Missouri moves to close down a serial puppy mill offender

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

By on March 5, 2020 with 24 Comments

A notorious breeder in Missouri who has been featured five times in our annual Horrible Hundred report on problem puppy mills may be closing down her operation, even as the state’s attorney general is moving to take legal action against her for mistreating the dogs in her care.

Debra Ritter of Cornerstone Farms, aka Beginnings Ranch, has been in our report for severe problems at her kennel, including injured and underweight dogs, dogs with missing fur and skin lesions, sick puppies and excessive feces and odor. Cornerstone Farms has also been a source of repeated consumer complaints and media exposes for more than six years. But Ritter continued to carry on business as usual, thanks in part to the inaction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency tasked with ensuring that businesses that use certain kinds of animals are not mistreating them. The only reason she is now being held accountable is because of the stellar work being done by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office.

Schmitt’s office has, in recent years, been taking action against some of the worst puppy mill offenders in what is one of the biggest problem states in the United States for puppy mills. Last year, the state took action against four other puppy mills that had appeared in our Horrible Hundred reports, including Cory Mincey’s Puppy Love Kennel, which had violations for sudden deaths at the kennel, severely underweight dogs, filthy conditions and other egregious violations. (Mincey still sells AKC puppies online as “Cory’s Cuties” despite the pending legal action, and we hope that the attorney general’s office will move to ensure she doesn’t continue to profit off suffering animals.)

Contrast Missouri’s actions with a problem we have increasingly been highlighting on this blog—the failure of the USDA to throw the book at breeders like Ritter and Mincey who repeatedly break the law.

In her 2018 book “The Doggie in the Window,” author Rory Kress documented that on August 8, 2016, the USDA found zero non-compliant issues during an inspection at Ritter’s facility. Yet on that same day, state inspectors found 12 violations, including repeat violations from an earlier inspection that had still not been corrected, such as an underweight dog, dogs with loose stools and missing fur, and more.

The USDA has documented a few violations on Cornerstone Farms’s inspection reports, but has typically tended to downplay the seriousness of the violations. For example, an Oct 2019 USDA report listed only a single “indirect” violation for “cleaning, sanitation, housekeeping and pes control” due to dogs with fleas. On the other hand, the Missouri Department of Agriculture documented five straight years of state violations for issues such as lack of veterinary care, unsafe housing, filthy conditions and dogs with bloody diarrhea, and noted very specific issues with fleas and other pests again and again.

[Read all of our past Horrible Hundred reports.]

The USDA’s lack of action is not surprising to those of us who have been calling attention to the sharp drop in enforcement actions taken by the agency under the Animal Welfare Act—a drop of over 90% over the past three years, since the Trump administration took office. Citations over the same period are down approximately 60%. The USDA appears reluctant to cite even the most problematic violators, and when they do, they list violations for half a dozen or more sick animals under a single citation. The federal agency cites business owners who do not make their properties available for surprise inspections for “attempted” inspections but fails to take any real action against them, allowing even violators with egregious violations to continue doing business selling puppies, as Ritter was.

The USDA is now considering a rule that would tighten licensing requirements for offenders, but even if that rule is finalized, we still need the agency to actually enforce the law.

Missouri too still has a long way to go on puppy mills. The state has had more problem puppy mills in our Horrible Hundred report than any other state for all seven years we have produced the report. And every year, lawmakers in the state have introduced legislation to further weaken Missouri’s regulations on puppy mills, with bills that make it harder for law enforcement to seize dogs in cruelty cases, or block certain animal control officers from inspecting the facilities or applying for warrants. There are also a few other flaws in Missouri’s enforcement that we hope the state will address, like allowing breeders who are closing after being cited for grave violations to sell their dogs to other puppy mills or give them to family members who continue to breed. We hope this won’t happen in the current case, and that the breeding dogs who have lived for too long in misery will finally be released to a reputable, licensed shelter so they can be adopted into loving homes.

But for today, we applaud Attorney General Schmitt for taking action against Ritter and other problem puppy mills. It is not too much to expect that companion animals, who many Americans consider family members, should be guaranteed basic standards of care and protection by the businesses that breed them. We urge the attorney general to keep up the momentum for change and continue protecting companion animals in his state.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Companion Animals, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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  1. Alan Alejandro Maldonado Ortiz says:

    Esta persona tiene que pagar por su delito y todas aquellas personas que abusan maltratan a los animalitos ya no mas maltrato a los animalitos

  2. LoveCats says:

    I’ve lived a few decades and have been signing petitions to end puppy mills all my adult life. I decided to comment on this article because it maintains enforcement by USDA has worsened under POTUS Trump. Maybe, but I can remember a time when USDA officials themselves operated puppy mills without repercussions.

