- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Animal welfare advocates urged lawmakers Tuesday to reject Gov. Pete Ricketts’ reappointment of the current Nebraska agriculture director, arguing that his department has failed to properly oversee commercial breeding operations.

But representatives of state agricultural groups urged members of the Agriculture Committee during a confirmation hearing to support Greg Ibach, who was appointed by former governor Dave Heineman as director in June 2005.

Carol Wheeler, director and founder of Auburn animal shelter Hearts United for Animals called the Agriculture Department under Ibach a “failed system” with no accountability to neglected animals in commercial breeding facilities. Wheeler said the department has consistently delayed action even after inspections show puppy mills violating regulations.

On Jan. 23 Wheeler published a petition on change.org urging citizens to oppose Ibach’s placement as director. The petition calls Nebraska’s puppy mills some of the worst in the country and features photos of dogs crammed into cages with gaping holes, smeared feces and frozen water. The petition earned more than 4,000 signatures in four days.

Ibach told lawmakers during the hearing that during the past decade Nebraska exported $23 billion in agricultural products, expanded research and grew critical markets for Nebraska beef in Asia and the European Union.

Representatives from the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farmers Union applauded Ibach’s reappointment, saying he has been cooperative and listened to their concerns.

But opponents point to operations such as the Malcolm puppy mill where dogs were found in with infected wounds, urine-encrusted cages and rotting teeth and jawbones.

Ibach said the current statutes split enforcement between the Agriculture Department and county authorities.

“While we can cite a facility for what we see has sanitation problems, we still have to notify local law enforcement on those animal welfare issues,” he said.

Judy Varner, president of the Nebraska Humane Society, said in the past year she has seen the department make positive changes toward helping neglected animals. Varner said she feels confident the Department shares her goal of a better future for the dogs.

“We know the reality of enforcing the law,” Varner said. “Sometimes it takes longer than we want to gather enough proof to act, and sometimes we don’t get what we want because of due process.”

Ibach’s opponents appealed to committee member Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who introduced a bill last year increasing penalties for animal neglect. Chambers thanked testifiers for adding proof to a topic he is passionate about, but said he expects the committee to recommend approving Ibach’s appointment.

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