Without much fanfare, Dean Moyer has raised gerbils and hamsters for 12 years. He’s sold them to distributors who, in turn, have sold them to pet store owners across the country. Chances are good that the pet hamster your neighbor’s kid always carries in his hand came from Moyer’s Sand Valley Farms, Inc. But that could change soon if the folks at the USDA have their way.
During the week of July 15, Moyer received a “really thick registered letter” from officials at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the USDA’s investigative and enforcement services agency. Inside the envelope was a “Settlement Agreement” dated two days earlier. Under the boldfaced subhead, “Why You Are Receiving This Letter,” Moyer found an explanation that began this way:
We believe you violated the Animal Welfare Act (7 U.S.C. § 2131 et seq.) (AWA), as described in the attached Settlement Agreement. our agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is responsible for enforcing the AWA, and other agriculture laws that help prevent the spread of animal and plant pests and diseases, and ensure the welfare of animals.
After providing you with an opportunity for a hearing, we may impose civil penalties of up to $10,000, or other sanctions, for each violation described in this Settlement Agreement. We are offering you the opportunity to resolve this matter by paying an amount that is much lower than the maximum civil penalty.”
The letter went on to list 45 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act dating back to Sept. 16, 2009.
Among other things, inspectors reported finding dead animals on the premises and a strong ammonia odor due to inadequate ventilation of the 10,000-square-foot facility.
Moyer explained, however, that anyone familiar with hamsters knows 50 dead animals among 6,000 live ones on the premises in a given week is neither unusual nor unheard of. Similarly, he said hamster-savvy folks know the strong odor associated with hamster urine is virtually impossible to get rid of.
During a Monday afternoon phone conversation, Moyer shared his assessment of the dire situation he faces today as president of a 21-year-old family business headquartered at 83 Mouse Track Lane in Richfield, a community one hour north of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania.
The conversation began with a humorous bent.
“Gerbils are very, very, very expensive right now if you want to buy any,” said Moyer. “It’ll cost you $450,000 right now if you want a gerbil — I’ve got a fine to pay!”
The rest of the conversation was more serious and focused on the content of the USDA letter.
After answering the “why” question, USDA officials offered a description of how Moyer can waive his right to a hearing and pay a penalty — conveniently, no less, by check, money order or credit card — of $22,143 by Aug. 29. It even offered a payment plan if he’s unable to fork over the entire amount in one lump sum.
Believing he has done nothing to warrant such fines, Moyer said he called a phone number on the signature-free letter a couple of days after receiving it and eventually connected with Sarah Conant, a USDA bureaucrat with a very long title — Chief, Animal Health and Welfare Enforcement Branch, Investigative and Enforcement Services. If you recognize the name, it’s because I’ve written about Conant on more than one occasion.
Conant was the focus of my June 27, 2011, post, Animal Rights Activism Fuels USDA Rabbit Chase. In addition, she earned noteworthy mentions in my Chasing Rabbits series which, among other things, chronicled John Dollarhite’s battle with overzealous federal regulators in tiny Nixa, Mo. [Hint: Family Facing $4 Million in Fines for Selling Bunnies is a good place to start.] Finally, her agency figured prominently in my reports about Doug Terranova, a Dallas-based animal trainer who I described as caught up in a “legal circus” last summer.
Then unaware of Conant’s history as highlighted in the cases above, Moyer said he asked her what he could do to get the fine reduced and told her, “There’s no way I can afford a $22,000 fine.”
When Conant replied by telling him that $22,000 “IS a reduced amount,” Moyer said he couldn’t believe what he was hearing and asked her, “What do you mean that’s a reduced amount?”
“She said, ‘We can fine you $10,000 per violation,’” he said, noting that the letter listed 45 violations — or $450,000 worth of violations.
Moyer said he literally begged her for mercy and, in turn, she said she would see what she could do. Apparently, however, she couldn’t — or wouldn’t — do much. Inspectors are scheduled to return to the business for another inspection Tuesday morning.
Rather than send the local inspector who is both familiar with Moyer’s operation and lives less than 20 miles away, the USDA will likely send inspectors from afar.
Moyer said his last inspection was conducted by two individuals, including one veterinarian, from Youngstown, Ohio. In order to spend six hours inspecting his facility, they drove four and one-half hours each way and incurred meals, lodging and travel costs at taxpayers’ expense. Apparently, the USDA has figured out that it’s easier for their inspectors to “lower the boom” on complete strangers.
The long and the short of this situation is this, according to Moyer: “The way the regulations are written, it’s absolutely impossible for me not to get written up for a violation.”
If the fine isn’t dropped, Moyer’s entire livelihood stands at risk. He has no other viable source of income to support his wife of 23 years and their four children, two boys and two girls who range in age from 8 to 17. The income generated by the sale of rats and mice, his original business that began in 1991, simple isn’t enough.
“Potentially, this whole thing could put me out of business,” he said, explaining that he has nine employees dependent upon their jobs at Sand Valley Farms.
Moyer’s business won’t be the first shut down by the USDA. He said the agency has put at least two other large hamster businesses (i.e., operations that raise 1,000 animals per week or more) out of business in recent years, leaving only three or four large firms in the entire United States. In addition to those, only one- or two-dozen small raisers exist nationwide.
In addition to hosting inspectors tomorrow, Moyer said he’s also meeting to discuss his options with representatives of The Cavalry Group, a St. Louis-based group dedicated to fighting the radical animal rights agenda.