Nebraska deputy ombudsman reports extensive non-enforcement of anti-“puppy mill” law
NEW YORK, N.Y.; LINCOLN, Nebraska––A $3.9 million fine levied against the owners of the long closed Chelsea Kennel Club pet store in New York City grabbed the headlines on October 16, 2020, but a more meaningful action against abusive dog suppliers came quietly on October 9, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
There, deputy Nebraska ombudsman Carl Eskridge in a 191-page report rapped the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, by far the most influential branch of the Nebraska state government, for repeated recent failures to enforce applicable laws against businesses selling dogs and cats.
In particular, Eskridge detailed decisions by higher-ups to not refer for criminal prosecution multiple alleged animal abuse and neglect cases confirmed in early 2020 by Nebraska Department of Agriculture inspectors.
“Rescues” involved in breeding
Four of seven case histories that Eskridge examined in dept involved “rescues” that appear to operate as severely substandard commercial dog brokerages, sometimes breeding dogs as well as “pulling” dogs from pounds for rehoming.
Eskridge also discussed at length allegations pertaining to the Dodge County Humane Society, in Fremont, Nebraska, an organization often embroiled in controversy since the 2014 retirement of 15-year executive director Clem Rohde.
In May 2020 the Dodge County Humane Society was subject of a complaint to the Fremont city council from former staff members Maddy Mathews and Gabyiel Baker that resulted in the formation of an Animal Control Citizen Advisory Board.
The Eskridge report demonstrates, in context, that merely cutting off the traffic in dogs from “puppy mill” breeders to pet stores does nothing to ensure humane conditions if “rescues” and animal shelters are not held to at least the same inspection and accountability standards as commercial breeders and dealers.
HSUS “puppy mill” campaign targets pet stores
The $3.9 million penalty assessed against former Chelsea Kennel Club owner Yardena Derraugh culminates a multi-year high-profile campaign waged by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) in support of legislation proposed in New York state, but not yet passed, which would forbid stores from selling dogs other than those obtained from nonprofit “rescues” and animal shelters.
“If the bill becomes law,” said HSUS president Kitty Block, “New York would join three other states that have already passed legislation to stop or limit the sales of puppy mill animals in pet stores, including California, Maryland and Maine. Several other states are now considering similar measures.”
Such legislation might help “rescues” and animal shelters to rehome hard-to-place pit bulls, by giving the “rescues” and shelters more opportunities to display pit bulls for adoption in store cage space formerly used to house small dogs and purebreds obtained from dealers.
Where local ordinances similar to the HSUS-proposed state legislation are in effect, however, pet stores have often just transitioned to selling pet supplies only, not offering live dogs––or cats––at all.
Case that brought $3.9 million fine began with HSUS investigation
The Chelsea Kennel Club case originated with an HSUS undercover investigation, conducted by a veterinary technician who took a job at the store and two HSUS employees who posed as customers, according to an account posted on July 25, 2017 by then-HSUS president Wayne Pacelle. The investigation reportedly confirmed that the store was knowingly selling sick puppies.
“The store closed in 2017, shortly after the findings were revealed,” recounted New York Times consumer affairs reporter Sarah Maslin Nir on January 31, 2020.
The New York City Department of Consumer & Worker Protection in May 2019 sued Yardena Derraugh and her husband William, seeking fines, restitution to allegedly defrauded customers, and additional damages.
“Another pending lawsuit against the couple has been filed by the New York State attorney general’s office, which accused the couple of “swindling” customers by hawking ailing dogs,” wrote Maslin Nir.
Justice Melissa A. Crane of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan in January 2020 issued a default judgment against the Derraughs, after they failed to appear in court.
The judgement has now been reinforced by the $3.9 million fine and an order permanently barring Yardena Derraugh from again operating a pet store in New York City.