    Why any administration allowed these disgusting places to exist is mind boggling yet all administrations during my lifetime have done so not just this administration. In fact in my youthful ignorance I bought a puppy mill dog 45 or more years ago. The health issues that poor puppy had were totally heartbreaking. He had to be put down at one year of age with health issues reserved for very elderly humans.

    I wish I knew what it would take to permanently close the mills down because organizations such as The Humane Society along with a never-ending series of petitions has not been successful in closing them.

    It is beyond comprehension how any human can be so heartless as to run a puppy mill so big kudos to Attorney General Schmitt of Missouri for taking on this issue. Let us hope more like him follow his example. Puppy mill animals have suffered long enough!

    • Stacy - Impatiently waiting in MN ... says:

      I agree. The HSUS has been working in this for YEARS. Why are we getting no where? I’ve been donating for YEARS. It makes me wonder…. I know HSUS doesn’t want to see animals suffer… but there’s A LOT of money involved here. Especially since mills in Missouri could be shut down in a heartbeat if they’d collect signatures. Does anyone know if someone is actively seeking signatures to get a law on the ballot to shut down puppy mills?

  3. Carol says:

    It is not governments problem. It is the human being in this stories problem. She needs help. Why doesn’t the state of Missouri do something?

    • Carol Elbertson says:

      Please,,,,,why did you have to make this political byblaming President Trump,,,,,for a puppy mill in MO??? Come on now– puppy mills are horrible and let’s get them shut down and prosecuted but blaming the President is past ridiculous!

    • Sally says:

      Because, historically, Misosuri actually encouraged people to open and run puppy mills. The attitude here is that they are “just trying to make a living” in a place that has few options.

      • LoveCats says:

        Even if MO officials are to continue allowing puppy mills, which they shouldn’t but while they do, at least for goodness sakes expect them to operate under humane conditions. The heartlessness and callousness required to treat animals like dirt or worse says an awful lot about how lacking some humans are and that especially includes government officials who allow such cruelty to exist.

    • Donna says:

      Yes it is up to the government to oversee the law. The law is being broken in the name of profit. This is not a border…there is a difference.

    • Debrah says:

      SHE doesn’t need help
      ! The dogs she breeds do ! SHE needs to be shut down, cited , charged and prosecuted for what she’s doing to these dogs and never be allowed to own an animal again !

    • Connie Schachel says:

      The State of Missouri? That IS our government.

    • Kris says:

      I do believe regulation IS necessary but the mill operator should have ab complete psychological evaluation. She seems sick to me.

    • donna sophia says:

      Help shutting/closing down? Not a word about the animals that are the ones needing help, makes your comment out of place, here.

  4. s says:

    how does one report too many animals with one person as know someone who has enough animals for zoo

    • donna sophia says:

      If you live in the city limits, call the building inspector, go to the office in city hall, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

  5. Too Afraid to Post Name Publicly says:

    When we have a United States Congressman whose family runs a puppy mill, one that was on the Dirty Dozen for a long time, well, the government isn’t going to do much. Yes, they are back at it. When Congressman Jason Smith, who was part owner of the notorious Smith’s Kennels, ran for US Congress the first time, his famiily shut down their puppy mill in order to get him elected. They have since opened it again but with a new name, which I do not know. I know they’re hidden pretty well. He’s up for re-election again this fall and he’s a close ally of President Trump and way more powerful than he should be. Oh, and his nephew owns pit bulls that he likely fights. They have been known to be other than at their home for a few days at a time and return home pretty beat up. Well, the small one gets pretty torn up, the older, larger, dominant male not so much. They live outside in all weather and bark and disturb their neighborhood nightly as they are cold and hungry and often without water. How do we do anything when people with such power are the problem?

  6. Leigh Marshall says:

    Missouri has so many horrible mills!! They need to crack down on this abuse! Shameful and disgusting.

