COLUMBIA – Peaches rolls in the grass by the feet of his breeder, Hubert Lavy. The French bulldog casually sniffs Lavy’s shoes and jeans, finding the scent of the other dogs at the kennel.
“If you ever want a pet, this is what you get,” he said. “They are the most loving, comical pets.”
Lavy and his wife, Sharon Lavy, own Tenderheart Kennel in Silex, which is in Lincoln County. They have been breeding dogs to sell as pets for the past 10 years.
“We sell love, we sell friendship, but we also sell a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Hubert Lavy said.
Tenderheart Kennel is one of many large-scale dog breeding operations in Missouri that would be affected if voters statewide approve Proposition B on Tuesday.
Proposition B would add new regulations to current laws governing dog breeders in Missouri. The regulations are limited to dog breeders with 10 or more breeding females. Tenderheart Kennel has 37 breeding females, but only breeds about 20 of them; the rest are too young or too old.
The Lavys oppose Proposition B because they fear it would be cost-prohibitive to meet all of the proposed standards.
“It’s the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life,” Hubert Lavy said. “It’s my hobby, it’s what I love to do and, dammit, they are going to take it away from me.”
Hubert Lavy estimated renovations to meet the standards in Proposition B would cost $50,000. He put his yearly earnings at $15,000 to $20,000.
Dog breeding issues in Missouri
Proposition B would create a difficult transition for breeders, but proponents of the initiative say it is necessary.
In 2009, the Missouri Department of Agriculture launched Operation Bark. According to an e-mail from Misti Preston, director of strategic communications for the department, the program was started to address substandard breeders in Missouri. The operation sends inspectors to facilities when it gets tips submitted through an online system.
Since it started, the program has rescued more than 3,700 dogs in Missouri and seen nearly 350 commercial breeders go out of business, according to the agriculture department.
The Missourians for the Protection of Dogs/Yes! on Prop B website estimates there are 3,000 "puppy mills" in Missouri. Barbara Schmitz, campaign manager for Missourians for the Protection of Dogs, said that estimate is based on 1,400 to 1,500 licensed breeders with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, 1,100 to 1,400 licensed breeders with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and 500 to 600 estimated unlicensed breeders.
"A puppy mill would be a large-scale dog breeding facility that takes substandard care of the dogs," Schmitz said.
She said her organization considers any large-scale dog breeding facilities that are not meeting the proposed requirements in Proposition B as providing substandard care.
"The laws here in Missouri are unclear and inadequate. Looking at the folks who are licensed doesn't reassure you that they are taking care of their dogs," Schmitz said.
She said the existing laws governing dog breeders attempt to curb some of the worst offenses, but they are "vague and riddled with loopholes."
A kennel in Mexico, Mo., was cited by the Humane Society of the United States on its list of some of the worst breeders in Missouri.
The kennel, Teacher's Pets, was owned and operated by Herman and Bonnie Schindler. They recently decided to close their business, citing personal health issues.
The Schindlers will have a joint auction with Lori Conrad of Conrad's Cuddly Canines to sell their dogs on Friday and Saturday. The auction bill lists 694 dogs; 611 are from the Schindlers.
The humane society's list said Teacher's Pets had 36 pages of U.S. Department of Agriculture violations since November 2007 and 133 state kennel violations in recent years.
Sharon Owens, an Auxvasse breeder on the humane society's list, lost her license on Oct. 7.
According to her Animal Care Facilities Act License Revocation document,Owens, whose facility was called Poodles Plus, lost her license "on the grounds of multiple repeat violations of the Animal Care Facilities Act."
The document specifically cited violations in January, March and October of 2010 and said they "exhibit a blatant disregard for adequate standards of animal care."
Inspection reports from breeders in Boone County show varying numbers and categories of violations. Of the most recent inspection reports from the five licensed breeders in Boone County, two had no violations.
Hargis' Sunshine Kennel in Hallsville had four violations from a May 2010 inspection, Triple L Farm in Hartsburg had two violations from a May 2010 inspection and Natacha's Kennel in Harrisburg had two violations from an April 2010 inspection.
Housing 47 dogs
The Lavys have 47 dogs and breed Labrador retrievers, Yorkshire terriers, Maltese, and French bulldogs.
Their Tenderheart Kennel received one violation during its most recent inspection in December for "an accumulation of dirt and cobwebs" in one of its buildings. They were given two months to correct the issue, which is standard procedure.
The kennel has Labs running around in pens outside with limestone that neutralizes ammonia from the dogs' urine covering the ground. The dogs also have constant access to shelter. Their area in the shelter has a water bottle device that comes down from a pipe with continuously flowing cold water. The Labs at Tenderheart Kennel are always outside, Hubert Lavy said, because the breed loves the outdoors.
