By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal investigators have uncovered grisly conditions at puppy mills around the country where dogs were infested with ticks, living with gaping wounds and in pools of feces, according to a disturbing new report that placed the blame on lax enforcement.
Investigators say the Department of Agriculture agency in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act often ignores repeat violations, waives penalties and doesn't adequately document inhumane treatment of dogs.
In one case cited by the department's inspector general, 27 dogs died at an Oklahoma breeding facility after inspectors had visited the facility several times and cited it for violations.
The review, conducted between 2006 and 2008, found more than half of those large kennels -- known as puppy mills -- had already been cited for violations flouted the law again.
The report recommends that the animal care unit at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service immediately confiscate animals that are dying or seriously suffering, and better train its inspectors to document, report and penalize wrongdoing.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday the department takes the report seriously and will move to immediately improve enforcement, penalties and inspector training. He noted the investigation was conducted before his time in office and called it troubling.
"USDA will reinforce its efforts under its animal welfare responsibilities, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders and greater consistent action to strongly enforce the law," he said.
The investigators visited 68 dog breeders and dog brokers in eight states that had been cited for at least one violation in the previous three years. On those visits, they found that first-time violators were rarely penalized, even for more serious violations, and repeat offenders were often let off the hook as well. The agency also gave some breeders a second chance to correct their actions even when they found animals dying or suffering, delaying confiscation of the animals.
The agency placed too much emphasis on educating the violators instead of penalizing them, the report added.
"The agency believed that compliance achieved through education and cooperation would result in long-term dealer compliance and, accordingly, it chose to take little or no enforcement action against most violators," the report said.
In the case of the Oklahoma breeding facility where 27 dogs died, the breeder had been cited for 29 violations, including nine repeated violations, from February 2006 to January 2007. The inspector returned in November 2007 before any enforcement action had taken place, according to the report, and found five dead dogs and "other starving dogs that had resorted to cannibalism."
Despite these conditions, the inspectors did not immediately confiscate the surviving dogs and, the report says, 22 additional dogs died before the breeder's license was revoked.
The inspector general also noted that some large breeders circumvent the law by selling dogs over the Internet. Inspectors said they identified 112 breeders in the eight states they monitored that were not licensed by USDA and thus not eligible for inspections.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said the report confirms what animal rights groups have been charging for years.
"Enforcement is placid, the laws are weak and reform needs to happen," he said. "We have long criticized having the animal welfare enforcement functions within a bureaucracy dedicated to promoting American agriculture. There's a built-in conflict of interest."
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and David Vitter, R-La., said Tuesday that they are introducing legislation to close the loophole in the law that allows breeders to operate online. Both senators said they will work with USDA to ensure changes are made throughout the agency.
The inspector general's office conducted three previous reports in the last 20 years, the latest in 2005, all of which also found shortcomings with the agency's enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.
USDA Inspector General report: http://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/33002-4-SF.pdf
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.