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Mercer County puppy mill rescue prompts look at Illinois dog breeding

With a sweet face and personality to match, it’s hard to imagine what this little dog is going through.

“This little girl, she’s got a broken jaw,” said Dr. Tiffani Yerkey.

Dr. Yerkey has a difficult task. The Viola veterinarian is diagnosing and treating nearly 40 dogs that were rescued from a Mercer County puppy mill.

“She’s not biting,” Dr. Yerkey continued. “She’s not growling, but it is painful to her. She’s not telling us it’s there, but we found it. She’s a trooper.”

And she’s not alone. Dr. Yerkey, Mercer County Animal Control and sheriff’s deputies used a customer tip to raid a New Boston-area garage. That’s where they found the dogs. Most of them are between the age of one to three. They were used for breeding and lived in deplorable conditions.

“They were matted completely from head to toe in urine and feces,” said Mercer County Animal Control Officer Chris Brewer. “You couldn’t even see that some of them were dogs.”

“The smell was overwhelming,” Dr. Yerkey said. “Not a lot of water and food access for these guys. They were crammed in cages, overcrowded and just walking on top of each other.”

Authorities are charging Ricky Bonjour, 49, with four counts of animal cruelty. If convicted, the unlicensed breeder could face jail time and fines.

“It definitely turned out to be exactly a puppy mill,” Brewer said.

“I’m innocent,” Bonjour said as he left a Mercer County court appearance.

Bonjour defended raising quality animals at a national level. He blamed a recent move for his problems.

“There may be three or four dogs that needed a bath,” he said. “We just got a little bit behind.”

The Bureau of Amimal Health and Welfare regulates minimum breeding standards in Illinois. It’s part of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. But with budget cuts and other constraints, citing violatons can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

While reputable breeders are licensed by the state and follow care standards, it’s still easy for backyard breeders to operate under the radar.

“I’m very sad when something like this happens,” said Sandy King, a longtime breeder of champion dogs.

King’s dogs compete in prestigious shows across the country. It’s a three-generation labor of love, and the boxes of awards are a testament to her success.

“The laws that they have right now are absolutely perfectly good,” she said.

As dogs and their owners practice at the Quad City Dog Obedience Club, King says that Illinois actually has some of the better dog breeding laws. Responsible breeding comes down to enforcement, however, and more bad apples slip between the cracks.

“If somebody doesn’t see the problem and report it, they don’t have enough people out there to keep tabs on everything that goes on,” she said.

That puts a burden on licensed facilities like the Quad City Animal Welfare Center in Milan.

“Animals need to be treated with kindness, respect and lots of patience,” said Executive Director Patti McRae.

The center is caring for eight dogs from the raid until they can be adopted. Because of their rough past, the dogs have special needs. None of them are house-broken.

“Animals can’t speak for themselves,” McRae said. “If you see something like that happening, call someone.”

Despite the neglect, the prognosis is good for these dogs. But there are lasting lessons for dog owners and breeders.

Potential dog owners should ask themselves if they have the time, money and patience to raise a puppy.

Vets say that animal shelters are among the best places to find a loving pet. But for those who go through a breeder, be sure to research, ask lots of questions and make a site visit if possible.

“Has the dog had any vaccines?” asked Dr. Scott Macon, a Moline veterinarian. “Has it been dewormed? Has mom been current in her vaccines? Then, you want to see documentation of it.”

“When you’re looking for a puppy, you should expect to go in and see puppies that are clean and happy — not puppies that are sick,” King cautioned.

Just before leaving a recent court hearing, Bonjour offered one more comment.

“We’ll let the legal process take its course,” he said. “I’m sure, God willing, justice will be done in the end.”

For nearly 40 dogs taken from the New Boston puppy mill, it was a rescue that came just in time.