In mid-May, a Milwaukee-area Craigslist ad for "fox cages and boxes" and "slatted flooring" for sale near Plymouth, Wis., was evidence that Gerald Schulz and his dog-breeding operation, Pretty Penny Kennel, were no longer in business.
Schulz used the cages for 15-some breeds, including terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Lhasa apsos, dachshunds, miniature schnauzers, beagles, basset hounds, spaniels, retrievers and border collies, that he bred and sold.
Schulz, who'd been in business since 1965, is one of just a handful of dog breeders and rescues that have failed to gain licenses since the enactment of Wisconsin's dog-seller license law.
Under the 2009 law, which took effect June 1, 2011, the state documents who is breeding and selling dogs in Wisconsin, imposes minimum standards for veterinary and daily care, and conducts inspections for facilities, required of anyone selling more than 25 dogs a year from three or more litters. This applies to breeders, shelters, rescues, humane societies and pet stores -- anyone who sells dogs.
Dubbed "The Puppy Mill Bill" as it moved through the Legislature, it was often championed as a way to prevent Wisconsin from becoming a magnet for inhumane and irresponsible dog breeders, attracted by the state's absence of laws as other states enacted more restrictions. It passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously. (A previous attempt to regulate dog selling in 2002 was passed, but line-item vetoes eliminated the funding that would have paid for inspections.)
But the law is more about licensing sellers and imposing minimum standards than it is about putting puppy mills out of business.
Isthmus' review of what the law has accomplished in three years raises concerns about the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection's administration of the program, from its ability to track complaints to its failure to present information to consumers. Most disturbingly, records show program staff overlooked patterns of substandard care and have failed to refer for legal action when evidence of animal neglect and cruelty was found.
The law at its worst, say its harshest critics, allows the state to legitimize large-scale breeding operations -- in their eyes, outright puppy mills -- by granting them licenses when they meet minimum standards. These, for instance, allow dogs to spend their lives in cages indoors. The enclosures must be of breed-appropriate size, and 30 minutes of daily exercise in a larger run where a dog can achieve a running stride is mandated. But these standards are far from "What you or any pet owner would want and expect for your dog," as DATCP states in a consumer fact sheet.
Lisa Martin, head of Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue, believes the public has been misled into thinking the licensing law has "solved" Wisconsin's puppy mill problem.
And critics fear that the public now feels comfortable buying puppies from big-box pet stores because they've been assured that the breeding facilities they came from have been state-approved.
But the law has made it possible to more accurately track who is selling dogs in the state and to mandate record-keeping and veterinary care. Gayle Viney of the Dane County Humane Society says that "at least now there is knowledge that all facilities are meeting a minimum standard for dogs. It should be and is a selling point for adopting from a licensed facility."
"You have to start somewhere," says Allison Davies, executive director of Madison's Shelter from the Storm rescue. "It's a step in the right direction."
Problem-solve, not punish
Gerald Schulz did not give up his breeding operation without a fight. He applied for a license in August 2011, expecting to sell 240 dogs over the course of the next 13 months. On inspection, DATCP recorded numerous violations at Pretty Penny. Schulz kept his dogs, including the small breeds, outdoors or in an unheated barn all year, often together in too-small pens. That was just the start. Inspectors made lists of what he needed to do to comply with the law.
Schulz corrected a few violations but mostly left his operation unchanged. He even applied for a variance to the requirement that "all excreta shall be removed from primary enclosures daily." When that was denied, he appealed.
After Schulz failed four inspections during 2012, DATCP voided his conditional license and denied his application.
DATCP has three inspectors dedicated to licensing animal shelters, dog breeders and rescues, each assigned to a section of the state. Compliance officer Jeffrey Hare, who oversees them, says they conduct inspections and re-inspections (required every two years), investigate complaints, and do detective work, checking want ads and monitoring the Internet to discover illegal dog sales.
Tara Loller, policy implementation manager for the Puppy Mill Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States, works with officials in all states that have dog-seller license laws. "To Wisconsin's credit, the quality of their inspection is at the top of the list," says Loller, whose group lobbied heavily for the 2009 bill.
Hare explains the goal of the licensing process is to help sellers get licensed appropriately. That philosophy is spelled out clearly in a DATCP consumer fact sheet about the dog-seller license law: "Our goal is always to solve the problem, not to punish."
That explains why, at a meeting with Gerald and Barbara Schulz as their license was being denied, state officials were still offering them the option of "making improvements to the facility and applying for another license" -- despite records in which Schulz states numerous times that he had no intention of doing anything to change his procedures. "Gerald told [an inspector] his corrective action plan was, 'I'm not going to do anything.'"
