Family Faces 4 Million Dollar Fine for Selling Bunnies

by Bob McCarty

Almost nine months after a Missouri dairy was ordered to stop selling cheese made from raw milk, I share details of another hare-raising story from the Show-Me State: John Dollarhite and his wife Judy of tiny Nixa, Mo., have been told by the USDA that, by Monday, they must pay a fine exceeding $90,000. If they don’t pay that fine, they could face additional fines of almost $4 million. Why? Because they sold more than $500 worth of bunnies — $4,600 worth to be exact — in a single calendar year.

About six years ago, the Dollarhites wanted to teach their young teenage son responsibility and the value of the dollar. So they rescued a pair of rabbits — one male and one female — and those rabbits did what rabbits do; they reproduced. Before long, things were literally hopping on the three-acre homestead 30 miles south of Springfield, and Dollarvalue Rabbitry was launched as more of a hobby than a business.

“We’d sell ‘em for 10 or 15 dollars a piece,” John said during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, comparing the venture to a kid running a lemonade stand. In addition, they set up a web site and posted a “Rabbits for Sale sign in their front yard. Most customers, however, came via word of mouth.

In the early stages, some of the bunnies were raised and sold for their meat. Much further down the road, John said, they determined it more profitable to sell live bunnies at four weeks old than to feed bunnies for 12 weeks and then sell them as meat.

“We started becoming the go-to people” for rabbits in the Springfield area, John said. “If you wanted a rabbit, you’d go to Dollarvalue Rabbitry.” He added that the family even made the local television news just before Easter in 2008 for a report about the care and feeding of “Easter bunnies.”

Initially, the Dollarhites sold the large, white, pink-eyed variety of rabbits. Eventually, however, they switched to selling a couple of different varieties of miniature rabbits, the mating pairs of which were purchased from breeders across the state. Not only did their “show-quality” miniatures reproduce well, but they ate less and seemed to be more popular with theme park visitors and retail buyers.

During the summer of 2009, the Dollarhites bought the rabbitry from their son who had grown tired of managing it. They paid him what he asked for it, $200. Things kept growing, however, and the Dollarhite’s landed a pair of big accounts in 2009.

A well-known Branson theme park, Silver Dollar City, asked the Dollarhites to have them provide four-week-old bunnies per week to their petting zoo May through September. When the bunnies turned six weeks old, they were sold to park visitors. The Springfield location of a national pet store chain, Petland, purchased rabbits from the Dollarhites as well.

In the fall of 2009, the theme park deliveries ended for the year and the Dollarhites scaled back their operation. At about the same time, the folks at Petland asked the Dollarhites to raise guinea pigs that the store would purchase from them. No big deal.

By the year’s end, the Dollarhites had moved approximately 440 rabbits and grossed about $4,600 for a profit of approximately $200 — enough, John said, to provide the family “pocket money” to do things such as eat out at Red Lobster once in a while. That was better than the loss they experienced in 2008.

Then some unexpected matters began demanding their attention.

It’s an understatement to describe the Dollarhites as being “beyond surprised” when, in the fall of 2009, a female inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed up at the front door of the family home, wanting to do a “spot inspection” of their rabbitry. She said she had come across Dollarhite Rabbitry invoices while inspecting the petting zoo at Silver Dollar City.

“She did not tell us that we were in violation of any laws, rules, anything whatsoever,” John said, explaining that the inspector said she just wanted to see what type of operation they had. Having nothing to hide or any reason to fear they were doing anything wrong, the Dollarhites allowed the inspection to proceed.

John said he had to go to work at the family’s computer store, so Judy took the inspector to the back of their property where the rabbits were raised. There, the inspector began running the width of her finger across the cage and told the Dollarhites they would need to replace the cage, because it was a quarter-inch too small and, therefore, did not meet federal regulations.

