OWENSVILLE, MO. • Louise Loeb steps on the biosecurity doormat and instructs her visitors to do the same, disinfectant squishing up as shoes press down. She washes her hands and then opens a glass door leading to one of the most controversial industries in Missouri, a business sector heavily scrutinized for the past year and now operating in a cloud of distrust stirred up by a bitter fight over new regulation.
This is a dog-breeding operation.
Inside, a single line of 16 elevated cages sits in a bright room about the size of a mobile home, a white-walled space dotted by potted flowers. At the sight of Loeb, 25 dogs — Yorkies, poodles and Maltese — bounce in their cages. The barking drowns out the room's air purifier and climate-control system. Each cage has a bowl of Royal Canin dog food and an automated water nozzle. A few dogs excitedly paw at plastic doors opening to small, shaded outdoor runs.
"Hush up. Shhhhh," Loeb, a grandmother and retired drafter, says to no avail.
This is not a problem dog breeder. Loeb-A-Rosa Kennels is not the reason most Missouri voters last November approved Prop B, a ballot measure enacting stiff new rules for dog breeders. Nor is Loeb-A-Rosa the reason animal activists and others cried foul as state lawmakers gutted Prop B, replacing it three months ago with weakened regulations. Gov. Jay Nixon called it a compromise. A Humane Society of the United States official, echoing many activists, called it a travesty.
Loeb's small kennel is considered by state regulators to be one of the best, "a model for others," as described in its last inspection report. And that's saying something in Missouri, home to more dog breeders than any other state by far, about 1,250 breeders in all, producing an estimated 40 percent of the puppies sold nationwide.
But the fight over Prop B, at the ballot box and in the Statehouse, resulted in a toxic environment. So even Loeb, one of the state's best breeders, was staunchly against it. She is suspicious of claims that Prop B was aimed just at cleaning up the industry.
"It was focused at me," Loeb says. "They wanted to get me out of business, and they came that close."
The 'puppy mill' capital
By most accounts, dog breeders had run of the state for years. Kansas once was considered the nation's puppy mill capital, according to Bob Baker, a longtime animal welfare investigator and now director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. But in 1988, Kansas passed its first dog-breeding laws. Breeders moved to Missouri. They settled mostly in the state's southwestern corner. Although Missouri followed with its own breeding rules in 1992, enforcement was a problem. A 2001 audit, among several, criticized state inspectors for going at least two years without fining or suspending a single breeder.
"For years," Baker said, "the Department of Agriculture had been horrible."
That led to Prop B going on the ballot and winning 51 percent of the vote. Public outrage had boiled over with the constant parade of dogs rescued from subpar breeders and shame over Missouri's moniker as the puppy mill capital. The Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals largely bankrolled the effort.
Victory was short-lived. The industry has an estimated $1 billion to $2.5 billion annual economic output in Missouri, according to the Missouri Pet Breeders Association. Immediately after Prop B passed, breeders complained they would be shuttered by the new rules. A limit of 50 breeding dogs would cripple larger operations. Outlawing the stacking of cages and requiring bigger cages would be too costly.
Lawmakers were listening. After a convoluted legislative process, those provisions and others were stripped or changed. The cap on dogs was gone. Limits on breeding frequency were abolished, but a veterinarian could impose them in certain cases. Cage sizes had to triple, but not for five years. And instead of solid flooring for cages, the new law said flooring should not sag and had to be thick enough so paws would not get caught.
The Humane Society and ASPCA were outraged.
"It was unfair, premature and wrong," Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle said recently.
But two major animal groups in Missouri supported the new bill. This resulted in a very public and rare split among activists. It's still such a touchy subject that one of those state groups, the Humane Society of Missouri, based in St. Louis and with no connection to the national group, declined to make president Kathy Warnick available for an interview to discuss the division.
State animal groups worried about losing all of Prop B's gains. Lawmakers were poised for a full repeal. Prop B was reduced to a bargaining chip.
"What we did get back was only because of Prop B," said Baker of the Alliance for Animal Legislation. The new law "is different, no doubt about that. But it is just such a huge improvement for the dogs."
It tasted like a defeat. But many consider Missouri to now have the nation's second-toughest dog-breeding statutes, behind only Pennsylvania.
The question is whether the new law will be enforced.
The problem before was not that Missouri had weak dog-breeding laws, Baker said. The laws were being ignored.
Enforcing the law
A Department of Agriculture division, the Animal Care Facilities Act program, is responsible for inspecting dog breeders.
At Loeb-A-Rosa last week, one of those inspectors stopped by for a visit with the Post-Dispatch. A six-year veteran, Dawn Wall has seen plenty of changes in the program, especially in the last two years. Some were small but important: She now wears a uniform of state-issued green shirt and khakis. Her truck now is equipped with a computer, a printer for issuing inspection reports and a GPS unit.
"With new management, priorities change," Wall said.
The new management is agriculture director Jon Hagler. He took over in 2009 and cleaned house. Half of the dog-breeding inspectors were shown the door. "Some were professional reasons and some were retired," Hagler said. He appointed a new program manager. He recently added two inspectors, bringing the staff to 13. Two new inspectors and two new investigators of unlicensed breeders are still to be added.
As a result, the number of inspections more than doubled from 2008 to 2010. Staff completed the same number of inspections in the first half of 2011 as in all of 2008. Violations shot up 84 percent from 2008 to 2010. And since 2008 the number of licensed dog breeders in Missouri has fallen 30 percent.
The state attorney general's office now has a staffer focused solely on animal cruelty. Last month, the attorney general's office used the new dog-breeding law to obtain a temporary restraining order against a breeder in Monett, Mo., for alleged violations.
"With all the rhetoric that went around in the debate, what was lost was that the program is a much different program today that it was in prior years," Hagler said.
The Missouri Pet Breeders Association agreed. "In past years, it was more lax," its president Barbara York said.
The national Humane Society's Pacelle admitted state inspectors are doing a better job. "Enhanced enforcement is welcome. It was always welcome," Pacelle said. "We just don't think good enforcement is a substitute for replacing Prop B."
Animal welfare groups also are wary that the state's attitude toward dog breeders could change with a new administration. That's one reason Prop B so strictly defined what was expected of breeders, down to the smallest details. Prop B didn't just say dogs should not be overbred; it specified what that meant: Dogs get one heat cycle off after every two on.
The new bill does not limit breeding frequency — and it left many details for the agriculture department to flesh out. Some of those rules were unveiled last week, including what type of cage floors will be permitted.
Change is coming
Loeb picks up a Yorkie puppy and strokes its black and tan hair. This one is going to a couple flying in from Colorado. Two years ago, Loeb was getting $1,000 a puppy. Now, due to the economy, she's asking $400 to $500.
She raises no more than 20 puppies a year. She tries to breed her dogs just once a year, something her veterinarian disagrees with.
"He told me, God made the dogs to breed twice a year," Loeb recalls. "How would you like to do that, that's what I told him."
For now, she's going to keep doing it her way.
But Loeb is curious. She wants to know if her cages are big enough to meet standards taking effect in 2016. Wall gets a yellow tape measure and black calculator from her truck. She makes notes in a small notepad, taking into account the sizes of the dogs and the square-footage of the cages.
The answer is no.
Even one of the state's best kennels will not be good enough.