequate bedding,” wrote Ireland.

“You fight your fights and I’ll fight mine. But don’t ask me to sacrifice the limited amount of time, energy, and resources I have to make sure a dog has adequate bedding when I have children suffering. If I haven’t made myself perfectly plain, you’re never going to get it.”

“We are not asking that he pick one law over another,” counters Wood. “We are asking that he enforce all of the laws. I guess he is the one who doesn’t get it.”

Local activist Maureen Woodhouse-Cummins agrees. “Michael Ireland and I are close friends, and we have had this discussion many times. I don’t believe in selective law enforcement and he has prosecuted many cases at my urging,” she says. “I just received a letter that he will be pursuing a dog starvation case I brought to him.”

Ireland says he doesn’t turn a deaf ear to cruelty cases, but he believed this case to be a “name-calling match” between PETA and the Nielsens. “Since the operation was shut down, I didn’t see what pressing charges would accomplish,” he says. “The Nielsens wanted to pursue charges against (PETA’s) people for their behavior at the sale, and PETA wanted to pursue charges against them. I told them both ‘no’ and hit the daily double. I made them all mad.

“I advised PETA that if they didn’t agree with my decision, they could contact the Kansas attorney general,” Ireland adds. “I have only had the attorney general step in and file charges once in my 17 years of prosecuting.”

Ireland said that before the sale at the Nielsen Farm, he had never heard of the Nielsens. “I had never had any complaints against them, and I don’t believe the sheriff’s department had never been called out there,” he says.

Bowser says that since she became involved in animal welfare, she has been harassed and even threatened by county employees. “When we were on a bird mill case, Michael Ireland asked me himself: ‘Why don’t you get yourself a life and quit worrying about these animals?'”

Bowser adds that on a recent horse welfare case, a county jailer told her that Ireland was after her.

Ireland said he probably did tell Bowser to get a life. “But you have to take it in the context of what was happening,” he says. “These women broke into this lady’s house, and I was a little upset by that. I did file animal cruelty against the (bird) lady. We did end that case with a win-win situation because most of the birds were removed from the woman.”

Ireland defended some of his decisions and behavior by saying, “In this business, we have to develop a defense mechanism such as a weird sense of humor or we would go home and cry every night. I wore a cockatiel tie to that trial every day. We may have made some light of it, but I don’t think it ever offended anyone. We have kind of an ER mentality in that we have to find some way to cope with what people do to each other everyday.

“I was probably more flippant with Wood than I should have been. But I am a guy who doesn’t care about political correctness. When someone asks me a question, they will get a direct answer.”

The Nielsen Farm is out of business and the USDA has filed a formal complaint against it for AWA violations. Rumors have it that the Nielsens didn’t sell all of their dogs and were setting up another breeding operation in Arizona. Efforts to interview the Nielsens were unsuccessful.

According to Rogers, the USDA complaint will follow the Nielsens no matter where they try to obtain a license. “The complaint is against the people, not the location,” he says.

But considering activists had tried to get the facility shut down for three years, why did it take so long for the USDA or the state to act?

Marshall Smith says he was a USDA inspector in Missouri for 19 years before his job was discontinued by the agency. He now works for an animal rights group called In Defense of Animals.

“The USDA is basically just window-dressing. They are so negligent in doing their jobs about the most effective way to get them to do something is bring embarrassment to them,” he says.

Smith believes his job was discontinued because he was very critical of the process to protect animals and enforce the AWA. He says that several years ago, the USDA had started cutting the inspection staff down by one-third and he started looking for people who were being forced into retirement to testify against the cuts at a Senate appropriations hearing.

“I had put in for a promotion and was offered the job,” he explains. “When they found out I was looking for people to testify against the agency, the job offer was withdrawn. After that, I sat at home for one year on salary with no assignments.”

Smith then filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in Washington, D.C., before his job was axed by the agency. “They basically agreed with my lawsuit and started giving me assignments again, but they were little ones that I had no chance of winning in a hearing,” he says.

Smith admits the USDA had given him the opportunity to move to Texas when his job was cut, but he still questions why inspector jobs were being cut in Missouri, where there are over 1,000 licensed breeders/dealers.

