RICHFIELD - After raising hamsters and gerbils for 12 years without incident, Dean Moyer, of Sand Valley Farms, received a startling letter in July from the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlining 44 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
The letter granted Moyer the opportunity to avoid a hearing which could impose civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation by paying a reduced penalty before Aug. 29.
When his eyes met the settlement fee of $22,143, Moyer said he just about fell off his chair.
Sentinel photo by JULIANNE?CAHILL
Dean Moyer, owner of Sand Valley Farms in Richfield, tends to the hamsters and gerbils he raises for distribution to large pet stores. The facility, which has been licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 12 years, is facing penalties of up to $44,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act over the past three years.
"I have to fight it, I really don't have a choice," he said, "I have nine employees, a family of six."
Moyer said the news came out of nowhere, but that business had been out of the ordinary since he was assigned a new inspector in 2010. He recalled that the inspector entered his facility unannounced and threatened to have an employee fired, an incident that Moyer immediately took up with the USDA.
"They're supposed to come let you know they're here," he said.
Only months after his inquiry, Sand Valley Farms was criminally investigated by one USDA inspector and a veterinarian. Moyer noted that the veterinarian admitted to having no knowledge of hamsters.
"We didn't hear a word about it until the week of July 15," he said, 2 years after the investigation took place.
USDA Spokesman David Sacks said this is not uncommon since the enforcement process can take awhile to develop.
"It's a rare facility that can stay in business with animals and never get cited for something," he said, explaining that a citation doesn't mean immediate penalty action will be taken.
When a citation is made, Sacks said inspectors give the facility a specified amount of time to complete necessary repairs and modifications to come back into compliance with the AWA. A repeated pattern of negligence is what may warrant closer monitoring or penalties, he said.
For Moyer, citations dating back to 2009 for lack of veterinary care, inadequate housing, unsanitary conditions and poor maintenance of animal enclosures are leading inspectors to visit more frequently and crack down on what he feels are minor infractions.
"At the last writeup, I was told I had to redo my lids," Moyer said, referring to the metal grate lids that seal each hamster enclosure.
Moyer said the inspector was concerned with areas where the original shine had worn away. According to the AWA, housing units must be structurally sound and in good repair.
"It's subjective and vague," Moyer contended, "The lid was created to hold the food, hold the water bottle and keep the animals in. If they perform that function, they're in good repair."
However, Sacks insisted that the USDA's enforcement of the AWA is not subjective at all.
"It's a matter of having our inspectors match the physical facilities and care up against the federal regulations," he said. "Those regulations are not always going to be specific to every species. If there's something that's not specifically spelled out in the regulations, (inspectors) look at each specific facility to see if those facilities are in compliance."
Moyer was also cited for lack of adequate veterinary care. According to reports, an inspector at Sand Valley Farms found animals with hair loss and dead animals in some enclosures.
"(The USDA) has no acceptable level of mortality," Moyer said.
He noted that hamsters have a short lifespan and are cannibals by nature, so finding dead among the thousands of rodents in his barns is almost expected. However, he said the USDA views the hamsters as individuals rather than a community.
"They look at a dead hamster the same way they look at a dead elephant," he said.
Over the past 12 years, Moyer said he hasn't changed the way he cares for his animals and doesn't understand why his farm is suddenly being targeted.
"We do regular mite control, we clean regularly," he said, adding that he has a local veterinarian on call. "It is to our economic benefit to keep the animals in good care."
However, the hamsters that Moyer sells for $2.50 each are turning up an expensive legal battle. The settlement fee prescribed by the USDA is only a portion of what he may have to pay out to come back into compliance with the AWA. If Moyer accepts his right to a hearing, the USDA may impose civil penalties of up to $10,000, or other sanctions, for each of the 44 violations described in the settlement agreement. Of course, none of the penalty fees described above cover the cost of replacement equipment and updates needed to bring the facility back into compliance.
"People's rights to have animals is slowly but surely being taken away," Moyer lamented.
Though the future of the hamster and gerbil side of business at Sand Valley Farms is uncertain, he said one thing is for sure.
"I'm going to fight it as much as I can," Moyer persisted, "If I close the facility, they'd take away the fine, but I'd never again be able to hold a USDA license."
Moyer has reached out to the Calvary Group, an organization formed to protect and defend law-abiding animal owners and animal-based businesses. The group will provide him with an attorney free of charge to help file an appeal on the settlement.
In the meantime, Moyer and his family and staff continue to enjoy and care for the small animals that call Sand Valley Farms their home with the hope that they can continue business far into the future.
"USDA's not in the business of looking to put people out of business, we're simply called on to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, and we do that to the best of our ability," Sacks said. "We remain in communication with Mr. Moyer and I certainly hope he's able to remain in business and come into compliance."
As the settlement unravels, Moyer looks forward to the same result.
"We're all in it for the animals," he said.
Moyer encourages all animal owners and animal-based businesses to contact the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for more information about current regulation through the contacts listed at www.aphis.usda.gov/contact-us/.