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Should Winona County allow dog breeding kennels? The Winona County Board plans to reopen that discussion this summer. Last week, commissioners Marie Kovecsi and Greg Olson brought forward a proposal for the County Board to discuss changes to its ordinance on dog kennels, including a possible ban on commercial dog breeding. It is unclear whether the county has the legal authority to ban dog breeding, which is allowed by Minnesota state law and regulated by federal and state authorities.

Controversy over dog breeding operations started this past winter, when six men sought county permits for dog breeding kennels, and the County Board granted the permits with a split vote. Animal welfare supporters from the local area and across Minnesota flooded the County Board with emails and organized numerous protests outside of the homes of Amish families with dog breeding operations. Protesters labeled the kennels “puppy mills,” urged the County Board to disallow them, and labeled Winona County “the puppy mill capital of Minnesota.” Some protesters said that the commercial breeding of companion animals was wrong, and that large-scale dog breeding produced a glut of unwanted animals at pet stores that must be rescued by humane societies or put down. Some said that the conditions in the kennels were inhumane, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection violations at the local kennels. Some shouted anti-Amish statements outside the homes of Amish dog breeders. “The Amish are greedy!” yelled one protester.

In an interview last year, David A. Yoder said that he and other kennel operators care about their animals and take good care of them, too. “If you'd walk into the kennels, you'd be surprised at how well designed they are with the welfare of the dogs in mind,” he said.

According to the animal welfare group Animal Folks, Winona County has a greater number of commercial dog breeders than any other county in the state. Several Amish families have taken up dog breeding as a way to supplement their farm income. Most of their kennels have around 40 adult dogs. LeRoy Yoder’s kennel has around 170 dogs. Other kennels in the state have a larger number of dogs.

State and federal laws govern the treatment of dogs at commercial breeding kennels, and include requirements for space and veterinary care. All of the kennels are subject to inspections by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (BAH) and surprise inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The recently permitted kennels are also subject to inspections by Winona County staff. USDA inspections have, from time to time, turned up problems at the kennels, such as dogs not receiving immediate veterinary care for health problems or a buildup of dog feces, that the kennel operators have corrected.


"These animals are healthy. Bottom line, they're healthy," said Lewiston Veterinarian Brett Flathers, who regularly visits the kennels.

The adult dogs that are kept for breeding are confined in these kennels for most of their lives, said Animal Folks Executive Director Ann Olson. “That can have an impact on their health and well-being,” she added.

In an interview after visiting local kennels last winter, commissioner Steve Jacob said, “You can tell the animals are well-cared for.” He said that many emails from animal rights supporters amounted to bullying.

Last year, Winona County Planning and Zoning Director Eric Evenson-Marden said that the county did not have legal authority to regulate animal welfare. The state and federal government, he said, are in charge of that issue. Some animal welfare supporters, including Ann Olson, have pushed back on that, saying that the county’s role in protecting the “health, safety, moral and general welfare” of the local community extends to the welfare of animals and the morals of animal treatment.

Commissioner Greg Olson said he did not know if the county has the legal authority to ban dog kennels, but the County Board should talk about it and county staff should research the issue. “Let’s have that discussion, if we want to be the dog breeding capitol of Minnesota. I don’t think we want to be,” he said.

If the county enacts a ban on dog kennels or new regulations for dog kennels, it would not apply to the existing kennels. However, new rules could block kennels from expanding.