Animals in PrintWho Is Policing Animal Safety?
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Who Is Policing Animal Safety?
From 10 June 2011 Issue

R&R Research under investigation by USDA
Updated: Thursday, 19 May 2011, 4:01 PM EDT - By Henry Erb

Who Is Policing Animal Safety?
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Pet owners may not know their tax money pays for a staff of federal government workers who are supposed to keep their dogs and cats safe in their yards and healthy when they buy them from breeders.

It's called the Animal Welfare Act , and it was written in 1966 to keep pets from being stolen and sold to laboratories for research.

Under the law, rules require animal brokers to get dogs and cats only from licensed shelters or other licensed breeders. They may get animals from unlicensed sources only when the animal was born and raised on the owner's property.

"Now there's been additional regulations and standards built onto that but that's why it was created," said Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the US Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare Division.

The act has expanded since 1966 to require humane care standards for thousands of breeders and the dozen or so remaining brokers, even zoos and circuses. USDA inspectors make unannounced visits four times a year to license holders all over the US.

Target 8 Tip

It was a tip about one of those brokers, R&R Research based just outside Howard City in Montcalm County, that put Target 8 Investigators onto a story which found those federal regulators have failed to "effecively enforce" the Animal Welfare Act against repeat offenders.

R&R Research has been the source of controversy over the years.

In the 1990s, Ionia County Animal Control gave a dog to R&R and told the owner the dog had been killed. R&R gave the dog back.

Also in the '90s, Target 8 Investigators reported the Michigan Attorney General had ordered R&R to stop advertising as an animal shelter.

Then, in 2009, public outcry heated up a series of Montcalm County board meetings as people tried - unsuccessfully - to pry R&R out of its contract with the county that allowed it to take its pick of unwanted animals in exchange for killing others.

James Woudenberg, the owner of R&R Research, wouldn't talk with Target 8 on camera, citing "some very unprofessional conduct by those in the media."

But in a recent letter, he said "R&R has always maintained a high level of compliance with USDA, Animal Welfare Act guidelines. Any problems which were cited have been corrected."

In 2005, though, R&R paid a $3870 fine for taking 18 cats from the Howard City Public Works Department, which is not a licensed, legal source of animals. And since then, USDA inspectors have found the company got more cats and dogs from illegal sources at least a half-dozen more times.

Woudenberg said "owners surrendering their animals are not compensated in any way, and in each case R&R obtains a signed statement from the animals owner that they bred the animal."

That disputes findings by USDA inspectors that the animals came from unlawful sources because they were not bred on the owner's property.

The repeat violations alleged by USDA have risen to the level of a formal investigation which could lead to fines or action against R&R's license.

There is a bigger question: What value is all that federal regulation if a license holder can do the same wrong act over and over again?

In fact, Target 8 investigators found that's a question raised by the USDA's own internal watchdog, the Inspector General, in 2005 and in 2010.

It found the "enforcement process was ineffective in achieving dealer compliance with the Animal Welfare Act." The IG said over a two-year period, re-inspection of 4,250 breeders and brokers found 2,416 repeatedly violated the Animal Welfare Act.

"It chose to take little or no enforcement action against most violators," the IG reported in May 2010.

Instead, the agency chose to try to educate dealers and brokers instead.

"We have always thought, and still feel, that getting these license holders to provide humane care and treatment for their animals is the ultimate goal," said the USDA's Sacks. Educating them, he added, is still the best way to get them to comply.

But the audits have had an impact, he said. "There's been a real strong push for more enforcement and stricter enforcement, more aggressive enforcement actions and penalties for those repeat offenders."

Sacks said the agency recently hired more inspectors, a kennel specialist, boosted the average fine from $3,700 to $10,400, and launched more investigations that could lead to fines or even license suspension or revocation.

"So, as part of that," he said, "R&R Research is being investigated right now."


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