Seizure of 131 dogs from Riverside puppy mill prompts Coralville legislator to call for action

by Iowa Capital Dispatch
August 29, 2023

Last week’s seizure of 131 dogs at a rural Iowa breeding operation has prompted one state lawmaker to call for changes in the way the state oversees puppy mills, dog breeders and brokers.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, wrote to Gov. Kim Reynolds this week asking for her cooperation in holding unscrupulous breeders accountable.

In his letter, Jacoby wrote, “It’s time for us to work together to fix this problem. I look forward to a strong and immediate bipartisan effort to end this wrong. It is as simple as inspection and enforcement. We need to stop unscrupulous puppy mill owners by strengthening the laws that govern commercial breeders, increase inspections, and penalize those who violate the law.”

Jacoby’s letter to the governor comes one week after the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship inspected Sunset Valley Farm, a commercial dog-breeding operation in the town of Riverside.

One of the 131 dogs seized from Sunset Valley Farm in Riverside is seen here with her puppies shortly after they were relocated to the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center. (Photo courtesy of Iowa City Public Safety)

An IDALS inspector reported finding 131 dogs on the property, many of which were found to be in distress. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office removed the dogs from the property, although one of the dogs subsequently died, reportedly from heatstroke. The dogs are now in the custody of the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center.

Jacoby said Tuesday he’s aware that Iowa often leads the nation in violations cited by animal-welfare inspectors, but said he’s confident lawmakers can come up with bipartisan solutions that will address puppy mills that operate outside the law without harming reputable dog breeders.

He said he suspects the problem in Iowa appears to be one of weak regulation and a lack of enforcement through timely inspections.

“Why do we wait until the heat index is 124 degrees before we check on the dogs inside a whelping barn?” he asked. “From my point of view, this situation in Riverside could have been cut off months or years before.”

The governor’s office, which has yet to respond to Jacoby’s letter, did not immediately respond to the Iowa Capital Dispatch’s questions about the issue Tuesday afternoon.

The owner of Sunset Valley Farm is Loren Yoder of Riverside. After being cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations in the first, second and third quarters of 2022, Yoder was issued an official warning from the USDA for violations found during a September 2022 visit. Yoder then canceled his USDA license in an apparent effort to avoid additional inspections by the USDA.

However, the business continued to operate at the same property on 540th Street in Riverside, and remained subject to state oversight and continued to be inspected by IDALS.

The state report for IDALS’ Aug. 24 inspection of the property cites several deficiencies:

Whelping barn — In the business’ whelping barn, where female dogs are confined with puppies for the first few weeks after they’re born, the inspector noted the temperature was in the 90s and there were not enough fans “to remove sweltering heat” from the area. Roughly 16 mothers were in heat distress, the inspector reported.

“Numerous mothers, adolescents, pups in state of distress,” the inspector reported. “Animals dirty and matted. One pregnant female excessively lethargic … Whelping floors and walls (of the) primary enclosures for mothers and pups were not routinely cleaned or kept sanitary.” The whelping building also had an “over-abundance of flies, both living and deceased,” she stated.

Outdoor runs — In the outdoor runs, there was an excessive number of weeds and holes in the ground were not being filled to prevent injury. “Outdoor dog runs and exercise areas are not kept in good repair so as to safely contain the animals therein without injury,” the inspector reported. “One golden retriever was loose at the time of inspection.”

The outdoor canine enclosures were equipped with self-feeder mechanisms and while they were kept full, there was no plan in place to control vermin infestations, with the inspector noting the “heavy presence of flies indoors and out, dead and not.”

Staffing levels — The number of personnel employed by the kennel was “insufficient” for the number of dogs on hand, the inspector reported. “By their own admission Loren, Lloyd, and Uncle David Lee have been providing all 131 animals with less than minimal supervision or care,” the inspector wrote in her report.

In January 2023, Loren Yoder was cited by IDALS for several violations, although the published report provides few details of conditions inside the facility.

