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Humane Society takes in 135 dogs from S. Missouri

A Beagle/Boston Terrier mixed breed dog is held while it's claws are clipped on Wednesday morning, Feb. 26, 2014, at the Humane Society of Missouri in St. Louis. A Howell County breeder voluntarily surrendered 135 dogs to the Humane Society. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Eight years ago, Missouri voters enacted new rules to crack down on so-called puppy mills. After a rewrite by legislators, state inspectors gained a new set of teeth: a beefed-up ability to ask the attorney general’s office to sue kennels.

One advocate said the new power put the “fear of God” into substandard breeders, many of whom left the business. But for nearly three years, the state Department of Agriculture has not referred any new breeders to the state’s chief law enforcement office.

“They have never referred any substandard breeders for any new legal action,” said Bob Baker, the president of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. “That is very disconcerting to us.”

Between 2011 and 2015, the agriculture department referred more than 45 settlement reviews and enforcement recommendations to then-Attorney General Chris Koster’s office, according to a Post-Dispatch review of attorney general records.

And after that — almost nothing.

The Department of Agriculture had not referred a case to the attorney general’s office since Nov. 23, 2015, except for one that was referred in May after the license of a substandard dog and cat shelter in Lincoln County expired.

The Department of Agriculture insists the agency has not changed its policies. But the pause, some say, means that the state has given breeders the implicit go-ahead to skirt Missouri law. Breeders interviewed say inspectors and animal-rights activists are as overbearing as ever.

“If I was not doing things right, I would not still be licensed,” said Kim Coleman, a Clinton, Mo., breeder who has ended up on advocates’ bad breeders lists.

Sami Jo Freeman, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, said the state’s inspection regime is centered around getting breeders “into compliance” rather than funneling them to the attorney general’s office.

“For us, the inspection process is a chance to get people into compliance, not necessarily to just refer them to the attorney general’s office,” she said. “And for us, that process is really about identifying ways they can improve their facility.”

Marilyn Shepherd, a breeder from Ava, Mo., said state inspectors have not let up on her.

“I don’t get along with them,” she said. “That’s why my inspection reports are as crummy as they are.”

On animal advocates, who continue to single out her operation, she said: “Whatever they said is probably a bunch of bull-----.”

Missouri’s 2011 law — edited by lawmakers after the 2010 passage of Proposition B — mandated unfettered access to the outdoors, prohibited wire-strand flooring, required larger kennels, mandated increased veterinary care, and placed new limits on how often dogs could be bred.

“It literally makes our breeders some of the best in the nation,” said Hank Grosenbacher, former president of the Missouri Pet Breeder’s Association. “Even some of your rescues and shelters — they would probably never let you quote them on that — but some of them will admit, they’ll say, ‘Yep, you know, Missouri’s done a good job since Prop B.’”

Grosenbacher said that after new regulations were phased in, the effect was “very dramatic and very severe” on perhaps hundreds of operations that may have closed at least in part because of the new rules.

In 2010, there were 1,490 licensed breeders in the state of Missouri, according to the agriculture department. By 2015, that figure shrank 47 percent, with 785 licensed breeders left in the state.

Grosenbacher said that Proposition B was effective in transforming the industry by prompting facility upgrades and teaching breeders best practices. The number of breeders has ticked up — to 893 this year — in part the result of a strong nationwide demand for puppies, Grosenbacher said.

The lack of referrals coincides with when Koster was preparing his 2016 run for governor. It also aligns with 18 months of recent Republican rule in Jefferson City, with two GOP governors and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley in control of the state’s bureaucracy.

“If the Department of Agriculture has stopped referring cases to the attorney general’s office, that means they’re basically not doing as much as they can be doing to enforce the law against bad actors,” asserted Jessica Blome, a former assistant attorney general who launched the Canine Cruelty Prevention Unit in the attorney general’s office.

“As soon as there’s any signal at all that there’s a letup, or a backing down, or relaxing of enforcement standards, then the bad actors go right back to business as usual,” she added. “And there’s always new people coming into business.”

Before passage of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act in 2011, the department could only refer operations that posed a “substantial ongoing risk to the health and welfare of animals” — a high bar that meant referrals were rarely made, Blome said.

Now, the attorney general can sue and seek fines for any continuing violation of the Animal Care Facilities Act or the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.

Baker said he spoke with Hawley on the phone on June 1, and said Hawley agreed his office had the authority to criminally prosecute problem kennels absent a referral from the agriculture department. After the phone call, the attorney general’s office’s consumer protection division began reviewing a list of what Baker said were the worst kennels.

Hawley, in a statement, said that the Department of Agriculture has the primary enforcement responsibility and that without a referral from them, his office cannot take civil enforcement action.

“The Legislature has created a system where the Missouri Department of Agriculture plays the primary regulatory role in this area,” Hawley wrote. “My office has authority to take civil enforcement action only when MDA refers a case to us — and we vigorously prosecute those cases.”

Hawley’s office said it is customary for local prosecutors to bring criminal charges of canine cruelty.

Blome, who started the canine cruelty unit during Koster’s administration, said Hawley’s predecessor took an active role in emphasizing his office’s new powers.

“Under Attorney General Koster, I was given a really long leash,” Blome said, adding that she coordinated with a team of investigators with the agriculture department and the attorney general’s office to prepare cases.

“Breeders understood that if they got in trouble with the Department of Agriculture, they would be referred to the attorney general’s office and Jessica Blome would sue them.”

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