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Behind the Cages: An investigation into the Winona County dog breeding controversy

by Devin Bartolotta, Anchor/Producer

NEAR UTICA, Minn. (KTTC) — In November of 2015, six dog breeders applied to the county for conditional use permits for their land, and they were granted. But it ignited a firestorm of protests and a backlash against the county.

There are six farms at the center of this controversy. They’re owned by Menno Yoder, Henry Yoder, David J. Yoder, and Leroy Yoder of Utica, and Toby Detweiler and Menno Bontrager of St. Charles.

Each of them are commercial dog breeders who sell to a broker in Iowa.

All but one farm, Menno Bontrager’s, is licensed and inspected by the USDA.

David J. Yoder has had eight violations on his farm since 2013, including excessive dog waste buildup inside kennels, and problems with flies.

LeRoy Yoder, the owner of the oldest kennel, has 11 violations since 2013 and even more dating back to 2011.

According to the USDA, the violations included dogs too thin and weak to stand, nails on dogs that were excessively long, hair so matted it had separated from the skin, and dogs with eyes crusted shut. You can see that full report here.

Similar violations were found in 2014 as well.

It was just seven months ago, in July of 2015, that the Minnesota legislature passed a bill requiring all Minnesota dog breeders to be certified by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

“So in our inspection process, there’s 26 things that we look for,” said Dr. Paul Anderson of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. He’s in charge of the dog breeder program. “A lot of these things have to do with the care of the dogs or cats. Space requirements, feeding and watering.”

He said it’s intended to get all breeders – Amish or otherwise – up to code with state veterinary requirements and local law.

But for these six breeders, that wouldn’t be so easy. At the Winona County Board of Commissioners meeting on January 5, more than a dozen citizens spoke to share their concerns.

And not all of the board members were in favor, either.

“We can place conditions on them, but we can not legally deny them. However I’m not going to support them,” said Commissioner Greg Olson at the meeting.

The board made recommendations and some changes to the permits, but ultimately members say they had no legal basis under their own ordinances to deny the permits.

Each breeder was licensed by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, 2015 inspections of each property showed no new violations whatsoever, and they all were in line with the zoning ordinance of Winona County.

While USDA inspection results are public, a clause in the Minnesota dog breeder law gives breeders data privacy. This means if a breeder is licensed, you must trust that the inspectors are doing their jobs.

“What I can tell you is that these people that we’ve inspected are doing a good job. I’ve been involved with some of those inspections and I was very pleased,” said Dr. Anderson.

Although officials went and physically inspected the properties, we did discover a small snag during our investigation.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health granted licenses before the permits were awarded, while the kennels were technically operating illegally.

During an interview, NewsCenter’s Devin Bartolotta asked Dr. Anderson about the mistake, reading aloud from the application.

“I certify that this dog or cat facility is in compliance with all local ordinances,” she said. “And these six were not at the time that they applied for these. So how does something like that pass if they’re filling out this form incorrectly?”

Dr. Anderson stressed that the purpose of the dog and cat breeder law is to bring breeders into compliance.

“But when someone’s filling this out, are you relying on them to be honest? Or are they relying on you to double check?” Devin asked. “It seems like that’s a pretty big thing. If they were breaking local law and they were given a permit anyway, how does that happen?”

“Whether someone is breaking the county laws or not, I can’t speak to because I’m not the attorney at that level,” said Dr. Anderson. “We always trust people to tell the truth. If we find out something is amiss, whether it was that they didn’t tell the truth or not, I’m not sure. But when we know that something is not correct, then we work with them to get corrected.”

What’s more: these six farms also aren’t registered as businesses with the Secretary of State, and according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, only one – David J Yoder – has a business tax ID that’s required in order to pay sales tax in Minnesota.

Not one of the three government entities overseeing these breeders requires that information.

“We do not double check that at this time. It’s not a mandate in the law that we look into that,” said Dr. Anderson.

Meanwhile, the backlash from the public was swift and strong. Weekend after weekend, people gathered outside of the six farms in below-zero wind chills to protest.

An online petition has garnered nearly 116,000 signatures from all over the world.

“These are companion animals that are used to being in a family environment, and you’re putting them in a cage to just be bred for your profit? I was disappointed, quite honestly, with the outcome,” said protester Michelle Schumack outside of Leroy Yoder’s farm.

What fuels many of these protests are dogs like Berry, a 7-year-old miniature pincher. When she was rescued, she had major health problems and was infested with worms.

“Berry is from a puppy mill in Wisconsin,” said her foster mom, Anne Spradley. Berry’s legs were atrophied from years in a cage and her ears are ripped from torn out ID tags.

“Every experience is new. Coming here was scary, being around strangers. You have to teach them how to be a dog,” said Spradley.

Spradley has been a voice for dogs like Berry for years, recently focusing in on the Winona County farms.

“I don’t think we need to have commercial breeding at all. I want the conditions at all of the farms to be good. I don’t believe that they are, I don’t believe that they will be,” she said.

“There’s no need for this. And especially no need for it to happen in Winona County under the circumstances in which the permits were granted.”

Commissioner Kovesci insists the board did their due diligence, visiting the farms first hand and making recommendations.

She says the kennels looked nothing like they did in the 2011 inspection.

“We had the opportunity to stay as long as we wanted, to ask questions, to go through the whole facility. And we did. I saw in all of the places, I saw, for lack of a better word, pen areas. They weren’t cages. They had tile floor and they had sawdust on the floor and food and water was in there. And they had an in and out door for the dogs,” said Kovecsi.

KTTC news obtained a video taken by Winona County Planning and Environmental Services that shows the kennels on two of the farms.

In one video, you can see shar pei dogs running back and forth under a closed area on Menno Bontrager’s farm. The enclosures are long, and dogs are up and moving.

In the other, of Henry Yoder’s farm, yorkies are running from outside to inside and barking in their pens.

We mailed letters to all six farmers asking if we could see their properties firsthand, and only two replied – to decline. After three attempts though, we were able to talk to Leroy Yoder for about 20 minutes on his front porch.

Off camera, for religious reasons, Leroy told us he was upset with our reporting and use of the USDA photos from 2011, because he’s worked very hard to clean up his farm and is doing all that he can to abide by the laws.

Under three layers of government supervision – the USDA, Board of Animal Health, and the county – plus, agreeing to open their land up to deputies at any time without a search warrant – these breeders have everything to lose.

As of this week, just seven months into the program, 106 dog breeders were licensed by the state.

Dr. Anderson of the Board of Animal Health says he believes the law is doing what it is intended to do – helping people make dramatic improvements to their facilities and their dogs’ well being.

But there are many who don’t know they have to be licensed or are operating without one anyway. Efforts to stop inhumane breeders are better spent on those farms who aren’t even trying to follow the law.

Because what’s behind those cages may be much worse.


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