Gov't docs show Ocoee store buys from "Horrible Hundred"puppy mills exposed by animal advocacy group
Rogues gallery includes Chews A Puppy’s featured breeder and the first USDA-licensed breeder to be shut down by the feds
Last month, when Chews A Puppy store owners Crystal and Nick Grastara pleaded before the Ocoee City Commission that they be allowed to continue selling puppies in opposition to Orange County’s ordinance that will outlaw the practice, effective June 2022, a mainstay of their argument was how thoroughly they vet their breeders.
“I uphold my breeders to the highest of standards,” Crystal Grastara told the commission at the Sept. 21 standing-room-only meeting where many in the audience wore teal “I HEART Chews A Puppy” T-shirts.
“We vet our breeders. We check into our breeders. If a breeder has any sort of violation, that breeder is immediately cut off and put onto a black list,” she assured the commissioners, who voted to table a final decision until oversight language could be added to the ordinance. Commissioners are set to take up the issue again at tomorrow's city commission meeting.
Grastara added that her business continually monitors her breeders since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website isn’t always current. (The USDA conducts surprise inspections and logs violations for kennels in every state that have five or more breeding female dogs and sell puppies online and to stores.)
“We are constantly updating our records, making sure everything is up to par,” Grastara said.
The Chews A Puppy website reiterates that promise. The site says the Grastaras “travel throughout the country each year, visiting many breeders and taking pictures of puppy parents as well as the breeder’s homes so you can see the source of many of our puppies…No sad puppy mill photos here!”
“Ear wounds from flies”
VoxPopuli has obtained certification of veterinary inspection (CVIs) documents from records requests made by Orange County Animal Services. These CVIs, required when puppies cross state lines, show the Grastaras purchased puppies from breeders in Iowa and Kansas that have made the Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) Horrible Hundred List multiple times for the “gruesome” conditions in which dogs and puppies at their facilities were found. HSUS has published its annual list of “known, problematic puppy breeding and/or puppy brokering facilities” across the country since 2013.
The Grastaras’ featured breeder on their Our Breeders page, Rebecca Eiler, the owner of Creek Side Kennels, runs a “massive operation with 430 dogs on site,” according to HSUS. Last year, USDA inspectors found more than 560 dogs at her kennel. Although USDA inspectors have not issued violations, state inspectors have. Eiler landed on this year’s Horrible 100 List for housing her dogs in unsafe kennels; drains that spilled dog feces into the open; open waste tubs that were filled to capacity; dogs with matted fur and “ear wounds from flies.” In 2019, she refused to grant state inspectors access to her kennels, a serious violation for which she was fined $200.
Not quite the idyllic picture the Grastaras paint on their site of Eiler’s children “helping raise and socialize the puppies.”
VoxPopuli visited Chews A Puppy on Monday to ask the Grastaras to comment about their association with the Horrible Hundred breeders. Neither Nick nor Crystal were there, but the store manager, Stephanie, said she did not know when they would return and ended the conversation at the mention of “puppy mills” adding curtly, “I will pass this information along and they will reach out if they are interested.”
Messages were left messages at a cell phone number and an email associated with Nick Grastara. If the Grastaras contact us, we will update the story with their comments.
“Puppies had not been fed or watered for three days”
Eiler isn’t even the worst offender in the Grastaras’ roster. That would be Seymour, Iowa, breeder Daniel Gingerich, who last month, earned the distinction of being the first USDA-licensed breeder to be shut down by the federal government. At the same time, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship fined Gingerich $20,000 and suspended his license for 60 days, although that suspension has not started yet.
Gingerich started breeding dogs in 2019 under the company name Maple Hill Puppies. His operation quickly grew to 10 sites (some unlicensed by the state or federal government) with 1,000 dogs and puppies at one point.
He amassed multiple violations — more than 100 in the last six months alone. Court documents describe “moldy” and “deteriorating” food; shelters that posed a “serious danger” to the dogs and “shockingly inadequate” veterinary care, listing “many animals [with] severe illnesses, such as parvovirus and distemper … dogs
with severe skin conditions, lesions and matted hair … dogs that are emaciated … in severe heat stress … and non-responsive.”
In addition, Gingerich lacked identification and documentation for many of his animals — necessary for tracing the animals once they leave the kennel — and refused to allow inspectors access to his properties in March, October and December of last year. When inspectors did gain access, he attempted to conceal sick dogs from inspectors so they could not be examined.
Last week, the federal judge ordered Gingerich to turn over all of his dogs in “acute distress” so they could receive immediate medical treatment. According to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, when USDA inspectors notified Gingerich earlier this summer that they were going to take certain dogs, he killed them.
The restraining order prevents Gingerich from killing (or breeding) any more dogs and requires that he supply the Department of Justice a complete list of all animals at each of his locations and to provide “head to tail” physical exams of each animal by a licensed veterinarian. Interestingly, the court order specifies that Gingerich employ a veterinarian other than William McClintock, DVM — who signed the certificates of veterinary inspection for each of the four puppies that Chews A Puppy bought from Gingerich between January and May of this year. Separate court documents show that in 2017, McClintock was fined $5,000 by the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine for falsifying records and making false statements; his license was on probation for two years, from 2017 through 2019.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that Dr. Heather Cole, a USDA supervisory veterinary medical officer, described Gingerich’s breeding sites as “the all-around least compliant facilities” she’d ever seen and that she’d “never encountered a licensee who has this high of a level of chronic and repeat noncompliance across every category of Animal Welfare Act requirements.”
Gingerich may face criminal charges for animal neglect, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.
