KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- While animal advocates say Missouri has a reputation as the worst "puppy mill" state in the country, those responsible for inspecting commercial dog breeders say they are doing the best they can with a small staff and budget.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Missouri has nearly 1,500 federally licensed commercial breeders, the most in the United States and more than twice as many as the No. 2 state, Oklahoma. Kansas is third with 421. Missouri also has another 200-plus breeders licensed only by the state because they sell only to the public.
Missouri, which has 12 state inspectors that help federal inspectors check all state- and federally licensed breeders, has been criticized as being too lenient in monitoring the dog-breeding facilities.
But the head of Missouri's kennel inspection program, Jerry Eber, defends his staff. He said the program isn't big enough "to do everything that's expected of us," but it's among the most-diligent in the country when it comes to licensing and inspecting dog breeders.
Missouri's reputation is that it's full of puppy mills where dogs are raised in appalling conditions and the breeders are more interested in money than the animals' welfare. The dogs at commercial breeding operations generally are sold to pet stores or brokers or the general public.
Dogs bred and raised poorly could have many health and personality problems, animal welfare officials said.
Chris DeRose, president of the California-based group Last Chance for Animals, said few states, if any, have a worse reputation.
"If I was a state legislator in Missouri, I'd be embarrassed," DeRose told The Kansas City Star. "It's the breadbasket for animal neglect, animal cruelty, puppy mills."
The Human Society of Missouri investigates breeding facilities after being called by the public or law-enforcement officials.
Caroline Bisbee of Excelsior Springs said Missouri's "puppy mill" reputation hounds her on the dog show circuit.
"You go to a dog show and you say you're from Missouri, and people are like, 'Oh, all the puppy millers are there.'
"It's really sad," said Bisbee, who has 10 Chinese crested dogs living in her home.
Debbie Hill, vice president of operations and interim director of rescue and investigations, said the Humane Society was involved in 98 investigations during its most recent fiscal year, and received 374 animals taken from or surrendered by breeders during that time.
"We have cases every week of animals that are not provided basic care," she said. "It's bad enough when it happens with one dog, but it becomes very startling to people when you have 50 animals in that condition, or 100, or 200."
But Eber contends the state doesn't deserve its reputation. He said other states have many breeders who are unlicensed and, therefore, never inspected by federal and state officials. And he said the state's inspection program has led to the voluntary surrender of dogs or put breeders out of business at least 20 times since 2004.
"I'm not going to tell you that everything in Missouri is pristine," Eber said. "But people stand up and say, 'Missouri is the puppy mill state!' No, it isn't."
State Auditor Claire McCaskill issued a critical audit of the facilities inspection program in February 2001. A follow-up review in December 2004 found that despite state laws requiring yearly inspections, inspectors in 2004 checked an average of only 27 percent of their designated commercial breeding facilities through Sept. 1 of that year.
The audit also said the inspectors were reluctant to penalize licensed facilities by confiscating animals.
The majority of inspectors told auditors they didn't report all violations because writing up minor ones was "nitpicking."
For example: At one facility, an auditor didn't cite "large amounts" of fecal accumulation, a housing facility that didn't protect dogs from the weather, too many large dogs sharing one shelter and outdoor kennels backed up to weeds about 6 feet tall.
"Could we do better?" Eber asked. "Sure. We're open to constructive criticism."
But he said it's "mathematically impossible" for inspectors to visit each breeder once a year, in part because the inspectors also are responsible for pet stores and other facilities.
Eber, whose annual budget of about $750,000 comes from licensing fees and the state's general-revenue fund, said he can't ask for much more money.
"How can I say that when we're cutting other programs?" he said.
And Karen Dahm, a Harrisonville breeder, said the state's inspection program is thorough.
"Missouri is the most overregulated state in the U.S.," she said. "The reason people aren't getting written up is because they're complying."
Because many states have no licensing requirements and no state inspection staff, Eber doesn't put much stock in USDA numbers from September 2005 that show 1,484 commercial breeders in Missouri and only 629 in No. 2 Oklahoma. He suspects the actual numbers in other states are dramatically higher, but that those states don't work as hard to find unlicensed federal facilities.
According to the USDA, for example, Wisconsin has 53 licensed commercial breeders. But the Wisconsin animal-rights group Alliance for Animals says there are more than 1,300 breeders.
"The breeders are out there," Eber said. "They're just flying under the radar."
There are about 110 federal inspectors nationwide who inspect USDA-licensed facilities. To help them, Eber has 12 state inspectors checking the more than 1,700 USDA- and state-licensed breeders in Missouri. In Kansas, where there are 729 USDA- and state-licensed breeders, there are five inspectors.
In Missouri, a legislative resolution filed in January "urges the ... Department of Agriculture to implement the state auditor's recommendations" to conduct more thorough and frequent inspections and impose stricter penalties when warranted.
McCaskill said only marginal improvements have occurred since the 2001 audit and the 2004 follow-up.
"I will acknowledge these inspectors have a lot of ground to cover," McCaskill said. "They're definitely overworked. But there's so much more work that needs to be done."