DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Federal inspectors have repeatedly ordered a southeast Iowa fur farm to improve the grim living conditions for ferrets, foxes, raccoons and skunks it sells to government laboratories and pet stores.
Many of the animals have been forced to live in sweltering heat or maggot-infested filth, sometimes with decomposing carcasses in their cages, officials found over the last two years.
So far no charges or enforcement action has been taken against the Ruby Fur Farm near New Sharon, 65 miles (105 kilometers) southeast of Des Moines. However, animal rights groups are calling for rescue of the animals, revocation of the farm's federal license and fines for neglect.
U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors documented the most recent problems when they returned to the farm seven times between December and August after finding suffering animals.
A building housing 290 raccoons reached 100 degrees in July, with many of the animals panting and drooling and 26 in "severe heat distress," according to a July 21 inspection report.
Reports from 2015 show injured or sick raccoons as well as skunks and ferrets that didn't receive veterinary treatment. In one cage a skunk was found living with its dead cage-mate.
A December 2016 report noted: "One dead, decomposing, headless juvenile ferret was found incorporated into the fecal material buildup on the wire floor in the corner of the cage," which also housed a live adult and six juvenile ferrets.
Federal contracts show that even as USDA inspectors were writing up the reports about the farm's treatment of raccoons, the agency was signing contracts to buy animals from the company for research. It spent nearly $30,000 in June and December of 2015 and in July 2016.
The business since 2007 received more than $67,000 from USDA contracts to provide skunks, raccoons, and foxes. USDA has expansive research enterprises with divisions that focus on food safety, animal health and food production improvements. One of the contracts indicates raccoons were obtained by a USDA lab in Colorado focusing on wildlife diseases, and another noted young foxes would be used as "research models."
The farm is licensed to Randy Ruby as a registered federal dealer by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and it holds state permits as an animal dealer and a pet shop.
Ruby declined to discuss the reports with The Associated Press when reached by telephone. He referred calls to The Cavalry Group, a Missouri-based animal business advocacy organization to which he is a member.
Its president, Mindy Patterson, said some of the USDA inspectors' claims are exaggerated and when there has been an issue Ruby has addressed them immediately.
"What we witnessed up close and personal this summer was Randy Ruby's farm being targeted and harassed with hyper-aggressive inspections," she said. "We have time-tested agriculture practices to ensure the health and safety of both people and animals that are being redefined as inhumane treatment of animals by these groups who have nothing but an emotion-based agenda."
The farm's website says it has been in business for more than 65 years and raises "our animals with tender, loving care, and we can ship them anywhere in the world."
Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based nonprofit that monitors U.S. research and animal holding facilities, has called for the termination of the fur farm's federal animal dealer's license and rescue of the animals.
In an Oct. 16 letter to Robert Gibbens, a veterinarian and the USDA's director of Animal Welfare Operations based in Colorado, Budkie asked the agency to fine Ruby Fur Farm. He said inspection reports clearly demonstrate "a total disregard for the health and well-being of these animals."
USDA spokesman R. Andre Bell confirmed the agency has discussed the farm with an animal rights group but declined to say whether it was considering enforcement action or terminating the license. He also declined to discuss whether USDA's purchased of animals from the fur farm had any impact on its enforcement of animal welfare regulations.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture, which has issued state permits for the farm to operate as a pet shop and registered federal dealer, has no enforcement action pending, said spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef. The agency can revoke the permits if it were to find standard of care issues but it has received no complaints, he said.
Any animal neglect charges must come from a law enforcement officer under Iowa law.
Mahaska County Sheriff Russ VanRenterghem said he accompanied a USDA inspection team to the fur farm three or four times in July.
"I don't see any violations," he said, describing the farm's owners as "very reputable, very good people."
Iowa is ranked the second worst in the nation for animal welfare behind Kentucky, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund's annual rankings released in January.
Iowa enforcement is weak because with a few exceptions animal neglect is not considered a felony, and laws defining adequate shelter conditions are unclear, the group said.
"In general if I was picking a state to be an animal in, Iowa would be very far down my list," said David Rosengard, a staff attorney for the group's criminal justice program. "I could be neglected. I could be starved. I could be abandoned and the person who did that wouldn't face the sort of repercussions they would have to deal with in a lot of other states."