Charges of mistreatment
As of this month, there are 333 active dog-seller licenses in the state, according to DATCP division operations manager Janice Lipsey. Eleven applicants have been denied since the law went into effect -- four for simply failing to pay the license fee, seven for cause.
Tammy Kautzer was turned down in November 2011 for failing to provide adequate health care, leaving toy breeds outdoors in winter and failing to have a plan for controlling the temperature of her breeding facilities.
But Kautzer didn't get in trouble with the law until she continued to operate after license denial. DATCP inspectors learned she was having family members advertise her dogs. In January 2014, Kautzer reached a plea agreement with Clark County -- one year's probation and $573 for operating without a license. (A person who continues to operate without a license may be fined "not more than $10,000 or imprisoned for not more than nine months or both" under the law.)
Like Kautzer, Kathy Williams of Brodhead had her application denied. Williams had already been charged with seven counts of mistreating animals in May 2011, though under deferred prosecution the charges were dismissed. After her seller's license application was denied by DATCP in July 2011, she was charged in 2012 with operating a kennel without a license and failing to vaccinate against rabies. She was found guilty after a no-contest plea and fined $705.50.
But Katherine Henry received her dog-seller license just 18 months after a Chippewa County Sheriff's report recommended that criminal charges be brought against her for 63 counts of failing to provide food and water to confined animals.
Henry is the only seller to have been denied a license and then succeed in obtaining one on a second try.
She first applied for a license for her dachshund breeding operation, Lexi's Doxies, on Dec. 19, 2011, when she was living in Colfax, Wis. At that point, she was issued a conditional license, though records show DATCP knew of previous complaints of "improper care and sanitation" at this and a previous address.
On Jan. 31, 2012, Henry's house burned to the ground. At least four dogs perished; others were reportedly treated for smoke inhalation.
While officials were there to fight the fire, 53 adult dogs and eight puppies were discovered in an outbuilding filled with feces and a strong smell of ammonia, odors so strong that the officer writing the report describes going outside and vomiting. Subsequent inspections were done in special gear including hazmat suits.
DATCP inspectors were called and finally inspected Henry's facility on Feb. 2, 2012. There was no heat or electric in the outbuilding and no food or water for the dogs. Henry's conditional license was voided and her application denied.
Despite that, Henry was allowed to keep her dogs.
Chippewa County Sheriff's Office records say that Henry was making efforts to clean up the kennels and told an officer that she was giving away some of the dogs.
Ultimately, Henry was charged only by the town of Howard, with 29 counts of failure to license a dog, for which she was fined $200 each, and with running a kennel without a license, a penalty of $310.50. (These are non-criminal violations of local laws with no connection to the 2009 state license law.)
Later that spring, Henry moved away, leaving approximately 15 dogs "not being cared for at the residence," according to an incident report from May.
By November 2012, Henry had moved her operation to Fairchild, and DATCP issued her a notice of operating without a seller's license. On Nov. 19, Henry reapplied for a license and was again granted a conditional one.
Violations at the initial inspection this time included an injured dog not being treated, lack of socialization and toys for the dogs, excrement not being removed on a daily basis, and inadequate ventilation.
Henry, nevertheless, was allowed to continue to operate.
Re-inspections in February and August 2013 showed initial violations had been remedied.
On Aug. 12, 2013, Henry was granted full license status by DATCP.
Henry did not respond to several emails requesting comment.
Depite DATCP's function as a consumer protection agency, it does little to help people who would like to check out dog sellers before making a purchase.
Critically, the state does not compile or make available a list of sellers who have been denied licenses for cause.
There is a list of all licensed dog sellers available on the DATCP website as a downloadable PDF, but it is incomplete, due to ongoing computer problems, according to an agency spokesperson.
A consumer could not tell if a seller was not on the list because it sold fewer than 25 dogs a year and didn't need a license, or because it had been denied one due to multiple violations.
There's also no way of knowing from the list that Katherine Henry was denied a license before receiving one.
The list does not say how many dogs an operation sells per year -- a number that could tell consumers a lot -- and DATCP representatives say there are no plans to include that.
The list had until recently included the date of a facility's last inspection, showing that some re-inspections had taken place close to their two-year anniversaries but that others were up to 11 months overdue. As of June 23, this information was no longer included in the list. A DATCP spokesperson says that the new computer system was not pulling accurate inspection dates so the column was removed.
A copy of the most recent inspection report is legally required to be posted at dog-seller facilities, but is otherwise available from DATCP only by special request.
A consumer would need to file an open records request to find out if DATCP had received complaints about a seller. DATCP staff provided conflicting information to Isthmus as to how difficult, time-consuming or even possible that search would be.
DATCP representatives say that conversion to a new database has been challenging and that they are "working the bugs out" of the new system. In the meantime, concerned consumers will either remain in the dark or have to become their own detectives.
Where do the dogs go?
While the state's dog-seller licensing law was passed ostensibly to improve animal welfare, Isthmus' investigation reveals that even when inspections turn up evidence of neglect or abuse, it does not necessarily mean that the animals are removed from the situation or that the seller has been referred to law enforcement.
Dr. Yvonne Bellay, humane animal programs leader for DATCP's Division of Animal Health, and head of the licensing program, says that the agency will continue to work with sellers as long as they demonstrate a "good-faith effort" to comply with requirements.
Inspectors themselves do not have law enforcement powers. When they find conditions that are of concern, they report them to their supervisor or to Bellay. If Bellay sees evidence of animals in poor physical condition or "if the conditions of the environment are bad enough," she makes the decision to contact the county for law enforcement action. "Welfare is the primary concern," says Bellay.
Yet there seems to be no clear bar for reporting abuse or taking action -- either while a license is being considered or after it has been denied. In the cases of Gerald Schulz and Katherine Henry, no animal cruelty charges were brought.
And even when conditions are bad, and a license is denied, dogs are usually left in the owner's custody. DATCP tells the seller he cannot keep the dogs but has no authority to seize or re-home them.
"Those dogs are that individual's property," says Bellay. "How they choose to divest is up to them."
That laissez-faire approach can cause trouble down the road. Debra Gray of Orphaned Kanines, a rescue near Racine, was told to divest of her remaining dogs when she was denied a license in June 2012. "We had no reason to believe that she didn't comply," says Bellay. The Racine Journal Times reported that an inspection the next month found 12 dogs, but noted those animals were supposed to be leaving that day.
DATCP did provide a list of Gray's violations to the county's humane officer, but other local authorities and the district attorney's office say they were not provided the information, according to the Journal Times.
So when Orphaned Kanines began operating again, local alarm bells did not go off. Apparently DATCP inspectors missed it when Orphaned Kanines reappeared on Petfinder this spring, openly offering dogs with adoption fees of $350 to $375. Serious problems there were discovered in late May only via a routine fire inspection, prompting police action. The Racine County DA has charged Gray with 85 counts of intentionally mistreating animals, one count of operating an animal shelter without a license and 85 counts of failing to provide minimum standards of sanitation.
Even when a dog seller is turned down for a license, there's no guarantee the dogs will end up in a better place.
When Gerald Schulz dispersed his dogs after license denial, he had 108 adults and 27 puppies. DATCP records show Karen Fabregas of Tomahawk received 47 dogs, and Perry Bontrager of Dalton got 30.
Fabregas works in rescue transport, and took the dogs with the help of Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha.
Bontrager is one of the highest-volume dog breeders in the state, selling 540 dogs in a year as of 2013, records show.
DATCP's initial inspections of Bontrager's facility showed numerous areas that needed improvement to comply with the law.
But Bontrager worked with DATCP inspectors and made the upgrades over 2011 and 2012; he was granted full license status in April 2013. Changes made included dental cleanings; improved record keeping, flooring materials and socialization; and larger cages and exercise areas.
Even so, some of the efforts seem perfunctory. After Bontrager was told that the dogs needed enrichment objects, the next report noted that "dogs still need enrichment objects. PVC piping is not an enrichment activity for dogs."
The standards set out in the law, such as cage sizes and exercise requirements, were agreed upon by an advisory committee of dog breeders, representatives from humane societies, rescue groups, veterinarians and others.
The fact that it is legal for dogs to be kept in cages indoors for their entire life is explained by small dogs and Wisconsin weather, according to Dr. Bellay. The standards can't be breed-specific, and you can't demand Chihuahuas be taken outside in subzero temperatures.
Lisa Martin of Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue wishes greater attention had been given to practical differences between breeders, rescues and shelters, a sentiment echoed by Allison Davies of Shelter from the Storm. Rescue and shelter dogs are kept for much shorter periods, for instance, than breeder dogs, who are often kept in the same confined conditions for years.
The standards are unlikely to change any time soon. The advisory committee reviewed the law on its one-year anniversary: "No changes were made," says Bellay. "There were no significant issues that would start up the rule-making process to change what was in place."