  7. Rosemarie says:

    Please investigate 2 Petland stores in WI. Racine & Janesville. I called both but Petland in Janesville owner called & said his store of 16 yeats has never sold puppy mill pets & was in denial as he accused the postings from the internet as false concerning the healthcare & business practices of his store. Please investigate these 2 puppy mill run stores. Meanwhile, I will call our state represenativeRon Johnson of this dilemma. Sincerely, Rosemarie Pundsack of Madison, WI

  8. Marcie says:

    Our family purchased a golden doodle pup from this place at the end of January. We had no idea we were buying from a puppy mill. The person I communicated with presented herself as “Angel” and told me she was from Wright City and that the pup was from a litter between her male and female pets. I thought I had asked all the right questions. We were completely misled all along. The day before I drove to pick up the pup I was told that, as luck would have it, she had to drive to St. Louis that very day and could just meet me and save me a trip. Seemed great at the time. Upon meeting them, the pup was pretty skittish, but looked healthy. He was adorable and very easy to fall in love with. After nearly 2 months, the pup is finally pretty healthy. We battled non-stop itchy skin that started as soon as we got home with him and pretty severe ear infections in both ears for the first month or more. For the first week or two I kept trying to get more information from the lady I got him from to help us figure out what was causing the itching so we could help our vet figure out what was going on. I finally called the vet on the puppy health check papers and found out about the mess with Debra Ritter, whose name was on those papers. He informed me that he couldn’t say very much, but that he no longer treats her pups. That’s when I googled her name and found out where our sweet pup really came from. I’m glad we rescued him from that mess. But I hate that I paid her a dime to do what she does.

    • Darla says:

      She’s a scam artist. Told me the exact story she told you. She had to be in St Louis & would meet me! My puppy smelled so bad that I drove straight to a groomer before taking him home. He was very sick, but once we spent a fair amount of $ at a reliable vet, & got him well, he is definitely a big part of our family. As to Deborah Ritter, no comments. Nothing I can say can describe how awful of a person she is! You don’t take that much $ from someone & flat out lie to them!!!

  9. Kipp B says:

    Where are these dogs going? Will they be put in humane society of MO?

  10. anonymous says:

    hi i got a puppy rescued from this horible shelter and named her lily

  11. anonymous says:

    I got my cockapoo puppy from this breeder almost 15 years ago. He was mostly healthy and beautiful and I loved him more than I can explain, but he definitely had issues personality-wise from the beginning. Maybe things weren’t quite as bad back then, but he was beyond terrified of any sort of stick or anything that resembled a gun, shooting sounds on TV made him cry the saddest cry you’ve ever heard, absolutely terrified of being left alone to the point that he would make himself sick when he was, and possessive over his food like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Reading about this after the fact makes me think that he must’ve had some sort of PTSD from being here for his first few months of life and it breaks my heart that any puppy would have endured these conditions, but especially one as sweet and loving as he was.

  12. Robert Jackson says:

    I got my amazing Havanese puppy from cornerstone farms and the Ritter family in 2016 and was very impressed with the farm and family. I read some negative info online so I chose to drive all the way to the farm to meet in person and they were great. The animals are well treated, lots of space and my dog is happy, healthy and fun! Yes, they are breeders but not a puppy mill and they have a farm with 3 generations of family that lives and work there. Meet the people and know the facts before trying to shut down a family business.

    • C. B. says:

      Robert, they may have been a better ran facility in 2016. But you are seemingly one of the lucky ones that have received a healthy animal from this wretched place.

      I have the same story as most above. Got scammed. Bought a very sick puppy. After lots of money in vet bills he is healthy. Bought our doodle from one of their adoptive daughters but after calling the vet for the wellness check (which I still have questions how our very ill, full of worms, puppy strangles, mites, septic little doodle could have passed a well puppy check just one day prior) found out that Debra R. is a sorry excuse for a breeder & in my book a pretty lowly human.

      Why would a well respected “breeder” have to change their name MULTIPLE times? Why would a reputable breeder have to sell their puppies under their adoptive children being on the frontlines? My guess it to keep people from doing the first thing that they do – a google search that would lift the curtain on their scam.

      Also, I’ll leave another link for you to take a peak at. We love evidence.

      My only hope is that she is no longer truly doing business and if she is caught again, which is likely as a repeat offender, she will get a more serious fine/ruling.


      It is very thoughtful of you to come to the defense of these people, my bet is that you truly had a good experience, but unfortunately they are no longer those same individuals.

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