Laws for Paws e-Newsletter
Conflict of Interest or "Teachable Moments"?
Cornerstone Farms aka Beginnings Ranch operated by Debra Ritter
In its story on USDA (see below e-newsletter article), ABC News reported on an internet seller of dogs from Missouri, Debra Ritter.  ABC News described a complaint from a buyer who had purchased a puppy from Ritter. The puppy had parvovirus and later died while under veterinary care. In addition, the puppy was distinctly different from the puppy advertised and promised to the buyer.

In the past, St. Louis’s Fox News (KTVI) has reported on consumer complaints about Debra Ritter. In fact, Debra Ritter has been the subject of consumer complaints for several years due to allegedly selling sick puppies as well as providing consumers with questionable records. 

According to ABC News, the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) has cited Ritter for multiple animal care violations this past March. Indeed, state inspectors and state veterinarians have repeatedly cited Ritter, year after year, after discovering sick or injured dogs in need of medical care. MDA has been hesitant to refer Ritter to the state attorney general for legal action, however, because of the so-called “clean” write-ups by USDA inspectors. Over the past several years, USDA inspectors have failed to cite Ritter for any significant violations. There is a concern that Ritter would use her so-called “clean” USDA inspection reports in her defense to counter the five straight years of state violations for her operation’s lack of veterinary care, ramshackle enclosures and dirty conditions.  

For example, on August 8, 2016, USDA noted “no non-compliant items identified during this inspection” at Ritter’s facility. Yet, on that same day, August 8, 2016, MDA reported a dozen violations at the kennel, including an underweight dog, dogs with loose stools, dogs with fleas and missing fur, two dogs that were lame, a dog with signs of an ear infection, filthy conditions, and more. 

Could these lame and underweight dogs be considered “teachable moments” and be ignored by USDA inspectors, as has often happened in the past? Possibly, however, a Freedom of Information request revealed that USDA did not report any “teachable moments” during that time frame at Ritter’s facility. What other reason could then account for the fact that these dogs were ignored by USDA? The Alliance recently learned that several months after this inspection, the principal USDA inspector, who ignored violations at this facility, had married the daughter of Debra Ritter. 
Wedding photo of USDA inspector and daughter of Debra Ritter
The Alliance subsequently contacted both MDA and USDA about the existence of any policies to prevent conflicts of interests between its inspectors and the dog breeders whom the agencies are charged with regulating, including any members of the breeder’s families. MDA responded the same day and provided the Alliance with policies that specifically prohibit “any personal association where such association could call into question the integrity of the department or which could affect, or appear to affect, the decisions or mission of the Department.” MDA clarified that “personal relationships are defined as those that extend beyond a mere acquaintance or which may compromise the decisions of the employee involved, either in fact or in appearance.”

In contrast, the first USDA official whom we contacted about potential conflicts of interest responded that he was not certain whether USDA has any policies to address the issue but he would get back to the Alliance with information regarding any pertinent policies. He never followed up on that pledge, and when we reached out again, we received no response to our inquiry. We subsequently reached out to another USDA official, who replied in the affirmative, stating that USDA does indeed have pertinent policies; however, when we requested that USDA provide the Alliance with specific evidence of such policies, the USDA official declined to do so.  When the Alliance followed up again, the USDA official alleged that the Department does not need specific policies to address this issue. He assured the Alliance that those inspectors with relationships with licensees whether they be financial, dating, marriage, business, etc. would result in the inspector being immediately re-assigned.      

Unfortunately, in 2017 USDA ceased posting inspection reports and initiated a policy of redacting any such reports that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.  Therefore, we have no way of knowing how long Debra Ritter’s son-in-law has been inspecting her facility. Sadly, USDA refuses to acknowledge the date that Debra Ritter's son-in-law was reassigned from inspecting her operation but will only confirm that he is not doing so currently. USDA did admit that he continues to serve as an inspector for USDA in Missouri while his colleagues inspect his mother-in-law's kennel.

We do know that to date, USDA is still failing to take appropriate action against Ritter’s breeding operation
Dr. Robert Gibbens, USDA’s Director of Animal Welfare Operations, has “full confidence” in the inspector who gave Debra Ritter’s facility a clean bill of health. 
Not only does USDA seemingly condone conflicts of interest between its employees and those whom the Agency regulates, but its malfeasance is frustrating our state’s efforts to bring breeders into compliance with animal care laws – accomplishing this by providing “clean” USDA inspection reports to breeders whose operations are chronically substandard.    