Since he began working for In Defense of Animals three years ago, Smith has gone undercover with two television newsmagazine programs to try to bust puppy mills. According to Smith, Don Foster owns one of the most notorious mills in Macon, Mo., which is a few miles from Springfield. “When I moved here in 1986, this guy had a terrible reputation for his facility,” says Smith.

USDA acknowledges that Foster has been charged and fined for breaking basic animal care laws associated with AWA enforcement. In August 1997, Foster was fined $15,000 — $11,000 of which was abated; $2,000 as directed toward upgrading his facility, and $1,000 paid to the government for prosecution of the case. Some of his more serious violations were failure to provide veterinary care and failure to provide the animals with clean, sanitary conditions.

Foster also was told that if he were found to have any violations at the facility during the next two years, the $11,000 portion of the fee that was abated would be reimposed. By February 1998, USDA inspectors were still finding violations at the Foster facility and those were documented through 1999. Smith says that as of now the facility is still operating with a license, and Foster has not been ordered to pay the reimposed fine.

When reached by phone, Foster said he had violations last year but contends that his last inspection three to four months ago was clean. “The biggest complaint the USDA had was identification of animals, which has nothing to do with the welfare of the animals,” he says.

Foster claims that the $2,000 directed toward upgrading the facility went toward new wire flooring on the cages. He says he has about 100 dogs of several small breeds and sells 200-300 puppies to pet stores per year. “My cages are not stacked and are lined with fiberglass.

“But I think it is highly discriminatory that I have to be licensed and breeders who sell directly to the public and the pet stores do not,” Foster says.

“I really can’t comment on the Foster case,” says the USDA’s Rogers. “It is labeled as an ongoing investigation.”

Breeders who are often referred to as backyard breeders and run ads in papers to sell directly to the public do not have to have a license with the USDA. Legislation has been introduced in Kansas giving the state jurisdiction over USDA-licensed breeders to ensure that they provide “adequate veterinary medical care” to animals they breed and sell.

HB2485 would give the Kansas Department of Agriculture the power to require a yearly on-site veterinary visit, humane care, and the ability to fine the breeders and dealers if they fail to take an animal to a veterinarian when ordered. The bill further provides the agency access to breeder and dealer records.

Although HB2485 is designed to strengthen the AWA and help the USDA, it doesn’t call for any stronger action to be taken against noncompliant breeders than what the USDA already could be imposing. Many facilities have done business for years with documented noncompliance items.

Most animal activists and rescuers agree that a large portion of the animal overpopulation problem comes from licensed puppy mills and unlicensed backyard breeders. Puppies from the Nielsen Farm have been traced all over the United States, including to an upscale store in Trump Plaza in New York City.

Some activists blame the American Kennel Club (AKC), which is responsible for issuing papers on registered full breeds. “It is obvious when a breeder registers thousands of dogs through the club a year that they are running a puppy mill. But do you realize how much the club is taking in for registration fees from these irresponsible breeders?” asks one rescuer.

There is also a problem with the overpopulation of cats. Many cat rescuers agree that the problem lies within individual owners letting cats have kittens. Although the National Society for the Protection of Animals (NSPA) sometimes will care for dogs, their main focus in the Kansas City area is on cats.

“We just don’t have the facilities yet to care for dogs and we don’t have foster homes for them,” says Barbara DeGraeve, president of the organization. She has turned her house into a licensed cat shelter and harbors 55-60 cats in her Johnson County home. She says that “Adopt a Pet” programs at area Petsmart stores are the shelter’s main outlets for finding homes for the unwanted animals.

The NSPA also works on bringing charges in animal cruelty cases. A few years ago its main focus was on legislation.

“The members said that the order of importance for our efforts should be rescue, spay/neuter programs, legislation, and education,” DeGraeve says. The NSPA is raising funds to open a shelter facility in an abandoned building in downtown Kansas City, Kan.

The Humane Society of Greater Kansas City says the key is education. “We will support these bills as they come up and we will write letters,” says Lorna Helmig, director of shelter operations. “We don’t really spend a lot of time lobbying. We try to focus on educating the public.”

In the past few months, the Humane Society has recruited star spokespersons such as KC Royal Johnny Damon to go into the schools and speak with children about how to treat animals. The Humane Society has supported and advertised such initiatives as National Spay/Neuter month.

