Rescue Groups Seek Political Remedy for Puppy and Kitten Mills
The court case against Sciota Township's Dayna Bell has renewed calls to overhaul a system which activists characterize as "broken every step of the way," while opponents in the legislature view their initiatives as an attack on the free market.
After years of activism, many bills drafted and scores of dead or harmed puppies and kittens, animal rescue groups say they were left empty-handed after the 2012 legislative session concluded—in spite of widespread public outrage prompted by the latest case of an apparent Minnesota puppy mill run by Dayna Bell in southern Dakota County.
In April, Bell was charged with 16 counts of animal cruelty for allegedly killing dogs at her breeding facility just outside of Northfield. With the way the system is structured now, most cases like Bell’s never come to light, animal rescue groups say. At present, the state of Minnesota does not regulate the cat and dog breeding industry and existing animal cruelty laws are rarely enforced.
“Someone has to see it and report it, and then the sheriff has to do something about it and the court has to pursue the charges,” said Nancy Minion, an activist from Woodbury who has led many initiatives over the years. “We're a complaint-based state—the only way that you find out about it is by happening upon it.”
At each step, the case can easily be derailed, said Mike Frye, executive director of Animal Ark, a no-kill shelter in Hastings.
The federal government does not pick up the slack, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture does periodically inspect breeders who voluntarily enroll in its license program. A federal license allows breeders to sell animals wholesale to retail pet stores—otherwise breeders are limited to direct transactions with consumers.
Bell was among this class of breeders, according to an article in the Star Tribune: She became a federally certified breeder on Jan. 3, 2011, went through inspections and was even cited by federal authorities. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's told the Minneapolis newspaper that she had been inspected five times since November 2010 and was cited twice, once in October of 2011 for improper euthanization and again in February for nine equipment, sanitary, record-keeping and other violations.
A federal investigation into Bell's activities is ongoing. However, allegations of abuse went unnoted until a former employee spoke up.
“The USDA is not (an enforcement agency). They're just (a) regulatory (agency),” Minion said. “If they see something during an inspection they don’t have to report it to local authorities that can enforce animal cruelty laws. It's not a requirement.”
More often, federal inspectors simply fine the breeders a few hundred dollars—not much compared to the thousands breeders take in, Minion and Frye say.
With the rise of the Internet, fewer breeders opt to even apply for a USDA license, preferring to fly under the radar in the lucrative online market.
As a result of the regulatory shortfall, Minion says Minnesota has become a haven for breeders fleeing state oversight in Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
“We're becoming a dumping ground for bad breeders,” Minion said.
“The system is broken at every step of the way,” Frye said. “It fundamentally need to be fixed.”
Stalled at the Capitol
However, a legislative remedy has not been easy to come by. In the past, rescue groups were able to successfully lobby to enhance criminal penalties associated with animal cruelty, as well as a pet "lemon law." However, when it comes to instituting the means to properly enforce these laws—state regulation—they have hit a brick wall. Animal advocates have worked tirelessly to push through regulatory reforms, but they say their efforts have been largely unsuccessful, though it is not for lack of popular support.
“Over and over the people of Minnesota have said they want puppy mills to be regulated—if not shut down then cleaned up. They don’t want systemic, widespread abuse,” Frye said.
Nevertheless, in 2012 all bills related to regulation of puppy and kitten mills failed to make it out of committee.
“The (agriculture) lobby has opposed any regulation and they're very influential at the Legislature,” Frye said. “It's always the ag committees that kill the bills. It’s crazily frustrating.”
Minion said that neither the Senate or House chair would agree to grant her bill a hearing.
“The argument over the past six years is that it’s a slippery slope: If you regulate puppy and kitten breeders, then you'll have to regulate cows and pigs,” Minion explained, though she added that unlike livestock, cats and dogs are defined as companion animals in Minnesota. “I’m so frustrated at not being able to pass this no-brainer law.”
At the Capitol, opponents and supporters alike say that activists like Frye and Minion have a difficult lot. Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), chief author of a bill that would beef up regulation, told the Star Tribune that such bill face "an uphill climb" due to resistance from rural legislators whose constituents fear that such bills would affect their small-scale pet breeding operations.