The Eskridge report underscores––indirectly––that even if the Chelsea Kennel Club had never bought puppies from commercial breeders for resale, it might still have sold sick puppies, not only because of deficiencies within the store itself, but also because some of the agencies supposed to enforce anti-“puppy mill” legislation at the state level are in effect exempting unincorporated “rescues” and other agencies with nonprofit umbrellas.
Opened Eskridge, “An employee of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program filed a complaint with the Nebraska Office of Public Counsel,” under the State Government Effectiveness (Whistleblower) Act, alleging that the Department of Agriculture “did not fulfill its full responsibility under the Dog & Cat Inspection Act to provide administrative oversight and accountability of operators, or non-operators,” and “did not fulfill its responsibility under the Dog & Cat Inspection Act to, in every instance, refer complaints of abuse and neglect by commercial dog and cat operators to county authorities for possible criminal prosecution.”
Found Eskridge, “The Department of Agriculture operates like it is uniquely the responsibility of law enforcement and/or the courts to hold violators accountable,” even though the act “gives the Department of Agriculture options to hold bad actors responsible through administrative means which may be more flexible, faster, and have lower burdens of evidence than are required in criminal actions.”
Complaints still current in 2020
Specified Eskridge, “The whistleblower, who has authorized the Ombudsman’s Office to disclose his identity, is Rick Herchenbach. Herchenbach began his employment with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture as an animal inspector in 1981 and has served as a program specialist in the Commercial Dog & Cat Operator Inspection Program since 2003.”
Herchenbach has in fact headed the Nebraska Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program since inception.
Herchenbach initially raised his allegations to the Ombudsman’s Office on March 14, 2019, at apparent urging of “members of the Nebraska Legislature who referred him to the Ombudsman’s Office,” Eskridge wrote.
But most of the specific complaints reviewed in the Eskridge report involved issues that were still evolving in early 2020.
Routine failures of enforcement for 20 years
“For purposes of the Whistleblower Act,” Eskridge outlined, “’wrongdoing’ is defined to include ‘any action by an agency which is a violation of any law, results in gross mismanagement or gross waste of funds, or creates a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
“Failure to routinely enforce the provisions of the Dog & Cat Inspection Act for a period of twenty years may be considered as a ‘violation of law,’ as ‘gross mismanagement,’ and certainly presents a ‘substantial and specific danger to public health or safety,” Eskridge reasoned.
The current applicable Nebraska legislation dates to 2000.
“Nebraska had been identified as one of seven problematic dog-breeding states and was actively targeted by animal rights organizations, which organized a campaign urging consumers to boycott purchasing dogs from commercial facilities in Nebraska and the other six states,” Eskridge recounted.
“Nebraska became the dumping ground”
“Prior to the 2000 Nebraska legislation, the neighboring states of Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri adopted enhanced programs to license and inspect commercial breeding facilities for both dogs and cats,” Eskridge mentioned, while “Nebraska became the dumping ground for animals of poor health and a haven for puppy mills.”
The 2000 Nebraska law was pushed through to passage, Eskridge acknowledged, by “Carol Wheeler of Auburn, who in 1990 founded Hearts United for Animals, a private, non-profit, no-kill sanctuary and animal welfare organization.”
Wheeler enlisted support for the legislation from many other Nebraska and national humane societies.
Inspectors added in 2015
“In 2015,” Eskridge remembered, “additional concerns were brought forward alleging escalating problems with Nebraska’s dog and cat breeders. When newly elected Governor Pete Ricketts re-nominated Greg Ibach as the Director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, a position he had held for ten years, vocal animal rights advocates appeared in large numbers at his re-confirmation hearing to protest his reappointment. One of the oft-repeated complaints was the Department of Agriculture’s unwillingness to effectively work with state and local law enforcement and county attorneys to bring charges against breeders for abuse and neglect of animals.”
Ibach was replaced in December 2017 by Steve Wellman, the current director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, in 2015, the Nebraska Legislature had authorized the appointment of two special investigators, required by statute to be deputy state sheriffs, to assist Herchenbach. These special investigators were, and remain, former agriculture investigation officers Gary Cline and Tom Dozier.
