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Winona County becomes the new front in the battle over puppy mills

Inspectors found animals with festering, untreated wounds and feces-caked food bowls.

Inspectors found animals with festering, untreated wounds and feces-caked food bowls.

A furry horror show plays in perpetuity in Winona County, according to dog lovers across the state. They point to U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections as proof the locale has long been home to dog breeding facilities better described as puppy mills.

At LeRoy Yoder's farm in rural Utica, Minnesota, inspectors found an adult retriever with a nugget-sized mass protruding from its backside. Despite the obvious malady, the kennel operator not only failed to treat the condition in-house, but didn't bother to summon a veterinarian.

Past inspections revealed more of the same. In 2011, some of Yoder's canines were so sickly they couldn't stand. Two years later, the USDA discovered 11 violations, including animals with festering, untreated wounds and feces-caked food bowls. An inspection report last year showed his kennel housed 170 adult dogs and 133 puppies.

At a nearby kennel owned by David Yoder, government officials documented dogs with open gashes that had resulted from fighting. Since 2013, David Yoder's kennel has had eight violations.

Despite their histories, both Yoders still have the blessing of Winona County. Planning commission members approved a total of six kennel permits — one to each of the Yoders, plus four more —  including three to facilities that have been operating illegally.  

The applicants, who all happen to be Amish, hold state permits to breed and raise dogs on private land. However, they lack conditional use permits at the county level. It was this licensing blunder that brought the matter to local officials amid a swelling chorus from citizens who voiced concerns over the animals' health and safety.   

A crowd of 30 attendees were on hand for the commission meeting. The county had already received hundreds of emails and phone calls in opposition. The nine-member board, comprised of nine residents and a county commissioner, approved all the applications. 

Caught in the middle is the five-member county commission, which has penciled in a final vote early next month.

In the meantime, commissioner Steve Jacobs is doing his homework. He's already visited two of the kennels with plans to inspect the four others before voting on January 5. He's been inundated by countless emails from those who want to shut the kennels down.

"I want to do the right thing," he tells City Pages. "I care about how the dogs are being treated and what conditions they're living in. We need to ensure the animals are well-cared for and if, by granting the permits, how does it allow us to make sure this is being done? I don't know the answer to that question yet."

Jacobs is certain of one thing. There's a concerted campaign afoot to demonize the kennel operators, regardless of merit.

"What I've seen so far [at the kennels] is people who want to do the right thing," he says. "But I kind of think it's a situation where they're being bullied. … It's our job to sort through the emotion of the issue and make the right decision weighing what's right for the animals and the rights of people."