Such a requirement came as a shock to the Dollarhites, because they had just invested in new cages to ensure the bunnies had a healthy amount of space to develop, John explained. Though raising dwarf breed varieties of rabbits which require less space, they had opted to purchase cages designed for “large breed rabbits” so the dwarfs would have plenty of room. All for naught.

Not only was the cage too small, according to the inspector, but she noted a small rust spot on a feeder and cited it as being out of compliance. When the Dollarhites told the inspector that rabbit urine causes the cages to rust and that they worked hard to keep the rabbits cages in top shape, she told them it didn’t matter. The rust spot would count as an infraction.

The inspector then asked how the cages were sanitized, John said, and Judy explained how she moved the bunnies to travel carriers and powerwashed the cages, using bleach when necessary. Afterward, she allowed the cages to dry in the sun before putting the bunnies back inside them.

The Dollarhites’ practice was much safer than that used by some breeders who used blow torches to burn hair and manure from the cages — a practice that can lead to rusting metal and produce toxic fumes from burning metal.

During the course of the spot inspection, John said, the inspector asked his wife if she and John would like to have their operation certified by USDA. Judy said she wasn’t sure and asked what certification would entail and if it would help them sell more rabbits. The inspector responded, telling her it would involve monthly inspections and was completely voluntary. The inspection ended with the inspector telling Judy that the Dollarhites rabbits looked healthy and well-cared for.

After the inspection, the Dollarhites didn’t hear from the USDA again until January 2010, John said, when he received a phone call from a Kansas City-based investigator from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“He called us and said, ‘I need to have a meeting with you and your wife,’” John recalled.

After explaining that he asked the investigator to come after the workday at the computer store had ended, John said he asked the investigator about the purpose of the meeting,

“He said, ‘Well, it’s because you’re selling rabbits and you’ve exceeded more than $500 dollars in a year,’” John said, “and I went, ‘Okay, what does that have to do with anything?’”

John said the investigator refused to discuss details over the phone and made it clear that rejecting his request for a meeting would be a costly error in judgment.

When Judy asked if they should have an attorney present, the investigator responded, saying, “Well, that might be a good thing.”

“At that point, we kind of set back, (wondering) what in the world is going on,” John said. Then he found an attorney who is also a farmer.

“I didn’t want a ‘city slicker,’” said John, a farmer himself until 1996 when he sold his farm to build a home in Nixa. “I wanted someone that had been around the agriculture and farm business.”

John found a guy and they met for the first time a couple of days later — at the same time both met the APHIS investigator in person at John’s home.

“The first thing (the investigator) said was ‘My name is so and so, I’ve been in the USDA for 30-plus years, and I’ve never lost a case,’” John recalled, continuing. “He said, ‘I’m not here to debate the law, interpret the law or discuss the law, I’m here just to do an investigation.’”

John said the investigator went on to explain that he would ask questions, write a report based on the answers and send that report to his superiors at the USDA regional office in Colorado Springs, Colo. The entire process was suppose to take about a month, and John was told to contact the regional office if he had not heard anything in six weeks.

“At this point in time, we were still not knowing anything about the law he was talking about,” John explained, adding that his rabbitry had never had any issues with any animal welfare agencies.

Eight weeks passed, and John decided to call Colorado Springs. Immediately, he was given the number to a USDA office in the nation’s capitol. He called the new number, and the lady he reached there was blunt, John said.

“She said, ‘Well, Mr. Dollarhite, I’ve got the report on my desk, and I’m just gonna tell you that, once I review it, it’s our intent to prosecute you to the maximum that we can’ and that ‘we will make an example out of you.”

When John once again tried to determine which law he and his wife had violated, he said the USDA lady replied, “We’ll forward you everything.”

“Ma’am, what law have we broken,” John said.

“Well, you sold more than $500 worth of rabbits in one calendar year,” she replied, according to John.

“Okay, what does that have to do with anything?” John countered.

