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Systematic flaws contributed to suspected puppy mill

An American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) worker carries a golden Lab pup during the April 22 raid of the Elmwood area Stuart West home. (Photo courtesy of the ASPCA)

PIERCE COUNTY — In a system based on checks and balances, coupled with individual responsibility, an alleged irresponsible individual was left relatively unchecked, tipping the scales toward a practice of animal cruelty and neglect.

Stuart E. West is charged in Pierce County Circuit Court with 117 misdemeanor animal shelter, ventilation and feeding crimes after an April 22 raid of his Elmwood area home. County deputies, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Humane Society (AHS) seized 48 yellow Labradors -- 13 puppies and 35 adult dogs -- from reported “deplorable” conditions of feeding on rotting carcasses in cramped quarters with little ventilation.

But 68-year-old West’s run-in with the law came after nearly a decade of poor practices, both by West and local governments, documents and interviews reveal. A Pierce County Herald analysis of meeting minutes, staff memos, animal officer reports and correspondence show that Pierce County officials left West relatively unchecked for years, allowing the owner of the Alma Bottom Pointing Labradors to breed alleged horrors behind a steel gate and fencing.

The county’s land management department and its oversight committee approved a permit for a kennel, and continued to approve it even after West was able to sidestep certain stipulations like routine check-ins. The unincorporated town of El Paso, where West held specific dog licenses, was never fully able to investigate complaints because of what officials perceive as something out of their jurisdiction and state laws barring them from entering private property.

And, in what could possibly be the lynchpin of this rural county’s animal control problems, government cost-versus-functionality politics got in the way.

Hindsight

It all started with a routine check by the now-defunct Humane Society of Pierce-St. Croix County.

Volunteer executive director and Pierce County’s animal humane officer Theresa Jonas inspected West’s kennel facility at N4758 350th St. on Jan. 18, 2005. Her purpose was simple: “The inspection was done at the request of Mr. West as a requirement in obtaining a land use permit from the Pierce County Land Management Office,” Jonas wrote in a report to the county’s land management committee.

The report was littered with basic care information and question-and-answer segments with West, in what Jonas called “necessary requirements.” But even then, the telltale signs were present of an alleged puppy mill owner.

There were concerns about the puppies in Jonas’ report. West had left puppies “over a certain age” on the porch, even in mid-January. West explained to Jonas that it was his way of getting the puppies “ambient conditioned” -- an industry norm, he claimed -- so they could adjust to the cold bowels of airplanes in flights across the country to new owners.

After further investigation, Jonas found that the pups could easily be conditioned to colder temperature by being let outside to urinate or defecate. Jonas said the system West was using was concerning, but said she was willing to help him improve his operation.

“After reviewing the state law, and the Town of El Paso’s dog ordinance, I feel that Mr. West’s kennel just meets the bare requirements stated in the ordinance. I discussed my concerns with Mr. West and we talked of areas that could be improved,” Jonas wrote.

In a recent interview with the Herald, Jonas recalled her visit over 10 years ago. “I guess I wasn’t strong enough in my report,” Jonas said. “I didn’t want him to have a license, but that was totally up to the [decision makers].

“It was an interesting trip into never-never land. It has haunted me many times,” Jonas added later.

In its 2005 inspection of the property, the American Kennel Club (AKC) only listed two concerns: there was a thin, older dog living in West’s barn that “needs to be watched” and “older labs in the house are thin due to old age.”

The day following Jonas’ inspection, the Pierce County Land Management Committee, at the recommendation of county land management staff and with Jonas’ half-hearted blessing, unanimously approved West’s conditional-use permit for two years.

The committee attached six stipulations to West’s permit, mostly based on land-use and appearance conditions. But one condition -- requiring West to pay for a Humane Society inspection every year -- was later scrubbed by the committee and land management staff.

When West’s permit needed to be renewed two years later in February 2007, a land management staff memo recommended removing the annual paid Humane Society inspection because of “the current condition of the Humane Society” -- newspaper reports say the nonprofit was running out of funding -- stating “this no longer appears to be a reasonable request.”

