How to avoid an animal-welfare inspection in Iowa: Don’t answer the door

By: - September 9, 2022 2:05 pm

Even when inspectors are unable to gain access to cat-and-dog breeding facilities, the state will repeatedly renew the businesses’ license. On seven occasions over four years, inspectors were unable to gain entry to this building, CelesTrail Cats in Ottumwa, but state regulators repeatedly renewed its license. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch with photos from Google Earth and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)

On Nov. 21, 2019, a state inspector named Wayne Grier visited an Ottumwa cat breeding operation called CelesTrail Cats to conduct a legally mandated annual inspection and to check on the welfare of the animals there.

Grier couldn’t gain entry to the building and left. “Not available,” he wrote in his inspection report after driving away.

Despite the lack of an inspection, Grier’s bosses at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship renewed CelesTrail’s breeder license through May 2021.

Grier returned to CelesTrail Cats on Sept. 17, 2020, and again was unable to gain entry and perform the annual inspection required of all licensed breeders. “Contacted and set an appointment for 28th,” he wrote in his report.

There’s no published record of any inspection taking place on Sept. 28, or on any other date in late 2020. In fact, there’s no published record of any inspection at CelesTrail Cats throughout all of 2021 – although IDALS again renewed the license of CelesTrail’s owners, Steve and Lynne Chmelar.

In January 2022, another IDALS inspector, Jamie Votrobeck, visited CelesTrail Cats. “Attempted to inspect, knocked on door and tried to call. It appears number no longer works,” she wrote in her report.

Votrobeck returned later that same day and again was unable to gain entry. “No answer at door, two cars in drive, no other contact info,” she reported.

Five weeks later, on Feb. 15, Votrobeck was back and reported, “Knocked on door twice with no answer. No phone number to contact. There was a vehicle in drive. Sent an email to them to reach me with my phone number.”

In May, IDALS again renewed CelesTrail’s license, which led to a complaint by Tracey Kuehl of Davenport, an animal-welfare advocate, who pointed out to IDALS that the breeder hadn’t been inspected for years.

Days after that complaint was filed, on Aug. 22, IDALS sent Votrobeck back to Ottumwa to try again to inspect CelesTrail Cats. Again, she had no luck. “Rang doorbell, knocked on door and tried calling with no answer. Dog was barking and there were cats all over outside,” she wrote.

On Aug. 31, Votrobeck returned and made another attempt. “Two cars in driveway,” she wrote. “Saw owner in window, they closed the blinds. Knocked two times and no answer. Left card in door.”

According to state records, the last time an IDALS inspector set foot inside CelesTrail Cats to check on the animals was Oct. 22, 2018 – almost four years ago. Despite seven consecutive failed attempts at an inspection, IDALS continues to renew the company’s license, which is now set to expire in May 2023.

Lynne Chmelar said Friday she has been puzzled as to why no one at IDALS contacted her about an inspection over the past four years, indicating her email address changed only recently. She said she recently agreed to a Sept. 12 inspection.

It’s situations like this that anger Kuehl, who has complained to IDALS about what she sees as a lack of oversight and enforcement.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)

Three years ago, she wrote to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig to express her concerns. She says she never received a response to that letter, and so, in light of more recent revisions to Iowa’s animal-welfare regulations, she recently conducted a review of breeder inspections conducted by IDALS during 2022.

She sent Naig another letter last month, detailing a new set of concerns and calling his attention to the situation with CelesTrail Cats and other breeders. So far, Naig hasn’t responded to that letter, either.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch asked IDALS spokesman Don McDowell about several specific issues raised by Kuehl and the agency’s history with CelesTrail Cats.

McDowell didn’t address those issues directly, but he did say that “IDALS-licensed facilities are inspected at least once annually” — adding that if an inspector has made two attempts at an unannounced inspection without success, the inspector will then try to contact the licensee to schedule a time for an inspection. If the licensee refuses or interferes with an inspection, IDALS has the authority, he said, to gain access through an administrative search warrant.