The lady replied by saying there is a guideline which prohibits anyone from selling more than $500 worth of rabbits per year, John recalled, but she refused to cite any specific law and, instead, promised to send him the report containing details.

At that point, John said he called his attorney and was told not to worry about it, because he couldn’t find evidence of any law or regulation the Dollarhites had violated.

Soon after the meeting with the APHIS investigator and with the stress of the investigation hanging over their heads, John said he and his wife traded everything associated with the rabbit operation for other agricultural equipment.

At this point, some important facts about the manner in which the Dollarhites conducted their operation are worth reviewing:

The business was carefully conducted on the property of their Missouri home;

The business complied with all applicable state laws;

The bunnies were kept in large, clean and well-maintained cages; and

Not a single bunny was sold across state lines.

Recently, the Dollarhites received a “Certified Mail Return Receipt” letter (dated April 19, 2011) from the USDA informing them that they had broken the law and must pay USDA a fine of $90,643. Their crime? Violating violating 9 C.F.R. § 2.1 (a) (1): Selling more than $500 worth of rabbits in a calendar year.

At this point, Dollarvalue Rabbitry is expected to produced a $90,643 certified check to cover the fine issued by the Department of Agriculture. The USDA was, however, kind enough to provide in the letter the web address for a website — — where they could go to pay their fine by credit card by May 23, 2011. Now, that’s convenient!

Based on an average price per rabbit sold being $10.45, the fine comes out to more than $206 per rabbit. In addition, the letter contains the following statement:

APHIS laws and regulations provide for administrative and criminal penalties to enforce these regulatory requirements, including civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each of the violations documented in our investigation.

If the threat contained in the letter is to be believed, the family could be fined as much as $10,000 per rabbit beyond the first 50 bunnies that netted the family its first $500. Do the math (390 rabbits x $10,000 each) and, if they don’t pay the initial fine, they could face additional fines totaling $3.9 million.

Needless to say, the Dollarhites stopped selling rabbits in January 2010 and are considering setting up a legal defense fund.

USDA Stands Behind Hare-Raising Fine

May 19th, 2011

A real he-said-she-said battle is brewing over the matter of a family facing up to $4 million in fines for selling bunnies out of their home in Nixa, Mo.

Recently, John and Judy Dollarhite received a “Certified Mail Return Receipt” letter (dated April 19, 2011) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.  By reading the letter, they learned that the USDA was fining them $90,463 and that the fine must be paid by Monday. What prompted the fine?  According to APHIS official, they had sold more than $500 worth of bunnies in a single calendar year.

Early Thursday afternoon, I asked a USDA spokesperson in Washington, D.C., if the USDA was really going to slap these hefty fines on the DollarhitesAfter all, they had grossed only $4,600 — and netted a profit of approximately $200 — from their rabbit sales in 2009. And for what?  Violating an obscure law that they and their lawyer could not even locate as being applicable to their rabbitry.

My inquiry was passed from the USDA Headquarters to Dave Sacks, a spokesman for the agency’s subordinate Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service located in Maryland.  Beyond the salutation and opening fluff, the first pertinent paragraph of his reply appears below:

Our main focus here at USDA’s Animal Care program is to ensure that the animals covered under the federal Animal Welfare Act are being treated humanely. Animal welfare is at the heart of everything we do. So, we consider it very serious when there is an activity regulated under the Animal Welfare Act that is being conducted without a USDA license. Reason being, when individuals are licensed, USDA inspectors conduct periodic unannounced inspections of those individuals’ animals and facilities. It is during these inspections that our inspectors can see how the animals are being treated and handled. When unlicensed individuals conduct regulated activities, this hampers our ability to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and hampers our ability to ensure the welfare of their animals. If you don’t have a license, that means that we are not inspecting your facility and your animals, so we would have no idea how your animals are being treated.