The Land Management Committee that day voted unanimously to re-approve West’s permit, removing the Humane Society inspection requirement and transferring the onus onto West to pay the AKC for inspection reports. West failed to renew his permit in 2009, but after land management staff checked in with him and the town in 2010, it was “resolved administratively.”

In an interview with the Herald, Land Management Director Andy Pichotta said West always managed to do “just enough” to stay compliant with his permit.

“In hindsight, we probably could have handled things differently,” Pichotta said.

Money and politics

The issue with a governmental entity assigning West to pay for an AKC report is that, unlike the Humane Society of Pierce-St. Croix County, Inc., the AKC has loose ties to states, much less counties. Where the now-defunct local Humane Society received some funding from the two counties and cities and townships to provide an animal shelter and volunteer staff for inspections, the AKC, even with local chapters, is a national nonprofit with a nearly $4.3 million revenue stream through contributions, membership fees and fundraising programs, focused on breeding quality.

To receive an AKC inspection, West had to be a member of the nonprofit. He showed land management staff a required report in 2010, but there is no record of it in their files. It was the last time a report was produced.

“If you don’t register with us, we don’t inspect you. (So) now your dogs aren’t registered with us,” AKC Vice President of Communications Brandi Hunter said.

Hunter declined to say when West discontinued his membership with the AKC. Pressed for a timeframe, Hunter said it had been “years” since West was associated with the organization.

Citing the pending criminal allegations against West, Hunter told the Herald last week the AKC will “ensure that he will never be registered with us again.”

In 2005, though, the local Humane Society was already struggling to fund its bottom line. With an operating budget of around $300,000, the city of River Falls shouldered $19,644.97. At the time, Pierce County funded the local shelter to the tune of $12,343.

It wasn’t enough to keep the shelter and up and running.

Jonas had been pushing the county to spend more money on her volunteer animal control and protection efforts, based out of the town of River Falls. The Humane Society requested a $20 dog license increase countywide -- an estimated $3.87 to $6.47 per resident increase, depending on the municipality.

Met with instant hostility at its final stop, a Dec. 27, 2005, meeting of the County Board pitted the struggling nonprofit against a fiscally conservative voting bloc that claimed the increase wasn’t worth it.

Board Chairman Ron Anderson noted the Wisconsin Towns Association, a statewide lobbying organization dedicated to local control and municipal interests, was also against the measure.

The board unanimously turned down the increase, then took it a step further: it voted to cut ties with the shelter and distribute to the municipalities the dog licensing funds usually intended for the Society. Board members’ reasoning was that the towns are responsible for their own animal control efforts.

Cutting ties with the nonprofit signaled the end of a regional animal control effort in Pierce County, leaving municipalities with strapped budgets and little resources to exercise animal control alone.

A jurisdiction disconnect

Meanwhile, back in El Paso, the town where West was required to register, an ordinance from 1995 only names the Humane Society of Pierce-St. Croix as its animal control enforcement agency, unless the state gets involved.

The county code puts the weight on the towns, stating that whenever a municipality is unable to resolve an animal problem, then the sheriff’s office will become involved. That’s what happened in West’s case.

It wasn’t until weeks ago when Pierce County authorities, joined by an animal inspector from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, visited West’s home after receiving a complaint from a man who bought a dog there. The department had also received an animal-related complaint from the property March 8.

“The smell could best be described as a rotting de-comp(osition) smell mixed with dog hair, feces and urine,” one deputy reported.

But with his kennel license up-to-date -- paying $500 annually for as many as 99 dogs -- and rare complaints from residents, El Paso Town Chair Ronald Kannel said he was restricted from taking any steps onto West’s private property.

“Every time we would get a complaint, I would call him,” Kannel told the Herald. “He would say, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and he understood.

“Somebody should have been inspecting him,” Kannel added later. “I don’t have permission to.”

Now everyone gets to watch how West’s fate in the courtroom will play out. His dogs who had allegedly been stuffed two to a kennel, eating rotting animal carcasses for food, have been transferred to a facility in Golden Valley, Minn., nearly 55 miles away and more than an hour’s drive in traffic. And a rural county, surrounded by farmland packed with animals, is faced with questions on how it will continue to handle animal control.

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