“A build-up of fecal waste and flies”
Chews A Puppy also buys from Justin and La Nae Jackson of Clifton, Kan. That pair has made the Horrible 100 five times: in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2021 for injured and emaciated dogs and unsafe and unsanitary housing and feeding conditions. A Jan. 6, 2016, inspection report from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) noted that three Vizslas, a dog breed originating in Hungary, had “ribs and backbone [that] were visible from a lack of fat cover” and that dogs were housed in dangerous conditions with “multiple holes … sharp, jagged edges… broken, protruding wires … excessive rust…”
Another APHIS inspection dated April 13, 2016, zeroed in on a settlement pond, “centrally located in the middle of the dogs being housed in outdoor enclosures” that emitted a “strong odor” and had a “build-up of fecal waste and flies” along its edge, “which can transmit disease.” Inspectors also cited feeding containers with a "buildup of dried, caked feed and debris” inside.
Certificates of Veterinary Inspection that VoxPopuli viewed indicate that the Grastaras bought at least four puppies from this breeder, two in February and two in March.
“In need of veterinary care”
Bow-Wow Mound, in Burns, Kan., owned by Judy Koehn is another Horrible Hundred breeder that Chews A Puppy buys from. It made the list in 2016 for dogs that were underweight and “in need of veterinary care,” unsafe housing and for blocking inspectors from entering her kennels on five occasions. According to HSUS's report, that is “a significant violation due to the inspector’s inability to check on the welfare of the dogs for months a time.”
Euthanized by gunshot
R Family Kennels is the latest iteration of a series of breeding operations run by members of the Rottinghaus family of Seneca, Kan., with violations that stretch back years. According to the HSUS’s 2021 Horrible Hundred report: “…members of the Rottinghaus family have held nearly half a dozen licenses in Seneca, Kansas, over the past two decades, regularly cancelling any USDA licenses that fall under scrutiny and then obtaining new ones.”
Audrey Rottinghaus ran Wendy Pets until last year when Kansas inspectors found that 24 dogs in the kennel had been euthanized by gunshot, and the facility’s license was suspended for two years and her facility closed. (USDA took no action in that circumstance.) Other Rottinghaus family members include Kale and Sandra, thought to be the parents of Audrey and her sister Krystal. Sandra and Krystal’s operation separately made the Humane Society’s Horrible Hundred list in 2013 for sick and emaciated dogs and unsafe housing. Chews A Puppy bought at least two puppies from R Family Kennels this year.
Chews A Puppy also buys from at least two large-scale puppy brokers — those who buy puppies from commercial breeders and then resell them to stores — Conrad’s Cuddly Canines and QD Kennels. Both are known for moving upwards of 5,000 puppies a year across the country. The Grastaras bought 30 puppies from Conrad’s Cuddly Canines in one week in April. They purchased at least 13 puppies from QD Kennels this year.
QD Kennels, based in Frankford, Mo., is operated by Herman (aka Tony) Schindler and his wife Bonnie (sometimes known as Brenda). This couple now work as brokers, but for decades they ran Mettoville Kennels (aka Teachers Pets), considered one of the largest commercial puppy breeders in the country with nearly 1,000 breeding dogs. Their Mexico, Mo., facility was forced to sell all of its breeding dogs in 2011 after the state Department of Agriculture cited it for 133 violations. A USDA report from 2010 noted strong odors coming from the kennels that made the inspector’s eyes burn as well as dogs that were emaciated and some that needed veterinary care for bleeding puncture wounds and open sores.
“Survival standards at best”
Even when commercial breeders don’t have USDA-issued violations, it’s no guarantee their dogs and puppies are spending their days in safe, spacious enclosures, eating nutritious food, romping in the grass and getting socialized by a breeder’s children.
"USDA standards are survival standards at best,” John Goodwin, senior director of HSUS’s Stop the Puppy Mills Campaign, said in an interview. “Under the USDA regulations, a puppy mill can keep a dog in a cage that is only six inches longer than her body for her entire life. They can keep her standing on wire flooring with her paws never touching a blade of grass, and that’s perfectly legal. They can breed her every heat cycle until her body wears out and then kill her when she’s no longer a productive breeder and that is legal.
“Frankly, people can keep dogs in conditions that the USDA finds acceptable, for which you or I would be arrested for animal cruelty if we had our dogs in similar conditions and the sheriff came by.”
And yet even those “survival standards” have seen a “sharp decline in enforcement,” said Goodwin.
Between 2016 and 2019 USDA-issued violations dropped more than 60 percent and enforcement dropped 90 percent with no corresponding change in state-issued violations, according to HSUS researchers who track such things. That’s something Goodwin attributes to a policy shift during the Trump administration. And with Covid-19, USDA allowed inspections to take place via phone and permitted breeders to opt out of inspections entirely. Plus, with approximately 10,000 commercial puppy breeders in the country and a hundred or so USDA inspectors who are also charged with protecting horses and overseeing facilities that do animal research, it can be a long time between inspections. In other words, just because a violation wasn’t issued doesn’t mean a situation didn’t warrant one.
Goodwin is hoping for more assertive oversight with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack back at USDA.
But even with oversight, there remains a cultural disconnect between the commercial breeder of puppies and the pet owner looking to fall in love and take home an adorable, wriggling, fluffy “fur baby.”
“Breeders see these animals through a prism where they are agricultural commodities. Puppy-millers refer to them as livestock, like How many head of dog do you have? They talk like that,” said Goodwin. “That’s out of sync with the way that everybody else in the country views dogs.”
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