On October 29, the US Department of Agriculture permanently revoked the license of Iowa dog breeder Daniel Gingerich and fined him $500,000, after the Department of Justice filed a complaint for injunctive relief a month earlier. The settlement resulted in Gingerich’s surrendering 514 dogs. The DOJ’s action—the first time in history it obtained an injunction against a breeder licensed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—was based on USDA inspectors’ documenting cruelty of almost unimaginable scope.
And yet, as welcome as this eventual outcome is, the events leading up to it illustrate, once again, the USDA’s failure to pursue timely and robust enforcement that could save animals from the type of shocking abuse that was vividly on display over an extended period at Gingerich’s facility. As AWI’s Eric Kleiman told National Geographic for its October exposé (“USDA accused of ignoring animal welfare violations in favor of business interests”), the Gingerich situation is the latest example of the department’s longstanding enforcement failures.
According to the USDA complaint, an inspector spoke with Gingerich numerous times in March and April about five locations where he was breeding dogs without a license, in violation of the AWA. When the inspector requested addresses for these unlicensed sites, Gingerich provided only two and prevaricated on the others, stating “that he could not otherwise remember the addresses, or that the locations were not ready for a new-site inspection.” Gingerich had apparently also destroyed required acquisition records for 505 puppies. Inspectors warned him in April about the dangers of heat stress and cited him for an emaciated dog and lack of potable drinking water.
Gingerich’s obstruction escalated on June 14 when, at yet another illegal site, he prevented inspectors from examining a single dog. That same day, he “laundered” 150 dogs by transferring them to an unnamed individual—one of many examples of Gingerich making it impossible for the USDA to track animals. A 33-page July 7 inspection included 34 citations and documented appalling neglect, including a dog suffering from severe heat stress, gasping for breath and almost unable to move as the heat index soared to 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Given what the USDA had documented previously, this should have trigged immediate confiscation and referral to the DOJ.
Instead, the USDA conducted seven more inspections in July, culminating on July 28 with eight direct citations—the most serious type of critical citation. As the heat index reached 119 degrees, multiple dogs were observed suffering from severe heat stress, with labored breathing and crying out, while others had no potable water. Inspectors found an emaciated golden retriever with “hip bones, ribs, shoulder blades and back bones clearly visible.” She was among over 40 whom Gingerich had hidden from the department; inspectors found several of them dead. On August 11, inspectors witnessed a poodle puppy who gasped for breath, cried out, and died right in front of them. Gingerich hadn’t even noticed her suffering.
In 2021 alone, 25 inspection reports exceeding 200 pages contained over 200 citations, with the vast majority occurring prior to September, when the USDA eventually took enforcement action. For comparison, notorious chinchilla dealer Daniel Moulton had the most direct citations from 2014 to 2021 among the 10,000+ licensees and registrants regulated under the AWA. In just three months, Gingerich amassed almost half the number of direct citations that Moulton took seven and a half years to accumulate.
The USDA temporarily suspended Gingerich’s license on September 7, then filed a complaint 17 days later. That same month, it finally referred the case to the DOJ (as mandated by the AWA) for injunctive action after determining that Gingerich was placing the animals’ health in serious danger.
But how could the USDA have possibly waited until September to make this determination? USDA inspectors did their job in documenting a clear emergency at Gingerich’s facility. The case admittedly posed significant challenges—Gingerich threatened to kill some sick dogs the USDA wanted him to send to a rescue unless the department allowed him to transfer them to whomever he wanted. Yet in the end, the department did not confiscate a single animal. It did refer the case to the DOJ, as required, but waited months to do so. Why does the USDA seem unable or unwilling to act with urgency?
In 2019, a firestorm ensued after the Washington Post reported that the USDA initiated a confiscation of heat-stressed raccoons at another Iowa facility, Ruby Fur Farm, only to reverse itself after an industry group complained to senior administration officials (including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue), prompting them to intervene on behalf of the facility owner. This was considered a prime example of the AWA enforcement nadir under the Trump administration. Those raccoons should have been confiscated—Ruby Fur Farm was an unconscionable situation.
But Gingerich is far worse. The heat index at times was higher at Gingerich’s, even as dogs went without potable drinking water. There were dogs in horrible shape with little or no veterinary care. And Gingerich hid animals, destroyed records, and denied access to inspectors.
Congress considered the USDA’s authority to confiscate to be so fundamental to ensuring animal welfare that it was included in the original AWA passed in 1966. USDA staff veterinarians have repeatedly affirmed this vital duty, writing in 2001 that the USDA “will continue” to confiscate when “it is in the best interests of the animals,” and in 2020 reiterated this authority to “confiscate animals that are in a state of suffering.”
Moreover, USDA public relations officials have published glowing testimonials to the importance of confiscation, featuring “before and after” pictures of rescued animals. In an article entitled “APHIS: Rescuing Suffering Animals,” they wrote that the department “has the authority and obligation to confiscate any AWA-regulated animal that is in a condition of unrelieved suffering.”
Despite confiscation being endorsed by USDA veterinarians and extolled in PR pronouncements, the department itself failed to confiscate in this case after inspectors documented an unprecedented emergency of immense, avoidable suffering. If this situation does not exemplify suffering animals needing rescue—through confiscation and timely referral to the DOJ—what does?