Pratt Fall: USDA Fails Again at AWA Enforcement

In a November 15, 2014, Des Moines Register article, Debra Pratt was called “a poster child” for the “kind of animal neglect that coins the phrase ‘puppy mill.’” After years of damning US Department of Agriculture inspection reports documented unspeakable cruelty to dogs at her facility, her kennel became known as the “Pratt Mill.” Multiple publications called it one of the most notorious puppy mills in Iowa. Finally, after two horrific USDA inspections on February 14 and March 26, 2013, Debra Pratt signed a settlement in July 2013 shutting down the kennel. She was fined $7,800.

But the settlement and fine were not levied by the USDA. Instead, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) took that enforcement action, filing a complaint against Pratt on May 17, 2013, to permanently revoke her Iowa permit to operate as a USDA Animal Care commercial establishment (Iowa law requires only a three-year revocation). As part of the settlement, Pratt admitted that “she failed to provide the proper standard of care for dogs in her possession.” The $7,800 fine was the largest in Iowa history.

So why are we writing about a puppy mill shuttered in 2013?

Because the USDA waited to file its own enforcement complaint against Debra Pratt until January 11, 2018— 10 years after it began citing the Pratt Mill, and five years after the IDALS had filed its complaint. And because the USDA’s actions in this case are a particularly egregious example of this department’s longstanding failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and support its inspectors on the ground who document these horrific abuses (often at their own peril). Once again, the USDA has failed to use years of AWA citations in any kind of enforcement action—as if the animal suffering documented for so long never even existed.

The USDA complaint comprises just three pages and includes no citations prior to 2013 because of a five-year statute of limitations. The two most damning allegations come from the February 14 and March 26, 2013, inspections—the ones the IDALS relied on to file its own complaint and take significant enforcement action. But one would never know their severity by reading the USDA’s woefully deficient complaint.1

1Unbelievably, this was the first enforcement complaint the USDA had filed under the AWA since March 2, 2017. In fact, from October 1, 2016, through March 1, 2018, the USDA filed just three enforcement complaints, including this one.

The 2013 Inspections
These two inspections alone, totaling 23 pages, document well over 40 alleged AWA violations, including failure to provide adequate veterinary care to over 20 dogs. (The AWA allows a penalty of up to $10,000 per violation.)

The February 14 inspection detailed the suffering of five dogs who needed veterinary care and noted other major issues relating to documentation, housing, sanitation, ventilation, and pest control. All this is reduced to one sentence in the USDA complaint—that Pratt “unreasonably delayed having approximately five (5) dogs in need of medical treatment seen by the Attending Veterinarian.” There is nothing in the complaint about the dogs’ condition, which took up an entire page of the inspection, or the other three pages of alleged violations.

The inspection undoubtedly would have been far worse, in fact, had it not been cut short. Why? So Pratt could get medical attention for one of the five dogs! As the inspectors wrote on page four, “An English bulldog the owner called Mike was in need of immediate veterinary care, so the inspectors stopped the inspection before the entire facility was inspected so the owner could take the dog to the veterinarian.”

The inspection indicated that Mike was suffering from extreme hair loss over his entire body. His skin was red and irritated. The inside and outside of both his ears were severely thick and swollen, with yellowish discharge coming from them. He had scabs covering a majority of both ears as well as the top of his head. (Pratt stated the scabs were the result of the dog scratching.) Both eyes had red swollen tissue protruding from the bottom with yellow/green discharge. Given the truly pitiful state she allowed the dog to descend to, this sudden need to rush to the vet was clearly a ploy to end the inspection.

What more would the inspectors have found if Pratt had not interrupted this inspection to get care for Mike the day the inspectors showed up? The March 26 inspection (after Pratt had illegally denied inspectors access on March 21 and March 22) may provide an indication: It totaled 19 pages detailing 25 separate citations. After being interrupted a month earlier, the inspectors this time issued citations for 21 dogs needing veterinary care, as well as for more enclosure and ventilation issues.