He did not say whether IDALS has ever exercised that authority.

McDowell also said the agency reinspects all noncompliant facilities to ensure they come back into compliance. If a breeder remains noncompliant, he said, IDALS has the ability to impose civil penalties or to suspended or revoke a license.

IDALS data can be misleading

Kuehl, a volunteer with the animal-welfare group Bailing Out Benji, says one of the issues she has with IDALS is that the public inspection reports uploaded to the agency’s website are, in some respects, difficult or even impossible to access.

At one time, she says, the database could be searched by timeframe, so citizens could call up all inspection reports over, say, the previous 30 days or 60 days, to determine which licensees currently had issues.

That’s no longer possible. To access any of the reports, one must now search for the name of a specific business, its owner, or a geographic location, and then call up the individual reports. Finding out which breeders are currently in trouble with IDALS requires one to conduct search through the reports for all 291 licensed breeders.

And even then, the information that’s provided can be misleading or incomplete. For example, the IDALS database shows Wild Prairie Rose Cattery has been inspected only twice, in August of this year, at which time it was awarded a “new” license — suggesting it’s a new business.

But Wild Prairie Rose Cattery has been an Iowa-licensed breeder since at least 2018. Until last month, the most recently completed inspection there had taken place on Feb. 1, 2018 – which means the business went more than four years without having passed an annual inspection by IDALS. The agency’s website, however, contains no information to that effect.

Owner Jill Shilkaitis said in an interview that when her business relocated within Story County, the department issued it a new license number. The new number resulted in the database treating Wild Prairie Rose Cattery as a new business, which meant that all of its pre-2022 inspection reports were purged from the database.

That same situation exists for other breeders, as well, such as Flower Baby Ragdolls, which moved from Chariton to Lucas this year, resulting in the purging of previous inspection reports from the online public database.

Inspectors unable to access operation

Kuehl notes that even when inspectors find serious violations after being repeatedly unable to gain entry to a breeder’s facilities, it’s likely that no enforcement action will be taken by IDALS.

For example, in January 2020, inspector Alissa Puffett visited Unforgettable Schnauzers in Ames and couldn’t get into the building. The same was true when she returned in May 2020, and again when she returned five months later.

By the time she gained entry to the operation, on Oct. 28, 2020, it had been 23 months since the last successfully completed annual inspection — and Puffett found major problems there.

As she wrote in her report, the indoor kennel room, outdoor runs, and exterior of the property were cluttered with trash, debris and dirty bedding:

“Observed flies on floors and walls of interior of kennel rooms… Larger vermin — such as raccoons, possums, etc. — potentially attracted by the trash and clutter could easily access outdoor runs, increasing the risk of injury or illness to dogs. Observed numerous stray cats around property … Facility was very dirty with a noticeable odor of feces/urine. Dirty bedding, dirt/dust, and feces throughout, floor very grimy. More frequent cleaning/sanitation is needed due to large volume of dogs.”

 

The owner, Anita Wikstrom, was living at the property only part-time and told Puffett she had started spaying or neutering “some” of the animals and was looking to downsize her operation from the 32 dogs she had at that time. Puffett gave Wikstrom the names of several rescue shelters where she could surrender her dogs “to help downsize the herd.”

When Puffett returned a few weeks later, she reported that Unforgettable Schnauzers was “significantly cleaner and more organized than on previous inspection. Owner has written disease prevention/control protocol, had just swept facility and was preparing to mop when I arrived unannounced … Still some noticeable odor, but much improved since previous inspection.”

By January 2022, however, Wikstrom would have 53 dogs and puppies on hand – significantly more animals than when Puffett had provided guidance on how to surrender her dogs to rescue groups.

Today, Wikstrom says she has about 20 dogs. “They’re all happy and healthy,” she told the Iowa Capital Dispatch. She adds that she plans to breed and sell dogs for only a few more years.