On an interesting side note, former AP reporter Rory Kress, in her book The Doggie in the Window, reported on her interview with USDA’s Director of Animal Welfare Operations for Animal Care, Dr. Robert Gibbens. She confronted Dr. Gibbens on how state inspectors could discover serious violations at Ritter’s facility and on the same day, USDA inspectors noted no violations and gave Ritter’s facility a clean bill of health. Dr. Gibbens reply was , “I know that I have full confidence in those [USDA] inspectors to determine whether a facility is in compliance with our standards.”   1

1 Page 260, “The Doggie in the Window,” Rory Kress, Sourcebooks, Inc. (2018) 
USDA Called Out for its Failure to Enforce the Animal Welfare Act
In the past few weeks, the Washington Post , ABC News , and the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association , all reported on USDA’s failure to adequately enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

All three publications exposed the dramatic decline in enforcement actions on the part of USDA over the past years. The Washington Post reports that USDA now emphasizes education over enforcement and has instructed its inspectors to treat dog breeders and other animal users “as partners.” More than a dozen former inspectors informed the Post that this “more lenient approach…has put animals at risk.”   

The Washington Post reported that there had been a 65 percent drop in the number of animal welfare citations issued by USDA between 2016 and 2018 and a 92 percent decrease in enforcement cases in that same time period. 
One former USDA inspector told the Washington Post that “The changes that have been made over the past two years have systematically dismantled and weakened the inspection process,” resulting in “ untold numbers of animals that have experienced unnecessary suffering.”

ABC News reported that the USDA’s internal watchdog (Office of Inspector General) has found in the past that “this approach – emphasizing education over aggressive enforcement – has not worked in deterring breeders and other pet dealers who repeatedly violate animal welfare laws.”

Fortunately, the Alliance was able to persuade OIG to initiate a new audit of USDA in an effort to once again expose the Agency’s failure to effectively enforce the Animal Welfare Act. Such exposure did result in stronger enforcement efforts in the past.     

The Journal of the AVMA also reported on USDA’s lax welfare enforcement. The Journal highlighted  the Alliance’s lawsuit against USDA for unlawfully adopting rules to undermine the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). 

The Alliance was interviewed and provided information to all three of these news sources concerning USDA’s malfeasance and failure to enforce the AWA. You can be assured that the Alliance will continue to work to increase protections for all animals covered under the AWA including lobbying Congress, pursuing legal action, providing evidence to OIG, as well as garnering additional media coverage to expose USDA’s wrongdoings. 
Those dog days of summer wouldn't be complete without some splish splashing by our furry four legged friends! Click on the above image to see all the fun we put into fundraising for the Alliance at different pools around the greater St. Louis area.

Thanks to our partner hosts McNair Park Pool (St. Charles Parks & Recreation), Kirkwood Aquatic Center (Kirkwood Park & Recreation), and Alligator's Creek Aquatic Center (O'Fallon Parks & Recreation) for providing such great venues and opening their pools to us.

And an even bigger thanks to our beloved volunteers without whom we couldn't pull of these events. If you have never been to one, you're missing out on one of Life's purest moments of pleasure! A dog's exuberance and unapologetic approach to having fun is what makes Pool Paws such a great time.

Life can be ruff - but a splash in the pool goes a long way for our furry friends!

See you next summer!

Greentree Festival / Kirkwood (Kirkwood Park)
Sat, Sep 14: 9:00am - 7:00pm
Sun, Sep 15: 10:00am - 5:00pm
For more info click here
To volunteer for a 2.5 hour shift, email


APA Canine Carnival / St. Louis (Tilles Park)
Sun, Oct 6: 11:00am - 3:00pm
For more info click here
To volunteer for a 2 hour shift (11-1 or 1-3), email

St. Louis VegFest / St. Louis (Forest Park)
Sun, Oct 13: 11:00am - 5:00pm
For more info click here
To volunteer for a 2 hour shift (11-1 / 1-3 / 3-5), email

Visit our website for more events, news, legislation and general info!

If you find yourself in a situation where you question the treatment of an animal, or the conditions, or maybe you're wondering about helping wildlife or assisting in a rescue, or you have witnessed something that needs to be reported - go to our website because chances are you will find a number and/or a link that can help address it.

A Great Way to Support the Alliance
With so many people shopping online these days, you can now support the Alliance each time you make a purchase on Amazon. Click here or on the icon. Once you've identified "Missouri Alliance for Animals" as your charitable organization of choice, a portion of your purchase will be donated by Amazon to the Alliance each time you shop on Amazon! What a great way to contribute!
Schnucks eScrip Card

Another great way to support
the Alliance!
Did you know that every time you shop at Schnucks, they'll donate a percentage of your purchase to the Alliance? It's an awesome way to support the Alliance's mission and it doesn't cost you a thing! We'll even register your eScrip card for you so you don't have to!

Simply email us at with "Schnucks eScrip" in the Subject line, no message required - and we'll send your registered Schnucks eScrip card to you within 7 days.

Once you receive it, you can start using it (we've already registered it for you!) - put it on your key fob to remind the cashier to scan it at check-out!


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