The USDA complaint, however, reduces this horrific suffering to three sentences (including one each for primary enclosure and ventilation citations). For the sentence regarding the 21 dogs, the USDA simply substituted “21” for the “5” in the February 14 inspection. Every other part of the sentence in the complaint is exactly the same. Verbatim.

The USDA Settlement
In the end, egregious problems from these two inspections were given cursory treatment while dozens of USDA citations prior to 2013, documenting years of animal abuse and horrible conditions at the facility, fell by the wayside—out of reach because the USDA failed to act within the five-year statute of limitations. To cite just two examples: In August 2010, the USDA found “No fewer than ten Bulldogs had cherry eyes [prolapsed eyelid glands]” with no evidence of veterinary care. An October 2012 inspection found a dachshund with “greenish pus like substance in both eyes,” with brown crusted matter and raw areas around the eyes from scratching, while a pug had a “brownish growth” on his left eye.

The settlement gave no indication of the severity of citations at the Pratt Mill over many years, no description of the condition of any one of those 20+ dogs, no mention that Iowa shut down the facility in a muscular enforcement action based on the USDA’s own inspections, no indication that the USDA had issued Pratt two warning letters in 2012—which cited at least eight inspections and alleged violations dating back to 2008. (The warning letters themselves did not even mention the 2010 inspection finding no fewer than 10 bulldogs with cherry eyes. The October 2012 inspection involving the dachshund and pug came after the warning letters were issued.)

This USDA complaint is also missing crucial legal language. The absence of a common enforcement complaint paragraph, “Allegations Regarding Size of Business, Gravity of Violations, Good Faith, and History of Previous Violations,” raises yet more questions. These are legal factors used to determine the penalty for violations alleged in a complaint. Their absence, combined with five-year-old allegations, raises the question: Was this insubstantial complaint filed with a quick and paltry settlement in mind? Because that is exactly what happened in this case: Pratt didn’t even bother to file a reply; 14 days later, she signed the settlement. Unlike the IDALS, the USDA did not force Pratt to admit anything. She was issued an order to cease and desist violating the AWA and paid a pathetic $2,000 fine.

Debra Pratt is Still in the USDA-Regulated Dog Business
At the time of the Pratt Mill closure, and after her USDA license was terminated (not revoked), Pratt was still registered as an intermediate handler. As we reported earlier (see AWI Quarterly, spring 2018), USDA registrations for intermediate handlers, carriers, and research facilities cannot be suspended or revoked. People with records of horrific animal abuse, such as Michael Vick, could register as a carrier or intermediate handler, and it would be perfectly legal. In a June 2015 inspection, the USDA cited Pratt for failure to have valid health certificates signed by veterinarians for two pug puppies whom she, as an intermediate handler, had dropped off in Missouri. (Iowa is second to Missouri in the number of USDA-licensed dog breeders—and both states have long been notorious for puppy mills.) The puppies were then taken to a pet store in New York, which rejected them—speaking volumes regarding their likely condition.

Moreover, the USDA inspection showed that Pratt had 126 puppies in her inventory—at the same address listed by the USDA for the Pratt Mill! One wonders what “care” Pratt provided them, or what may have been their eventual fates.

According to the USDA complaint, Pratt is currently registered as a carrier, and can transport dogs to and from her puppy mill pals (among other destinations), despite the years of abuse and cruelty she inflicted on dozens of dogs at the infamous Pratt Mill. And because of the USDA site wipe, “homestead businesses” such as Pratt’s—despite her terrible record—cannot be monitored for AWA compliance online using USDA’s redaction-riddled “search tool.”

As for the unconscionably delayed, anemic USDA complaint and settlement, AWI believes it exemplifies what APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea has publicly stated: Enforcement delayed is enforcement denied.

We thank Iowa Friends of Companion Animals for their invaluable contributions to this article.