To build case against kennel owner, accuser used secret tactics
Armed with a cell phone and recorder, and secretly wired to tape his boss's instructions, Jason Smith was prepared to capture evidence against the Minnesota woman he was investigating for animal abuse.
What he claims he found - specific incidents of abuse, neglect and inappropriate veterinary care - resulted in nine charges against New York Mills kennel owner Kathy Bauck, four of which are felonies.
Smith, a member of the Companion Animal Protection Society, went undercover, posing as an employee in Bauck's kennel, Pick of the Litter Inc., to investigate complaints of abuse.
Court records filed against Bauck in Otter Tail County District Court shed new details on the case and show Smith told a sheriff's investigator in May that Bauck used surgical clamps to try to remove a puppy from his mother's womb, ripping off its tail and pulling tufts of fur attached to bloody skin until Bauck tore off the entire rear leg of the puppy.
The puppy died, as did two of his siblings. Two days later, Smith checked on the mother, whose pen was covered in feces-stained wood shavings.
Smith told the investigator that Bauck said she would check on the puppies' mother. The next day, the dog was found dead in her pen, still filthy and covered in her own afterbirth.
But the abusive behavior wasn't an isolated incident, according to what Smith told Otter Tail County investigators. Smith turned over evidence he had been collecting for two months, providing the basis for five counts of animal cruelty, two counts of torture and two counts of practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
Bauck, 52, who has owned Pick of the Litter Inc. for 23 years, is scheduled to appear on the charges in a Sept. 22 court hearing. If convicted, she could face up to two years in prison for each of the four felonies.
Bauck also faces a probation violation hearing on a claim she ignored orders from the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine in 2006 that directed her to stop practicing any type of veterinary medicine without a license.
Bauck declined to comment late last week, except to say that she was not guilty of the charges.
Her defense attorney, Zenas Baer, said Smith and his agency started the investigation with the clear intent of finding evidence to bring down an "otherwise reputable licensed business."
Baer said Bauck's actions were misunderstood and unfairly reported.
"I'm not sure this case is anything more than a reaction by law enforcement authorities of the strength of an obviously biased complainant who obtained evidence, in my mind, inappropriately."
The Companion Animal Protection Society, based in Maryland, is a nonprofit animal protection agency dedicated to stopping abuse at pet stores and puppy mills, according to its Web site.
Court documents state Smith was wired every other day and took field notes daily, which he provided to Otter Tail County Detective Keith Van Dyke.
The agency declined to comment Friday on the case, but its Web site shows it targeted Bauck's kennel in three separate investigations in 1997, 2002 and 2003.
Push for change
Bauck's kennel, which Animal Humane Society investigators estimated housed more than 1,000 dogs and puppies, was what some animal welfare activists call a puppy mill - a breeding operation that produces mass numbers of animals for the sole purpose of making a sale.
Animal welfare activists hope the county's latest charges will spark a change in breeder legislation, a change they say is sorely needed in Minnesota.
Puppy mills are a problem in Minnesota, said Wade Hanson, senior investigator with the Animal Humane Society. He estimates there are thousands of puppy mills in Minnesota, though most aren't as big as the operation Bauck runs.
"There are a lot of large breeders and backyard breeders who think they're going to get rich by popping out a lot of puppies and selling them," Hanson said.
Baer said he believes the Companion Animal Protection Society and other similar agencies want to close all large-scale pet breeding agencies, regardless of whether there are signs of abuse.
"It seems to me that there has been legislation that provides protection for companion animals that even surpasses the protection provided to humans," Baer said.
But John King, director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine, said the type of veterinary medicine Bauck is accused of illegally practicing is not typical of how a veterinarian would normally treat an animal.
"Obviously, what she was allegedly doing is not in the best interests of the animals," he said. "It's in the best interests of her business at the expense of the animals."
A long process
Hanson said he investigated Bauck's kennel six years ago at the request of a former employee who was worried about the animals' welfare.
He said he found dirty conditions and a watering system that forced dogs to drink out of the same water supply, which could have caused them to share diseases.
"Basically, picture the inside of a pole shed where cages are lined up all the way down and cages on top of them," he said.
While Bauck allowed them on her property the first time, she told them they would have to get a warrant before they could come back, Hanson said.
He reported his findings to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where Bauck is a licensed breeder.
Karen Eggert, a spokeswoman for the USDA Animal and Health Inspection Services, said when her office receives complaints, additional unannounced inspections of the facility are conducted. The USDA also conducts random visits at least once a year to licensed breeders.
"We take those complaints very seriously," Eggert said. "It's an involved process. If we see harm or danger, we see that it is corrected immediately. If that requires removing animals, we'll do that."
Eggert declined to comment on the USDA's findings. The Forum filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records, which have not been made available yet.
Bauck has sold puppies at pet stores in Fargo, but mostly she sells to pet stores on the East Coast, Hanson said. To sell an animal to a pet shop, breeders need USDA certification.
Hanson remains frustrated and disappointed with the USDA, which he says does little to enforce its policies.
"They can write tickets and cite violation warnings, but for the USDA to be able to shut down a place like this, they'd have to go through a process that takes months," he said. "It never happens."
Eggert said it takes time to look into each case, but they ensure that the "minimum standards of care are being met."
History of probes
In 2006, the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine issued a cease and desist order against Bauck for performing surgeries and veterinarian procedures without a proper license.
The document shows Bauck had more than 800 adult dogs, 350 puppies and 32 breeds at her kennel.
The agency determined Bauck conducted several botched spay surgeries. After an unsuccessful surgery in 2001, Bauck sold a female Papillion puppy, which continued to go into heat for four years. In 2004, the owners brought the dog to a veterinarian, who found uterine horns about 20 times larger than normal and filled with fluid.
The board also found that Bauck conducted neuter surgeries, ear crops on puppies, tail dockings, Caesarean sections, hernia repairs and vaccinations without the proper license.
Earlier this year, on May 19, Bauck pleaded guilty in Otter Tail County Court to practicing veterinary medicine without a license. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors agreed to dismiss four similar charges and one animal cruelty charge.
Otter Tail County Attorney David Hauser was out of town Friday and unavailable for comment. A woman in his office said Hauser was the only one authorized to talk about Bauck.
Janelle Dixon, the Animal Humane Society's chief executive officer, said it is very difficult to gain access to large breeding facilities regulated by the USDA.
The only way to go around the USDA is to go to the sheriff's department and file charges, which is what Smith did after investigating Bauck's kennel, Hanson said.
On April 22, Smith, the Companion Animal Protection Society worker, reported a white American bulldog that had cheeks that were torn open on both sides and openly bleeding. Smith claims that Bauck shrugged off the comment, saying the dog was "always fighting," and when he said it was getting worse the next day, she told him to put "Clorox water" on the wounds.
"Veterinarians don't cleanse wounds with Clorox water," said King, director for the state's Board of Veterinary Medicine.
Baer sees Bauck's actions differently. To him, her actions are a mere "technical violation."
"Is it bad husbandry to provide pain relief to an animal that is suffering?" he said. "I suggest not."
Baer said Smith's claim that Bauck pulled a puppy out of its mother and ripped off its tail and hind leg are not reported in the proper context. He argues that if the puppies were going to be dead upon arrival, Bauck had a responsibility to use every means necessary to try to save their lives.
"It's something that should be commended, as opposed to saying, 'We won't do anything and we're not going to make an attempt,' " he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Rydell at (701) 235-7311