Missouri News

Pike County, Mo., dog breeder agrees to judgment over allegations of misconduct, animal neglect

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Mar. 23, 2020 12:01 am

BOWLING GREEN, Mo. -- The woman who co-owns Cornerstone Farms, a controversial dog breeding operation south of Curryville in rural Pike County, will not be able to buy or sell dogs or cats until 2028, according to the terms of a consent judgment filed March 11 in the county court system.

Debra Ritter, who co-owns Cornerstone Farms with her husband and children, was sued this month by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt after the state alleged Ritter had violated the Animal Care Facilities Act and Canine Cruelty Prevention Act. Ritter also has done business under Beginnings Ranch and Puppies Purebred.

Schmitt said agriculture inspectors conducted an unannounced inspection of Cornerstone Farms this month and found 152 adult dogs and 63 puppies.

Inspectors said they found dirty water bowls containing feces, dogs requiring treatment for skin conditions and animals stacked in cages without an impervious barrier between the levels.

"Inadequate record keeping, injured dogs, improper facilities and continued excuses to avoid inspection show that Cornerstone Farms cannot responsibly breed dogs in the state of Missouri, and that's why we moved to shut this breeder down," Schmitt said. "Breeders who cannot follow the law put the health and welfare of animals at risk. I appreciate the Department of Agriculture's diligent work in inspecting and documenting the conditions at Cornerstone Farms."

When contacted by phone by The Herald-Whig, Ritter hung up. Other attempts to reach the staff, which includes her husband and children, were not successful.

An inspection in January found several dogs were suffering from a number of medical issues, including one labradoodle with an ear hematoma.

Under the terms of the judgment, Ritter must pay the state a $9,500 in civil penalties, though the state will waive $8,000 of the civil penalty if Ritter complies with the other stipulations for eight years. An additional $1,000 also will be suspended once Ritter "dismantles the outdoor kennels, including any posts, panels, dog houses, feeders and water containers" within 90 days.

Other terms include the transfer of all dogs off Ritter's property by May 10, 2020. The judgment allows the family to keep 11 dogs as pets. Ritter also is limited to owning no more than three female dogs for a period of eight years. All must be spayed or neutered.

Ritter also must provide records of each animal transferred from her ownership, including the names and addresses of the people receiving the dogs, and refrain from accepting or purchasing any dogs or cats for the purpose of adoption, resale, or boarding, for at least eight years. Facebook pages for both Cornerstone Farms and Beginnings Ranch remained active on Sunday.

Ritter, who previously has attempted to block inspectors from entering the family's property, must allow the state's agriculture department to continue to inspect the property for compliance to the terms of the judgment. In April 2019, the USDA cited the Ritters for an attempted inspection violation, noting that their inspectors arrived for an inspection and contacted the licensee by phone, but the licensee did not make anyone available "to walk the inspector through the inspection process."

If Ritter violates the terms of the consent judgment, she could be fined $100 per day for each day of each violation up to 30 days and $250 per day for each day of each violation after 30 days.

Cornerstone Farms has been featured in Rolling Stone magazine and was the subject of a book, "The Doggie in the Window."

Ritter has also gained notoriety for being named by the Humane Society of the United States in its annual list of the nation's worst dog breeders every year for the past five years.

There have been other complaints in recent years, including:

In 2019 the society said that state inspectors "repeatedly found sick or injured dogs, dogs with skin disorders and patches of missing fur" and that the breeder regularly sold puppies who died shortly after purchase. For example, a buyer submitted a complaint regarding a puppy she purchased that later died from complications of parvovirus, a highly contagious virus spread from dog to dog by direct or indirect contact with their feces.

While vaccines can prevent the infection, the virus has a high mortality rate of 68% to 92%, according to the American Kennel Club.

The buyer submitted a copy of her veterinary bills, which included a statement from the vet, who had concerns "regarding the credibility of the breeder" because the puppy did not respond to treatment as a properly vaccinated dog would have responded.

The buyer and her veterinarian both noted that the photos the Ritters sent before purchase showed a puppy whose markings were distinctly different from the puppy the buyer received.

In 2018, the Humane Society of the United States cited documents from the state regarding a number of violations, including lack of compete vet exams and three dogs that had been listed for unsound breeding practices that had not been removed from the breeding program, which could result in passing health problems to offspring. The state also cited the breeder for adding dogs to the facility without proper documentation, which the HSUS says could be an indication that Cornerstone Farms gets its dogs from unlicensed dealers.

Other complaints over the years have included: two lame dogs; underweight dogs; a persistent strong ammonia (urine) odor; excessive feces; inadequate bedding provided to dogs when the temperature was 33 degrees; a puppy found with all four feet passing through the wire flooring, which is considered a significant risk of entrapment and injury; dogs with severe itching, alopecia, and in some cases a heavy flea infestation; and dogs kept in buildings in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees with no cooling mechanism in place.

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