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Animal neglect charges are pending after nearly 170 dogs were rescued from a Worth County puppy mill in November.

DES MOINES --- A new hire in the state agriculture department will focus on companion animals.

The hire comes after a legislative session in which a proposal to strengthen Iowa’s animal cruelty laws had momentum but ultimately failed, and after numerous incidents throughout the state of animal cruelty by commercial dog breeders and animal hoarding.

Animal welfare advocates say they are encouraged by the hire in the ag department’s veterinary office and are hopeful it is a first step toward addressing Iowa’s poor national ranking for state animal protection laws.

Iowa agriculture secretary Mike Naig recently announced the hire of Dr. Katie Rumsey as an assistant state veterinarian and said Rumsey will oversee companion animal regulatory programs.

Another assistant state veterinarian will focus on farm animal programs, leaving Rumsey to focus on laws and programs that deal with pets.

Naig said he made the decision as he looked at the entire ag department and how it could operate differently after his election to the office in November of 2018. He said Rumsey can help address what has been an increased workload.

“Put this in the category of us looking at, really, all of our bureaus and our structure and our staffing at the beginning of a term,” Naig said. “The animal industries, we thought, were one where we could use a change in our structure.”

Iowa has hosted high-profile cases of animal neglect over the past year.

A North Iowa woman whose 154 animals were seized from a puppy mill in Manly was charged with 17 counts of animal neglect. And an outbreak of canine brucellosis, an infectious disease that can spread to humans, was traced to a central Iowa dog breeder.

“I think (Rumsey’s hire) will allow us to manage all of those issues better,” Naig said.

Rumsey declined to be interviewed for the story because she is new to the job. But through a department spokeswoman, she emailed information about her background and what she hopes to bring to the department. She noted she has education and professional experience in both animal and human health.

“I have over 14 years of experience working with companion animals and their owners,” Rumsey wrote. “I believe the knowledge I gained and lessons I learned working with small animals in a veterinary clinic makes me a valuable resource to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Animal Bureau. I’m able to add another perspective to conversations about companion animal care.”

Animal welfare advocates lauded the hire. They view it as a first step toward making Iowa more responsive to animal safety issues.

“I think it’s a long time coming, quite frankly,” said Tom Colvin, CEO of the Iowa chapter of the Animal Rescue League. “Realizing that the Iowa Department of Agriculture has a lot of hats they have to wear, the livestock ... they have a lot of things they have to do. But there is a whole animal welfare division that has had to be addressed almost as time permitted from the other duties from the ag end.

“So yes, I think it’s a long time coming, and I think it’s going to make a huge difference if someone can focus on the companion animal issues. Because they are different than the livestock issues and require somebody’s undivided attention.”

Haley Anderson, executive director of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals, said the recent cases of animal neglect highlighted a need for stronger state oversight, and that she is hopeful that is coming with the ag department’s new hire, which she called “a very positive step forward.”

“We really hope under Sec. Naig’s leadership that it’s the first step of many to ensure humane treatment of companion animals,” Anderson said. “Right now the state of Iowa has approximately 1,700 state-licensed facilities that are focused on companion animals — pet shops, kennels, borders — and there really hasn’t been resources, human or inspectors, allocated to the proper oversight.

“We look forward to working with Sec. Naig and Dr. Rumsey and (state veterinarian Dr. Jeff Kaisand) on written policies and enforcement actions, and to ensure (actions) are taken when a facility shows an unwillingness or an inability to comply with state laws.”

Iowa has the nation’s third-worst animal protection laws, according to annual rankings published by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. According to the rankings, Iowa falls short because the state does not make animal cruelty a felony on first offense, has a law that criminalizes undercover video recording of animals, and lacks clear legal definitions for standards of animal care.

Naig said he thinks the state has “robust rules” for the enforcement of animal safety laws, but added he is willing to assess those and consider possible changes. He said it is too soon to tell whether his department will make any recommendations to state lawmakers.

“I believe the rules and the code are strong,” Naig said.

Animal welfare organizations, on the other hand, for years have been pushing for stronger state animal safety laws. During the 2019 legislative session, a bill that would have strengthened animal cruelty laws passed the Iowa House with broad, bipartisan support; but Republican leadership in the Iowa Senate did not bring it up for a vote.

A separate bill dealt specifically with regulations and oversight of commercial dog breeders; that proposal received less traction.

Anderson and Colvin said while they are encouraged by the new state hire, they will continue to advocate for stronger animal safety laws.

“(Rumsey’s hiring) is a great step, but it is not a full solution at all. We definitely still need the companion animal cruelty bill,” Anderson said. “That definitely needs to pass in 2020.”

Colvin said he thinks the animal cruelty bill will pass next year after gaining significant momentum this past session. He described his reaction as “absolute shock” when the bill was not called up for a vote in the Senate.

“I have seen a solidified resolve among people, among Iowans to get this passed like no other time,” Colvin said. “We have definitely let Senate leadership know to pass the bill next year.”

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