Dogster.com is a website that specializes in dog breeds. The description of Labrador retrievers on the website says they love being outside and have a water-resistant outer coat with a downy undercoat keeping them warm.
Hubert Lavy said he only has one Lab that sleeps inside, and that dog was raised indoors. The rest sleep outside in their doghouses.
New regulations in Proposition B state that each dog must have an indoor enclosure of 12 to 30 square feet per dog, depending on the size of the dog. This would require breeders who don't have a similar enclosure, or breeders who mostly keep their dogs outside, like the Lavys, to build a new structure to house their dogs.
Under Proposition B, Lavy said, Tenderheart Kennel would have to build an 18 by 125-foot structure to house 50 labs. The building would need heating and air conditioning.
These regulations don’t resonate with Hubert Lavy.
“If it made sense, then I wouldn’t be opposed to it,” he said. “Common sense and compassion should rule the kennel, not a lawyer.”
All of the pens and cages are cleaned every day by Lynda Bridwell, an employee of Tenderheart Kennels. Daily kennel cleaning is a stipulation in Proposition B.
“If you don’t clean them every day you get behind, and if you get behind you never catch up,” Hubert Lavy said.
Bridwell said she plays with the dogs every day. Hubert Lavy joked that she gets to Tenderheart Kennel at 7 a.m., but doesn’t start until 8 a.m. because she greets all of the dogs and gives them a biscuit first.
The other adult dogs are kept in the pens outside, like the Labs, but they have space heaters for cold nights and during the winters to keep them warm.
The Lavys raise all of their puppies on their 127 acres in a different building called the whelping house, which is meant for pregnant females and young puppies. The puppies are kept in cages with a wire flooring called Kennel Ease. It is made of a special plastic that is soft on the puppies' paws and has little holes so waste falls through. This prevents their puppies from sitting in their own fecal matter. Sharon Lavy said that it doesn't hurt their paws.
New regulations in Proposition B would not allow any wire flooring for dogs.
“I don’t do anything to hurt my animals, but I’m a cruel S.O.B. if I put them on wire,” Hubert Lavy said. “Whoever wrote this doesn’t take care of dogs.”
Lavy raised his first litter of puppies when he was 16. He has been raising dogs for 51 years.
“You kind of figure out what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “This setup here is as right as I’ve ever been.”
Nuances of Prop B
Proposition B requires constant and unfettered access indoors and outdoors at all times for dogs.
The Lavys are unsure about having unfettered access indoors and outdoors for their females who are still nursing puppies. They keep the mother and puppies in the same cage, which has access outside through a door that can be closed.
“If the temperature was too hot or too cold, (the mother’s) door would be blocked,” Sharon Lavy said.
Tenderheart Kennel would then be in violation of Proposition B by blocking the door. If the mother’s puppies got outside, they could die from the temperature, Sharon Lavy said. This violation would be labeled a class C misdemeanor, which has a maximum penalty of 15 days in jail and a fine of up to $300.
“There is not one paintbrush that covers all,” Hubert Lavy said.
Tenderheart Kennel has an incubator, a device that gives puppies extra warmth and oxygen when they are born. The Lavys said they typically have to use it for small breeds, like Yorkies. They said the incubator saves puppies, and they're unsure whether it would be considered "necessary veterinary care" under Proposition B.
According to the law, necessary veterinary care is, at minimum, yearly examinations for the dogs, treatment of illness or injury and humane euthanasia — all by a licensed veterinarian.
The bottom line
Dog breeders with 10 or more intact females in Missouri have three choices if Proposition B passes: comply with the new standards in Proposition B, reduce the number of dogs they breed or drop out of the business entirely.
About 600 dog breeders are a part of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, an organization that supports the campaign against Proposition B. The association's president, Barbara York, said that Proposition B would eliminate most of the licensed breeders in Missouri.
"The regulations they want to put into effect are so cost-prohibitive that no one will be able to come into compliance," York said. "The costs would be absolutely phenomenal for breeders."
Sharon and Hubert Lavy said they might have to euthanize some of the dogs or send them to a shelter to get under the limit of 10 intact females and not qualify for the rules in Proposition B.
"Prop B will put me out of business," Hubert Lavy said.
Another breeder, Debbie Bruce of Bruce Farm Pets at Centralia, said she would have to construct a new building if Proposition B passes. Otherwise, she would give some of her dogs to a shelter to have less than 10 breeding females.
"It will make big changes that are difficult for breeders," Bruce said.