“Puppy millers” may have become “rescues”
Intensified law enforcement pertaining to commercial dog breeders brought a 37% drop in the number of registered breeders in Nebraska, from 216 to 138, in just one year.
“However,” noted Eskridge, “it is unclear whether they ceased to exist or they simply became unlicensed but are still operating, which would be contrary to the Dog & Cat Inspection Act.”
Eskridge observed similar issues in Kansas, where “In 2018, Kansas Legislative Auditors reviewed its 2002 report of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s oversight of the state’s commercial pet animal facilities and found that the problems identified in their report 16 years earlier had not been addressed.
Missouri cracked down after statewide referendum
“Though the State of Missouri had adopted an Animal Care Facilities Act in 1992,” Eskridge continued, “in its 2000 Audit, the Oversight Division of the Committee on Legislative Research found that in those eight years not a single license had been revoked by the State of Missouri.”
That changed, Eskridge wrote, after “The Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, known as Proposition B, was approved in a statewide referendum of Missouri voters and became law in April of 2012. The Act provided more regulatory authority, including enhanced options for court actions to address concerns.
“By the middle of 2013,” Eskridge noted, “the Missouri Department of Agriculture had referred 37 businesses or individuals to the Missouri Office of the Attorney General for prosecution, resulting in fines of over $25,000, the revocation of nine licenses, and the rescue of more than 1,300 dogs.”
Trifecta Bullies Breeding & Rescue
The first Nebraska case that Eskridge examined in depth was that of Trifecta Bullies Breeding & Rescue, operated by one Jonathan Jiminez in Waverly, Lancaster County.
“The inspection of the Trifecta Bullies Breeding & Rescue facility shorty after it was vacated, together with the series of horrors that occurred to these dogs in the subsequent months,” Eskridge wrote, “provide a compelling rationale for the need to give greater attention to suspected problem operations that are unlicensed.
“Prior to the January 2, 2020 inspection of the vacated facilities,” Eskridge found, “the last time the Department of Agriculture actually inspected Trifecta Bullies Breeding & Rescue was on April 18, 2019, in what became a highly confrontational exchange between the owners and Rick Herchenbach, who was present to enforce [a Department of Agriculture] stop-movement order.
State ignored complaints for a year
“Since that date there were five subsequent complaints,” Eskridge mentioned. “For a full year complaints were lodged with the Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program against Trifecta Bullies Breeding & Rescue being a suspected breeder while also conducting business as a rescue and boarding kennel, yet the owners never applied for a license.
“There was considerable evidence that dogs were breeding and the pups were being sold, and clear evidence that the dogs were routinely neglected,” Eskridge charged.
“Even with seven complaints from multiple parties being brought to the clear attention of the Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program against this operator within one year, many of which involved documented issues of inadequate care of the animals, there was no administrative hearing sought.
Breeding continued in motel rooms
“Finally, although the operator had been evicted from the premises and took the dogs to a single motel room in two separate motels where pups were born and intentionally hidden from Lincoln Animal Control inspectors, the Department of Agriculture still did not seek an administrative hearing,” Eskridge reported.
“Rather than direct staff to refer specific complaints about Trifecta Bullies Breeding & Rescue to the Lancaster County Sheriff, the Department of Agriculture’s sole approach was to enforce their stop-movement order, but only through the courts. For eight months there were no inspections of a known commercial operation where neglect had been regularly reported.”
All Hounds On Deck
Next of concern, Eskridge recounted, “All Hounds On Deck was a licensed dog rescue kennel located in Walton, Nebraska. In March 2018 a complaint-initiated inspection of this facility indicated that there were piles of feces, trash, as well as mice and rats, in the kennels. Investigations found that dogs suffered from “bites, lacerations, skin infections, a pregnancy, malnutrition, and visible nutritional neglect. The owner,” Kandice Bremer, “was charged and convicted of one count of animal neglect.”