Few would argue with the need for humane treatment of animals.  The Dollarhites certainly didn’t when I contacted them Thursday evening for a reaction to the USDA official’s response to my inquiry.  Issues did arise, however, when they considered what Sacks wrote in the next paragraph (below):

Mr. Dollarhite contacted our Western Regional Office on March 16, 2006, and asked for a license application kit. He noted that he was selling rabbits to pet stores. The regional office sent him an application package that same day. However, Mr. Dollarhite never applied for a USDA license. After we conducted an investigation, we concluded that he has sold 619 rabbits without a USDA license. We issued a settlement offer to Mr. Dollarhite for $90,643 on April 19, 2011. This is a settlement offer only; he is not required to pay it and is entitled to request a hearing if he chooses. It is worth noting that $90,643 is not the maximum allowable civil penalty amount we could have sought.

While John Dollarhite confirmed that he had contacted the Western Regional Office in Colorado Springs in March 2006, he said he had not requested a license application kit.  Why?  Because, at that time, he was on a fact-finding mission to learn about the requirements of processing rabbit meat.

As for the claim that he was selling rabbits to pet stores, Dollarhite said that’s patently false.

“We didn’t start selling rabbits as pets until the spring of 2008,” he said.  “Our operation up to that point involved taking rabbits to a meat processor in nearby Aurora, Mo., and then selling the vacuum-sealed packets of meat for $8 per pound.”

Finally, regarding the claim that the USDA mailed him an application package, Dollarhite said that’s not true either.

“The only piece of rabbit-related mail we’ve received from the USDA is the letter dated April 19, 2011,” he explained.

Sacks closed his message to me with the following:

USDA certainly realizes that $90,000 is a lot of money. But we’ve been called upon by Congress to enforce the Animal Welfare Act so that regulated animals are humanely cared for and treated. And the reality is that there is no way we can guarantee that this care is being provided to these animals unless all individuals conducting regulated activities are licensed.

In response, John Dollarhite reminded me of what the USDA inspector had told his wife — that the Dollarhites rabbits looked healthy and well-cared for.  Plus, he informed me of something else worth noting.

John explained that the USDA inspector who inspected his family’s Dollarvalue Rabbitry in the fall of 2009 was the same one who inspected — and gave the “USDA-Certified” label to — the rabbits at the petting zoo at Silver Dollar City.  Those rabbits, remember, were provided to the Branson theme park folks by the Dollarhites.

Finally, he told me how people in the Springfield area regarded their operation.

“The people at Silver Dollar City and Petland always said we had the best rabbits they had ever seen,” he said.  “We also had breeders from around the area come to our place and say, ‘Your cages are the best I’ve ever seen” and ‘Your rabbits are the best-looking and the best quality we’ve seen.’”

Finally, there was the man who traveled around the United States as a judge in rabbit competitions.

“He said some of our rabbits were some of the best he had ever seen,” John said.

While there might not be a way to guarantee care is being provided to animals like the ones the Dollarhites raised, John says the way they ran their small operation stands as proof that rabbits can be raised well — even by someone who doesn’t have a license from the government.


14 responses so far ↓

1 John Wilkins // May 20, 2011 at 7:56 am

$90,000 is excessive. I believe they should have this case reviewed. This is unjustified even if they did what the USDA claims. An inspection followed by an itemized list of infractions should have been offered to the Dollarhites and they should be given 90 days to comply. Then, and only then, could they justify a penalty if they failed to meet the known standards.

And if your operation is clean and the rabbits are healthy what difference does it make how many you sell as long as all applicable laws are being complied with? This stinks to high heaven.

2 Bill Onesty // May 20, 2011 at 8:17 am

I don’t care how much money is involved. The Federal Government has no jurisdiction in this matter. It is not interstate commerce. The regulation of farms should be strictly a state matter. The state of Missouri should defend them to the fullest against this encroachment of their power!

3 TJe // May 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

The fine doesn’t seem warren-ted.

4 Heidi // May 20, 2011 at 9:19 am

Well they are fining lemonade stands now..