“Bedding must be provided at all times to your outdoor population during inclement weather!” the inspector reported. Her report also included a bold-faced warning that IDALS might “limit the number of animals allowed in any housing facility … If unable to maintain viable pups, manage breeding population, then downsizing may be implemented,” but the report didn’t directly state why that warning was issued.

The report also stated that “all animals pictured” – no pictures were published with the report — needed “medical attention and written resolution, what was done to treat the animal.”

Yoder surrendered USDA license after citations

During a February 2022 inspection, USDA officials cited Loren Yoder for six violations pertaining to housing facilities; cleaning, sanitizing and pest control; and veterinary care for the dogs. The inspector noted there was one outdoor enclosure containing five adult dogs that had a plywood floor.

“The plywood floor is buried beneath a thick layer of dirt and gravel,” the inspector wrote. “In the enclosure, rodents have dug holes beneath the shelter and up through the plywood floor.”

In addition, the inspector reported the enclosure had “a heavy buildup of old and new feces. Piles of feces are scattered across the ground in the enclosure, and they consist of a mix of fresh and old feces which appear dry and white in color.”

The USDA inspector also stated that “the facility is not maintaining medical records for the dogs. The facility had the dogs physically examined by the attending veterinarian, but there are no records containing the dogs’ identities, date of the exam, or the results of the examination.”

During a September 2022 visit, a USDA official cited Yoder for one direct violation and six noncritical violations pertaining to the attending veterinarian and inadequate veterinary care, the method of animal identification, recordkeeping, animal housing facilities, primary enclosures, and feeding of the animals.

The inspector noted that three dogs appeared to be seriously underweight, and yet Yoder was unaware of two of the dogs’ condition and none of the three had been evaluated by a veterinarian. The inspector also noted that only four dogs were listed on Yoder’s USDA form that documents the acquisition of every animal, but there were 91 dogs on site.

In addition, three outdoor enclosures housing 12 adult dogs had large holes in the ground just below the flooring. The holes were large enough for even the larger dogs to “fit their head and front legs below the flooring,” the inspector reported, creating the risk of injury should the floor collapse. During the inspection, four adult poodles were spotted running loose on the property and had to be rounded up and returned to their enclosure.

Also, three outdoor enclosures that housed 14 adult dogs had caked dog food inside the self-feeding mechanisms. One of the self-feeders had cobwebs and dead insects inside of it, and a beetle was found in chunk of dog food. Yoder was also cited for violations in the first and second quarters of 2022.

At the conclusion of the September visit, Yoder “cancelled his USDA license, in writing, effective immediately,” the inspector reported.

Iowa a leader in puppy-mill violations

Over the past few years, Iowa has often led the nation with either the number of breeders cited for violations, or the total number of violations cited by inspectors.

In 2022, Iowa’s dog breeders had the nation’s worst record of compliance with federal regulations, accounting for 36% of all violations cited nationally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture cited dog and cat breeders and brokers for 795 violations in 2022, a total that excludes citations for “missed” inspections resulting from USDA officials not gaining access to the operations.

Of the 795 cited violations, Iowa breeders were responsible for 286 violations. In addition, six Iowa breeders received official warnings from the USDA in 2022.

In early 2023, Iowa continued to lead the nation in the number of regulatory violations committed by puppy mills. During the first quarter of the year, federal inspectors cited the nation’s licensed dog breeders for 303 violations. Of those, 107 were committed by Iowa breeders.

The 107 violations were committed by 26 different Iowa breeders, which meant that Iowa also led the nation in the number of puppy mills that were cited by regulators during the first three months of 2023. The No. 2 state, Missouri, had 31% fewer puppy mills cited for violations than did Iowa.

The analysis of violations in Iowa and around the nation is performed by Bailing Out Benji, a national animal-welfare organization that’s based in Iowa. The organization periodically compiles and analyzes inspection and sales data from the USDA.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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