She says Puffett sometimes can’t access her kennel room because she runs the business on her own, from inside her home, and often needs to run errands.

Back in 2019, during the 23-month gap between annual inspections, Wikstrom’s Unforgettable Schnauzers had been the target of at least one complaint. On her third attempt to visit the site and investigate the matter, Puffett was able to gain entry to the house and reported a “very strong ammonia odor,” with Wikstrom attempting to clean the building. Puffett noted a large Dumpster outside that was “full of trash, feces, etc.” and needed to be hauled away. Several of the dogs, she reported, had matted hair on their face and body.

It took three additional visits before Puffett could again gain entry to the building to see if it was back in compliance with state regulations, at which point she reported a “significant improvement,” with the Dumpster full of feces having been moved off site.

Of the 17 site visits IDALS has made to Unforgettable Schnauzers since 2019, 10 – or 63% of the total — have resulted only in an “attempted” inspection, meaning Puffett left without gaining access to the building or the animals. On those occasions where she did gain access, 19 separate violations were cited, Kuehl says – although, she adds, no sanctions were ever imposed.

Judge: Inspectors are ‘doing nothing’

Animal-welfare advocates aren’t the only critics of IDALS’ enforcement of animal-welfare laws.

Last year, Iowa District Judge Monica Zrinyi Ackley presided over court proceedings related to Manchester’s Cricket Hollow Zoo, which the judge found to be “deplorable,” despite IDALS’ lack of enforcement action.

“Our government is just sitting on its laurels and doing nothing,” the judge said at the time. “And there’s a reason that they exist. I pay my taxes for them to exist.”

District Court Judge Monica Zrinyi Ackley (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

She singled out one IDALS inspector, Doug Anderson, who had referred to the animal-welfare advocates who voiced concerns about the zoo – Kuehl was one of them — as complainers. “His reports,” the judge stated, “show that he has found violations in the past and has not taken any action to rectify the same.”

Kuehl says she thinks IDALS has improved its performance recently in at least one respect: The inspectors’ reports now provide a bit more detail on the nature of the violations that are uncovered.

But she remains concerned that while IDALS inspectors have made more than 200 on-site visits to licensed commercial breeders so far this year, many of those are more accurately described as revisits: either renewed attempts to gain entry, or attempts to determine whether a known violator is back in compliance with state standards.

Kuehl notes that only 134 of the state’s 291 breeders have been visited so far this year by IDALS, and a total of 176 violations were noted at 34 of those facilities – an average of roughly five violations each.

Peavine Lane Pet Spa in Fort Madison has amassed 59 citations for violations in the past three years, but continues to have its license renewed by IDALS, Kuehl says. And JKLM Farm, formerly known as Shaggy Hill Farm, in Sioux Center, has been cited for 46 violations over the same time period while having its license renewed again and again.

Kuehl wants IDALS to revise its rules or policies and impose a license suspension against operators who repeatedly fail to meet the minimum requirements for licensed breeders.

“This would mean licensees with a suspended license would not be able to engage in the selling of puppies and kittens, and perhaps the reduction in income would step up the licensees’ performance,” she says.

She also wants IDALS to consider imposing a surcharge on licensees that repeatedly fail to make their business accessible to inspectors. That fee, she says, could offset the cost associated with inspectors having to make repeated trips just to gain entry to a building.

Kuehl argues that as things stand now, IDALS’ inspection process is wasting precious departmental resources while failing to protect both animals and consumers.

It’s a process, she told Naig in her Aug. 11 letter, that “sends a message to the remainder of the state’s licensed dog and cat breeders of, ‘I don’t have to try to be good because it doesn’t matter.’”

When asked whether IDALS would support any of the policy changes Kuehl is recommending, a department spokesman said only that Iowa law allows citizens to formally request that an agency adopt, amend, or repeal its administrative rules.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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