All Hounds On Deck flunked several follow-up inspections in 2019. Lancaster County Court also convicted owner Kandice Bremer of neglect on November 4, 2019. Bremer was fined $1,000 on that occasion, and was ordered that she “shall not own, possess, or reside with any animal for five years,” other than eight healthy dogs found on the premises who “were specifically identified by the court,” Eskridge summarized.
Surrendered license but continued operation
“It seems likely,” Eskridge added, “that while [Bremer] may have surrendered the All Hounds On Deck license, [she] apparently never ceased to operate as a rescue and/or kennel. Indeed, on January 13, 2020, [inspector Rick] Herchenbach was denied access to a building that at the time was housing what appeared to be a large number of barking dogs.
“Medical professionals documented the serious neglect of animals in what was described as a ‘hoarding situation,’ Eskridge said.
Yet, “When a deputy county attorney sought to meet with Rick Herchenbach related to their potential prosecution of the case, the Department of Agriculture denied the deputy county attorney’s request,” Eskridge wrote.
Homeward Bound In The Heartland Animal Rescue
Homeward Bound In The Heartland Animal Rescue, in Louisville, Nebraska, came to the notice of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture after the department received a complaint on August 26, 2019 that the “rescue” was operating as an unlicensed boarding kennel.
“Social media posts indicated that Homeward Bound In The Heartland Animal Rescue had received two dogs from the Animal Alliance Rescue Shelter in Mount Ayr, Iowa,” Eskridge summarized. “In addition to concerns about licensure, there were also reports that dogs at the Louisville facility were not receiving adequate water and there was the excessive use of prong collars as a tool to correct unwanted behavior of dogs.”
In responding, however, Eskridge found that, “The Department of Agriculture focused disproportionate attention on the operator’s [claimed] status as a foster home, rather than on the owners’ actual operations.”
“Operating as a commercial facility”
Homeward Bound In The Heartland Animal Rescue “was in fact operating as a commercial facility, training dogs to provide a service. Even though foster homes are not licensed,” Eskridge acknowledged, “the fact is that they come under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture by operating under the umbrella of a licensed rescue. Therefore, it is the duty of the Department of Agriculture to verify that the foster home is providing the care demanded under the Dog & Cat Inspection Act.”
Similar complaints were received in October 2019, “yet there is no indication that these concerns were ever brought to the attention of the Cass County Sheriff or the Cass County Attorney,” Eskridge wrote.
Deputy Nebraska ombudsman Eskridge appeared to find most problematic the Department of Agriculture handling of the one case he reviewed that actually involved a “puppy mill” in the traditional sense of the term: a substandard commercial breeding kennel operated by Julia Hudson, of Malcolm, Nebraska.
“There have been concerns about the owner’s operations for over eight years,” Eskridge recounted. “A 2013 complaint against [Julia Hudson] resulted in criminal prosecution by the Lancaster County Attorney, and a pleading of no contest to the charges of animal cruelty and neglect.
“This criminal case was highly publicized in the local media,” Eskridge remembered, “including the public’s open questioning of the Department of Agriculture’s upper level management for its reluctance to report allegations of neglect and mistreatment by commercial dog and cat operators to county officials for prosecution.”
“Preferential treatment” for “animal Auschwitz”
Affirmed Omaha World Herald reporter Martha Stoddard, “In late 2013, Lancaster County Judge Timothy Phillips ordered Julia Hudson’s breeding operation shut down for two years after finding her guilty of criminal animal neglect. At sentencing, Phillips called conditions at the operation ‘an animal Auschwitz.’”
In February 2020, however, according to Eskridge, “The owner of a shelter facility brought a new complaint against [Hudson] that resulted in perceptible retribution against the person making the complaint instead of action against wrongdoing.”