5 Claire // May 20, 2011 at 9:19 am

That the first inspector didn’t inform them at the time of the visit that they needed a license and that they needed to stop selling rabbits until they got one, seems to me to be significant.

The USDA can’t say they don’t know to inspect the operation if it doesn’t have a license, when they showed up anyway to inspect.

If the bunnies had been mistreated even, and when corrected by the first inspector, they ignored the advice, there might be a reason for a larger fine, but that isn’t the case either.

Gov’t overeach bigtime.

6 Doug // May 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

It is nothing but a government shakedown in retaliation for not paying the licensing fee to the government.

7 Katie // May 20, 2011 at 10:08 am

So, instead of cracking down on these horrendous puppy mill breeders who lock dogs in cages with no room to run, you pick on a backyard rabbit breeder who gives dwarf rabbits large rabbit enclosures, feeds them, provides good care for them but sold too many? Dumbasses need a reality check. Do your job and find the people that are mistreating their animals, or is that too difficult for you?

8 Andy Moen // May 20, 2011 at 10:23 am

Two things are apparent here: 1) These people did not investigate any relevant laws regarding sale of live animals such as rabbits – should have done their homework first. 2) Domesticated rabbits should not be weaned prior to 8 weeks old period. But then, rabbits are almost past the “cute” stage and won’t sell. So for “profit” breeders sell this too young and they end up sickly and as “throw away” pets. One this alone, they should be in trouble. The cages they are kept in are way too small 2ft by 4 ft and 2 ft high is minimal for any rabbit – pure profit once again. And, ironically
I hope they have learned their lesson, get out of the rabbit business and are an example for others who mistreat these animals. However, the fine should be reduced as long as they don’t plan to raise anymore rabbits. They are feigning ignorance – well, yes, it was ignorant and there is no excuse for that!

9 Rita // May 20, 2011 at 10:29 am

Rabbit breeders do not care about the welfare of the rabbits since they only matter to them for the 4 to 12 weeks they have them. The cages are grossly inadequate. Rabbits are intelligent, sensitive and affectionate animals with natural requirements breeders never, ever even attempt to meet. Throw the book at these backyard breeders! They needed to be stopped and as a warning to the rest of the breeders who disregard these animals as a commodity only! This was a “rabbit mill.”

10 HiredMind // May 20, 2011 at 10:31 am

Regarding the $500 limit for exemption, that $500 must be derived from sales “to a research facility, an exhibitor, a dealer, or a pet store”. Sounds to me like the only buyer who meets this description is the petting zoo (an exhibitor) and it doesn’t sound like they sold 50 rabbits to them.

Did the Dollarhites’ make more than $500 from those sources? If not, then they should tell the USDA to shove it.

This is how the relevant licensing exception reads:
“(ii) Any person who sells or negotiates the sale or purchase of any animal except wild or exotic animals, dogs, or cats, and who derives no more than $500 gross income from the sale of such animals to a research facility, an exhibitor, a dealer, or a pet store during any calendar year and is not otherwise required to obtain a license;”

11 BobMcCarty // May 20, 2011 at 10:32 am

Rita, you didn’t read both articles, did you?

12 Kay L // May 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm

The wording makes it clear that while this is also a shakedown, it is really about power.

A license was not sought so they weren’t able to intrude = hampering their ability to “enforce the Animal Welfare Act”

So, now, its not the government’s responsibility to conduct its business, its up to you, the citizen to conduct it for them by “inviting” them in.

Power. It always boils down to power. And this federal government has too much of it.

13 BGneiser // May 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Rita and Andy, may the heavy boot of bloated and out-of-control Big Government never come down on YOUR necks. Not likely to happen for anyone living in the United States, given how rapidly it is growing. There is nothing about this story that warrants a $90,000 fine and threats of millions more for a family that already stopped raising rabbits months ago, or for that matter even if they HADN’T