One such opponent is Rep. Steve Drazowski, a Republican who sits on both the Civil Law and Environmental Policy committees in the house. Drazowski grew up on a farm and holds both a Bachelor's and Master's in agricultural studies. In fact, he wrote his Master's project on the what he describes as the "behavior of animal rights industry and their efforts to chip away at good people."
He remains absolutely opposed to introducing new regulations. In his opinion, activists like Frye and Minion have yet to prove that widespread abuse in the industry truly exists.
"The vast majority of folks who raise animals are good stewards of their animals. It's in their best economic interests," Drazowski told Patch on Thursday. "The average pet owner who owns two or three dogs or cats has a lot less experience than someone who cares for animals as a part of their business. It's a very salient argument."
Drazowski finds cold comfort in the distinction Minion and others have made between livestock and companion animals.
"Take horses, for example: Are they a companion animal pet or livestock? Animal rights people will say they're pets and farmers would say livestock. It crosses that threshold," Drazowski said.
Drazowski argued that such "far-reaching policing of animals on property" would simply be an intrusion on business owners in the breeding industry.
"They are very good with their animals and to oppress them with state inspection and regulation because of one or two bad apples doesn't make sense," Drazowski said.
Given the continuing fiscal turmoil at the State Capitol, nowadays even enhancing the criminal penalties associated with animal cruelty would have been unlikely to succeed, said Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center), a small-town police chief that pushed through a law beefing up penalties for those who attack police dogs. Presuming that the bill got through the three or four committees necessary, the fiscal note alone would probably kill it, Cornish said.
"It's hard to get stricter penalties passed, even where humans are concerned," Cornish said. "If you want to change a crime from a misdemeanor to gross misdemeanor, it comes back with a big fiscal note and doesn't pass."
Cornish said numerous laws had been thrown out due to budget constraints, even when they found ample support among the legislators themselves. A bill that would change reckless driving charges that resulted in a death from a gross misdemeanor to a felony died after the cost was found to be too high. Efforts by animal rescue groups would likely meet a similar fate.
"They've got quite a row to hoe," Cornish concluded.
Nevertheless, activists hope the upcoming election will turn the tides in their favor.
Back at Bell Kennels
In the meantime, Bell’s fate is largely in the hands of the Dakota County courts. Her next appearance is scheduled for July 23. She has been back on her farm in Sciota Township since her release on a $50,000 bond. In the interim she is allowed to continue working with animals.
“Under Minnesota law, the judge is required to post bond in most cases, including this one, and that involves both with and without conditions,” said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. “In this case that was $50,000 (to be released without conditions), which is not a small amount for a case of this nature. She did post the larger amount and she is presumed to be innocent.”
Bell came under investigation in September 2011 when a former employee at Bell Kennels reported that Bell was drowning puppies, in one case taking a rope that was attached to a cinder block and tying it around a puppy's neck and throwing the block and puppy into a pool, according to the criminal complaint filed in Dakota County District Court.
The former employee also told authorities that Bell claimed to break the neck of a small dog that bit her and then said, "That (expletive) will never bother any of us again. I broke its damn neck."
Another witness, also a former employee, told police that Bell put a puppy in a bucket of water and then placed another bucket on top to hold the puppy down.
When investigators searched Bell's property, they found 10 small breed adult dogs in individual plastic bags in a freezer chest believed to have been put in the freezer while wet, according to the complaint.
After Bell was charged in Aprill, Bell's husband, Dave Johnson, told the Pioneer Press that the claims are lies and that his wife "wouldn't hurt a flea."
If Bell is convicted of the 16 counts of animal cruelty charges, part of her sentence could include conditions that would restrict her access to animals, but the exact nature of the penalty will be in the hands of the presiding judge.
“These are unranked crimes which means it's up to the discretion to the judge. There are no sentencing guidelines as such,” Backstrom said. “There’s not a lot of precedent. These sorts of cases have not been prosecuted too frequently.”