Eskridge described alleged “preferential treatment by the Department of Agriculture with the legal counsel possibly an inside advocate, the inspector for southeast Nebraska being taken off the case,” and a “stop-movement order rescinded less than seven months later.”
Huskers Hope Dachshund Rescue
Herchenbach first expressed concern to superiors about conditions at Huskers Hope Dachshund Rescue, in Beaver Crossing, Seward County, in October 2016.
However, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture took no corrective action until 2019, Eskridge reported.
Wrote Eskridge of that case, “Simply put, to be a rescue for dachshunds, while understandable and commendable, is extremely demanding. The Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program has a duty to monitor the care that is being provided to these vulnerable dogs,” which was not promptly or thoroughly done.
Department of Agriculture did not help with search warrant
In the last case the Eskridge report reviewed in depth, “On April 7, 2020, the [Lyons] county sheriff contacted the Nebraska Humane Society seeking the organization’s assistance in conducting a search warrant. A Nebraska Humane Society Investigator reported finding four horses, three ponies, and one heifer in poor condition at the location. The animals were released to her and the Nebraska Humane Society. It was also reported that there were dead animal carcasses on the property. Only one dog was observed, an emaciated adult German shepherd whom the Humane Society Investigator scored as a ‘4’, with ‘5’ being the most severe.
“Though there was clear evidence of animal neglect and possibly abuse or abandonment,” Eskridge observed, “and reports that the owners also operated as a commercial breeder, the search warrant did not grant access to the home or other buildings on the property to conduct an inspection for the dog operation, so no search for the conditions or the numbers of dogs was conducted. Even the report from the deputy sheriff, who stated that he heard dogs in the house and the garage, did not result in a search warrant.
“While we understand that search warrants must be issued by the courts,” Eskridge conceded, “it is nonetheless disturbing that the Department of Agriculture made no subsequent efforts to work with local officials in obtaining a warrant to search the premises for dogs, though the enhanced ability of the program to search suspected problem operators was a key component of the legislation creating the Dog & Cat Inspection Act.”
Dog & Cat Inspection Act applies to hoarders, too
Instead, Eskridge found, “While the owners of this facility indicated that they were breeding and selling dogs, they were chalked up as hoarders,” rather than unlicensed commercial dog breeders.”
Therefore the Nebraska Department of Agriculture took no action.
“Whether or not they are hoarders,” Eskridge stated, “the issue of animal hoarding––the compulsive need to collect and own animals––should not be minimized.
“Rather than constituting deliberate cruelty toward animals, animal hoarding is a mental disorder, and is an issue in and of itself,” Eskridge explained.
“If animal hoarding is suspected, and the result is abused animals,” Eskridge spelled out, “then the Department of Agriculture must work diligently with local officials to intervene and to protect such suffering animals.”
“Ignoring potential harm to animals”
Concluded Eskridge, “In the 20 years since the Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program was established, the conditions of commercial dog and cat facilities have improved significantly. However, as this report has shown and as several rescue operators can attest, the problems of animal abuse in commercial facilities are not a thing of the past. Serious incidents of neglect, abuse, and abandonment continue to occur, and, under the Dog & Cat Inspection Act, it is the Commercial Dog & Cat Inspection Program’s duty to address them.
“However, upon its investigation of these complaints, the Ombudsman has deep concerns about the Department of Agriculture’s apparent unwillingness to zealously enforce the provisions of the Dog & Cat Inspection Act.”
Emphasized Eskridge, “This investigation indicates that the Dept of Ag appears to be reluctant to report cases of suspected abuse, neglect, and abandonment to county authorities,” thereby “ignoring the potential harm to animals.”
Most damning, Eskridge wrote, “The Office of Public Counsel recognizes that the Department of Agriculture’s unwillingness to fully enforce the Dog & Cat Inspection Act is not a recent phenomenon, but has been alleged throughout most of its 20-year history, going back to when the program was newly established.”
Please donate to support our work: