USDA Keeps Extending the Leash on Abusive Dog Breeder

The Des Moines Register published an editorial on November 13, 2016, entitled “Why won’t the USDA shut down this serial animal abuser?” The paper of record for the state of Iowa—one of the biggest puppy mill states—was referring to dog breeder Gary Felts, d/b/a Black Diamond Kennel. The editorial noted that Felts had pleaded guilty to making false statements under oath relating to his failure to pay a 2010 fine levied under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

But the Register aims its most scathing criticism at the US Department of Agriculture for continuing to license this breeder despite abysmal inspections dating back to 2005, while describing the hell that these dogs endured, as documented by the USDA itself in three separate inspections from 2015 and 2016. The editorial raised fundamental questions about how the USDA could possibly have renewed Felts’s license, year after year, even while knowing he had lied under oath and continued to violate the AWA with impunity, without taking any enforcement action.

The editorial ended with a withering analysis—which, unfortunately, is relevant to far too many other instances of the USDA’s failure to vigorously enforce the AWA:

The mere act of observing and documenting the ongoing, unrelenting neglect and abuse of these poor creatures does not constitute any form of “protection.” In fact, it’s nothing more than an unconscionable dereliction of duty.

But there is far more to this story, in particular events that occurred after the editorial’s publication. However, to truly understand the full import of these extraordinary actions—and inactions—we need to start at the beginning.

The 2010 default decision and order

On January 4, 2010, the USDA filed a complaint against Felts alleging 51 violations of the AWA documented on 11 occasions from September 2005 to July 2009. These involved failure to provide adequate veterinary care, housing, cleaning, sanitation, and housekeeping, as well as multiple refusals by Felts to allow the USDA to inspect his facility. Felts requested and was granted an extension of time to respond. However, he never filed a timely response, and as a result, a default decision and order was entered against him in June 2010. This default decision, by definition, meant that Felts admitted to each of the 51 violations. In addition to a 30-day suspension of his license (which was lifted after Felts passed an inspection), the judge ordered him to pay a civil penalty of $18,938.

On March 25, 2011, the US attorney, on behalf of the USDA, filed a civil complaint against Felts seeking collection of the civil penalty. On January 17, 2012, judgment and order were entered against Felts for the $18,938 plus interest and penalties. As a condition of this judgment and order, he was required to file, under oath and penalty of perjury, financial disclosure statements with the US Attorney’s Office.

Felts perjures himself in his 2013 financial disclosure

In his 2013 statement, Felts failed to disclose bank and checking accounts. He also failed to disclose that he received a workers’ compensation settlement of $25,000 on April 16, 2013. Instead of using the settlement money to pay the civil penalty he owed from 2010, as mandated, Felts used it to expand his kennel.

The USDA was investigating on behalf of the US attorney and therefore knew of the failure to disclose. As the USDA investigated Felts’s fraudulent statements and other matters related to the civil complaint, it continued to document terrible conditions and extreme suffering at Felts’s kennel. Despite this, and Felts’s 51 admitted AWA violations, the USDA continued to renew his license to operate as a dealer.

In 2013 and 2014, inspections documented rusted surfaces and grime and showed Felts did not have adequate records for the dogs. Inspections from July and September 2015 and May and August 2016 detailed truly horrific, continued suffering at the hands of Felts. The Register editorial described the depth of the dogs’ suffering detailed in the latter three inspections.

Felts indicted, pleads guilty to one count

On May 26, 2016, the US attorney charged Felts with three counts of knowingly and willfully making false material statements, representations, and omissions in his financial disclosure statements. Felts could have spent 15 years in prison and been forced to pay a $750,000 fine.

On July 13, Felts pleaded guilty to one count relating to the fraudulent 2013 financial disclosure statement. In November, he was fined $100 and ordered to pay at least $200 per month to pay off the remainder of his civil penalty from June 2010. As the Register pointed out, at that rate, Felts will have to pay off his debt by April 2022—a full 17 years after the USDA first cited him.

In a November 2016 press release, the US attorney gave some background on the case and reaffirmed that the USDA had investigated it. He also cited the conditions of Felts’s three-year probation: “Felts was ordered to remain current with his monthly payments to USDA and must comply with all applicable federal, state, and local regulations regarding his license and care of animals, including the Animal Welfare Act.”

The devastating January 11, 2017 inspection

Just two months after the US attorney had announced that Felts’s probation terms mandated compliance with all applicable laws regarding his care of animals, including the AWA, the USDA again inspected his kennel. The appalling results (detailed in the box on the following page) mirrored findings from inspections conducted July 2015, September 2015, May 2016, and August 2016—including extreme dental problems, severe matting, oozing wounds, and feces buildup. In the May 2016 inspection, a dog’s tooth fell out after Felts merely touched it.

Yet despite all of this, the USDA still did not file an enforcement action under the AWA. Throughout this sordid and unconscionable history of inaction and automatic license renewal in the face of overwhelming evidence of violations of law—both civil and criminal—the USDA did not seek to permanently revoke Felts’s license.

USDA initiates proceedings to terminate Felts’s license

One week later, on January 18, the USDA filed an “order to show cause” why Felts’s license should not be terminated. But it asked for termination rather than revocation, which, as explained below, would have represented a sterner penalty. And this four-page document referenced only Felts’s 2010 default decision and order and his felony guilty plea.

There was no mention of any of the USDA inspections. For all intents and purposes, those 2015 through 2017 inspections may as well never have existed. The USDA certainly did not use them in any legal proceeding against Felts. And so the Register’s editorial rebuke carries that much more meaning: “Why in blazes is the USDA content to dutifully catalog the actions of a serial animal abuser who has lied to the agency and failed to pay his fines”—yet not use this evidence in any enforcement demanding the permanent revocation of his license?

Moreover, teams of inspectors often went to Felts’s kennel, indicating that the USDA knew the situation was grave. The USDA attorney’s failure to mention even one of their reports is a slap in the face to each one of these inspectors who for years were on the ground documenting Felts’s malfeasance.

On May 30, 2017, another default decision and order was issued, and Felts’s license was terminated.

Termination vs. revocation

The AWA has distinct, separate sections regarding licensure and enforcement. The regulations make a noteworthy distinction between license termination and permanent revocation. For revocation, the regulatory language is clear and quite broad. No person whose license has been permanently revoked shall ever have a license in their own name or in any other manner. It applies not only to the person whose license has been revoked; any person “who has been or is an officer, agent, or employee” of a revoked licensee and who was “responsible for or participated in” the violation that resulted in the revocation shall also not be licensed.

There is no corresponding language for a license termination. The regulations do state that “[n]o license will be issued under circumstances that the Administrator determines would circumvent any order suspending, revoking, terminating, or denying a license under the Act.” Is that enough to cover any businesses, employees, etc. of Felts? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But what is clear is that the permanent revocation language covering licensees, their businesses, and their associates is far broader and appears to be a significantly harder shield to pierce.

What is even clearer is that the USDA’s utter failure to adequately enforce the AWA, as exemplified by the awful case of Gary Felts, felon and admitted violator of the AWA, must never happen again. AWI will do whatever we can to make that a reality by continuing to monitor and expose weak enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.

Black diamond kennel January 11, 2017, Inspection

The following items were among the findings from the January 11, 2017, USDA inspection of Felts’s premises.

  • A 9-year-old male poodle had severe dental tartar, sores on both front feet, and excessive matting. There was creamy, yellow discharge from his cheek teeth. His gums were bright, red, puffy, and pulling away from the tooth root. Both front feet had open wounds and were red and swollen. Matting extended all over his body.
  • A 7-year-old male Chihuahua had severe dental tartar. There was creamy, yellow discharge on his canine teeth. His gums were bright, red, puffy, and pulling away from the tooth root. He had no other teeth.
  • An 8-year-old female English bulldog was squinting. Her inner eyelids were red, swollen, and tearing, with brownish-yellow discharge. The whites of both her eyes were severely bloodshot.
  • A 2-year-old female English bulldog consistently squinted her eye. She would completely close it with excessive blinking. Her inner eyelid was red and swollen. She pulled her head away when the inspector tried to examine closer.
  • A 3-year-old male English bulldog had red, patchy, swollen hairless regions on both cheeks, neck, and both front feet. He had a dark yellow, crusty region on his right cheek. His entire muzzle, chin, and neck down to chest bone were moist, sticky, hairless, and severely red. Both feet were warm to the touch, severely red, and swollen, with large patches of hair loss.
  • An enclosure with six puppies had a build-up of feces covering more than 75 percent of the surface. There were 29 adult dogs in enclosures with brown grimy residue on doors, walls, and corners of the concrete floor.