The number of unwanted animals euthanized in this country every year varies, depending on the reporting agency. Helmig says the latest figures she has come from an article that appeared in The Kansas City Star, which surveyed all main shelters in the metropolitan area for their 1997 figures.

“They reported that the shelters took in 48,888 animals that year. Some were adopted out and owners claimed some. But about 27,304 of those animals were euthanized.” Nationally, numbers range anywhere from 6 million to 13 million. “I think it has changed in the past 25-30 years. There are more animals being spayed and neutered, and generally, people are taking better care of their pets. Every little thing we do helps,” Helmig says.

One thing that troubles the Humane Society is rescue groups and shelters calling themselves “no kill.”

“You would really do a great service to the animal welfare community if you didn’t label any of us as ‘no kill,'” says Lisa Pelofsky, public relations coordinator for the society. “It really is a disservice to the people who work in animal welfare every day because all of us may have to be involved in the decision to euthanize an animal at some point. If an animal is injured and suffering, we will euthanize it.”

Helmig says the society’s facility is not part of animal control and is not required by any agency to keep taking in animals when they are at full capacity. “But the local animal controls and shelters that serve them have no choice. When more come in, they don’t have anywhere to go. It is not any person’s first choice to have to euthanize, but it really takes the blame off of the public when you say, ‘no kill.'”

She says local breed rescues are important because when many of the pure, or even sometimes the mixed, breeds come in and the facilities are full, shelters can call individual rescues to pick up the animals.

“Some shelters are better than others,” Randy Long says. “But there still are many in and around the Kansas City area who will not work with rescue.” Differences in philosophy is one reason he says there are so many rescue groups. “Some people think these big Akitas don’t belong in runs. Well, of course they don’t. But they shouldn’t be euthanized either. We haven’t even begun to come together in this breed for rescue efforts. We are a long way from bringing all of our philosophies together throughout the country.”

Helmig says her perception of the problems that lie within the enforcement of AWA by the USDA is that there are not enough inspectors to cover all of the rural areas where puppy mills are mostly located.

USDA reports that it has only one full-time inspector in the state of Kansas and three shared inspectors with Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. Two are shared with Missouri. Kansas has just over 500 licensed breeders in the state, but it is suspected that there are many more backyard breeders who do not license their operations.

Missouri has eight full-time inspectors (and the two that are shared with Kansas) for more than 1,000 licensed breeders. According to Rogers, the USDA filed administrative charges against six breeders in Kansas in 1999 and 42 in Missouri the same year.

In Reed’s letter to the California resident, he wrote, “With respect to your request for a schedule of our inspections of breeders in the Midwest, Animal Care officials perform random, unannounced inspections of all licensed and registered facilities to ensure the most accurate reflection of facilities’ compliance with the AWA. Disclosing an inspection schedule to the public could compromise these efforts.”

He adds that the USDA is now using a risk-based model, more frequently searching facilities that have a history of noncompliance issues.

Dogs sold from these mills sometimes end up in research facilities, but they are mostly bred to go to pet stores. Local animal rights group People for Animal Rights (PAR) has joined national agencies to try to educate the public about where animals usually come from that are bought in pet stores.

Their educational focus also has been on the pet-theft issue and calling people who run “free to good home” ads in the newspaper, warning owners about the dangers of “bunchers.”

“Bunchers will call these people in ads and use the line that they are looking for a pet, when in fact, they want to come and take the animal and sell it to research facilities,” said Kelly Beard-Tittone, president of PAR. “If these bunchers get desperate, they will also come into your backyard and steal your pet.”

Although USDA-licensed Class B dealers are allowed to sell animals to research facilities, it is against the law for bunchers to misrepresent themselves and, of course, to sell stolen animals to research. The facilities are required to keep records of where they obtain the animals, but these cases are rarely prosecuted.

Smith cited a 1994 case when he still worked for the USDA, in which a buncher admittedly gave false names to a breeder in Arkansas for his records and sold him dogs that he did not know the origin of.

“This was a smoking gun — definitive proof that a licensed dealer was accepting more dogs than he was allowed for the purpose of selling to research. He also knew that the buncher did not breed all of these animals and that he was using false names. All of this is illegal and violates the AWA. Even though I had a sworn affidavit from the buncher, the USDA refused to prosecute the case and the breeder is still in business,” Smith says.

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