A real he-said-she-said battle is brewing over the matter of a family facing up to $4 million in fines for selling bunnies out of their home in Nixa, Mo.
Recently, John and Judy Dollarhite received a “Certified Mail Return Receipt” letter (dated April 19, 2011) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. By reading the letter, they learned that the USDA was fining them $90,643 and that the fine must be paid by Monday. What prompted the fine? According to APHIS official, they had sold more than $500 worth of bunnies in a single calendar year.
Early Thursday afternoon, I asked a USDA spokesperson in Washington, D.C., if the USDA was really going to slap these hefty fines on the Dollarhites. After all, they had grossed only $4,600 — and netted a profit of approximately $200 — from their rabbit sales in 2009. And for what? Violating an obscure law that they and their lawyer could not even locate as being applicable to their rabbitry.
My inquiry was passed from the USDA Headquarters to Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the agency’s subordinate Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service located in Maryland. Beyond the salutation and opening fluff, the first pertinent paragraph of his reply appears below:
Our main focus here at USDA’s Animal Care program is to ensure that the animals covered under the federal Animal Welfare Act are being treated humanely. Animal welfare is at the heart of everything we do. So, we consider it very serious when there is an activity regulated under the Animal Welfare Act that is being conducted without a USDA license. Reason being, when individuals are licensed, USDA inspectors conduct periodic unannounced inspections of those individuals’ animals and facilities. It is during these inspections that our inspectors can see how the animals are being treated and handled. When unlicensed individuals conduct regulated activities, this hampers our ability to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and hampers our ability to ensure the welfare of their animals. If you don’t have a license, that means that we are not inspecting your facility and your animals, so we would have no idea how your animals are being treated.
Few would argue with the need for humane treatment of animals. The Dollarhites certainly didn’t when I contacted them Thursday evening for a reaction to the USDA official’s response to my inquiry. Issues did arise, however, when they considered what Sacks wrote in the next paragraph (below):
Mr. Dollarhite contacted our Western Regional Office on March 16, 2006, and asked for a license application kit. He noted that he was selling rabbits to pet stores. The regional office sent him an application package that same day. However, Mr. Dollarhite never applied for a USDA license. After we conducted an investigation, we concluded that he has sold 619 rabbits without a USDA license. We issued a settlement offer to Mr. Dollarhite for $90,643 on April 19, 2011. This is a settlement offer only; he is not required to pay it and is entitled to request a hearing if he chooses. It is worth noting that $90,643 is not the maximum allowable civil penalty amount we could have sought.
While John Dollarhite confirmed that he had contacted the Western Regional Office in Colorado Springs in March 2006, he said he had not requested a license application kit. Why? Because, at that time, he was on a fact-finding mission to learn about the requirements of processing rabbit meat.
As for the claim that he was selling rabbits to pet stores, Dollarhite said that’s patently false.
“We didn’t start selling rabbits as pets until the spring of 2008,” he said. “Our operation up to that point involved taking rabbits to a meat processor in nearby Aurora, Mo., and then selling the vacuum-sealed packets of meat for $8 per pound.”
Finally, regarding the claim that the USDA mailed him an application package, Dollarhite said that’s not true either.
“The only piece of rabbit-related mail we’ve received from the USDA is the letter dated April 19, 2011,” he explained.
Sacks closed his message to me with the following:
USDA certainly realizes that $90,000 is a lot of money. But we’ve been called upon by Congress to enforce the Animal Welfare Act so that regulated animals are humanely cared for and treated. And the reality is that there is no way we can guarantee that this care is being provided to these animals unless all individuals conducting regulated activities are licensed.
In response, John Dollarhite reminded me of what the USDA inspector had told his wife — that the Dollarhites rabbits looked healthy and well-cared for. Plus, he informed me of something else worth noting.
John explained that the USDA inspector who inspected his family’s Dollarvalue Rabbitry in the fall of 2009 was the same one who inspected — and gave the “USDA-Certified” label to — the rabbits at the petting zoo at Silver Dollar City. Those rabbits, remember, were provided to the Branson theme park folks by the Dollarhites.
Finally, he told me how people in the Springfield area regarded their operation.
“The people at Silver Dollar City and Petland always said we had the best rabbits they had ever seen,” he said. “We also had breeders from around the area come to our place and say, ‘Your cages are the best I’ve ever seen” and ‘Your rabbits are the best-looking and the best quality we’ve seen.’”
Finally, there was the man who traveled around the United States as a judge in rabbit competitions.
“He said some of our rabbits were some of the best he had ever seen,” John said.
While there might not be a way to guarantee care is being provided to animals like the ones the Dollarhites raised, John says the way they ran their small operation stands as proof that rabbits can be raised well — even by someone who doesn’t have a license from the government.
UPDATE 5/20/11 at 3:45 p.m. Central: Senator’s Letter About Horses Does Little to Help Constituent Facing $4 Million Fine Over Rabbits.
UPDATE 5/24/11 at 5:34 p.m. Central: USDA Appears To Be Caving on Rabbit Fines.
UPDATE 10/29/11 at 10:24 a.m. Central: The Dollarhites go to Washington.
Read all of my posts about the Dollarhite’s story in “Chasing Rabbits.”
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