COLUMBIA – Advocates of safe and legal dog-breeding practices met Monday to discuss the latest efforts of Operation Bark Alert, a program designed to increase community vigilance of unlicensed breeders through e-mail alerts.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and Missouri Agriculture Director Jon Hagler held a conference at the Central Missouri Humane Society that highlighted Operation Bark Alert’s newest endeavor called Prosecution Bark Alert. Their partnership, which Hagler called "an unprecedented" cooperation, will lend itself to his goal of closing unlicensed facilities. Breeders must become licensed with the Animal Care Facilities Act program at the Missouri Department of Agriculture in order to operate legally.
Koster said that since the initiative began in February, his inspectors have uncovered more than 200 unlicensed breeders across Missouri and have rescued 1,900 dogs in the first five months. Hagler estimated that Missouri is still home to more than 500 or 600unlicensed breeders.
Hagler said the Department of Agriculture, teamed with the attorney general's office, will initiate the second part of the plan and take legal action against unlicensed breeders. Penalties for unlicensed breeders can reach $1,000 per violation, and a separate penalty may be incurred for every animal found, Hagler said. Seven more investigations are set for the coming weeks.
Under the first part of the plan, citizens who perceived any unlicensed breeding could e-mail their complaints to barkalert.mo.gov. Now, the Department of Agriculture plans to file suits against the illegal breeders and demand that they comply with the standards or shut their doors.
"There are some repeat offenders, as always, but the message will be loud and clear," Hagler said. "Missouri is going to be closed to unlicensed breeders."
Missouri has been known for its puppy mills for more than a decade.
“Missouri has had a bad reputation in this area for too long,” Hagler said. “We’re upping the ante now, and both of us are committed to changing this image of abuse."
Two new inspectors were hired last week, Hagler said. Previously there were 11 inspectors in Missouri to regulate 3,200 licensed kennels, city pounds and shelters.
“I joke around that about 40 percent of my time is spent on dogs," Hagler said. "But really, we take complaints and put them right on top of the pile."
Patty Forister, executive director of the Central Missouri Humane Society, said she would like to see further action, particularly with anti-tethering laws for animals, which she said interfere with an animal's ability to flee if it feels endangered.
Earlier this month, 72 dogs were seized from a puppy mill in Mansfield; they were taken to shelters in Carthage and St. Louis, according to reports from The Associated Press.
In early April, more than 100 dogs were discovered in a Winston puppy mill after the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department responded to a call about an agitated chimpanzee, according to the AP. Chief Deputy Todd Watson returned with a search warrant to find only 13 dogs and two cats.