Google “Dollarvalue Rabbitry” and two pages of listings—mostly anti-government conservative blogs—tell a David-and-Goliath story that’s weaving its way from Nixa throughout the blogosphere and onto local news pages.
John Dollarhite began breeding and selling rabbits about six years ago. It began innocently, when someone gave the family a rabbit.
“We got a rabbit for our son off of Freecycle,” Dollarhite said.
Freecycle.org is a global network that promotes recycling and waste reduction by offering items at no charge through local connections.
Then, Dollarhite says, one thing led to another, as it often does with rabbits, and the hobby evolved into a small business called Dollarvalue Rabbitry.
“We acquired more bunnies—it was something to teach our son (about business and responsibility),” he said.
One year, the family earned as much as $4,600 selling rabbits, he said. Their best customer was Silver Dollar City in Branson. Their profits, Dollarhite said, were reported to the Internal Revenue Service as income.
“We did report it as family income,” he said. “And we took our allowable deductions.”
And then came a visit from the government—the United States Department of Agriculture.
Dollarhite said he thinks the sale of rabbits to SDC, which is regulated by the USDA, triggered the home visit.
“(The inspector) came across an invoice (from us),” he said. “She was with the USDA and said she was doing a spot check on us.”
Dollarhite says the inspector found no violations; that the rabbits were clean, fed, watered and cared for and the cages were large enough and constructed properly.
“There were no violations,” he said.
But the Dollarhites did not have a license to sell the rabbits; and, Dollarhite said, he wasn’t aware they needed one.
“We were a breeder, not a dealer,” he said. “We were the farmer.”
At no time, Dollarhite said, did that inspector or any one else ever say they were required by law to get a license.
“She asked us if we would consider getting a license,” he said of the inspector. “Would you like to be licensed.”
She did not say it was required.
David Sacks, USDA spokesperson, said the Dollarhites were aware breeding rabbits for sale was a regulated activity that falls under regulations found in the Animal Welfare Act. And that’s why they requested information in obtaining a license.
“He requested an application license package in 2006 and we mailed him a package,” Sacks said. “And, another inspector left him another package in 2009. Those packages explain who and who doesn’t need to be licensed.”
Dollarhite said he took another call in January of last year from the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service under USDA.
“He said he wanted to meet with us,” Dollarhite said. “The guy told us (he was) just here to do an investigation.”
They allowed the investigator onto their property and said they were unaware of any potential wrongdoing.
That’s when the Dollarhites decided the rabbits weren’t worth the hassle. They took down their website, and swapped our their inventory.
“We never sold anything,” he said. “We traded everything.”
So, the family thought it was all behind them until a certified letter arrived April 19 notifying them of a $90,643 penalty for selling the regulated animals without a license.
According to the settlement agreement provided to the Dollarhites by the government, they “sold rabbits and guinea pigs (regulated animals) in commerce without the required USDA license, after being formally notified on several occasions by APHIS officials of the licensing requirement. Sales were made on various dates from April 3, 2008, through Dec. 21, 2009. During this time, there were 56 transactions for 619 regulated animals sold...”
Dollarhite denies receiving the licensing packages and said the family was never notified by APHIS of the licensing requirement.
“They sold 619 rabbits,” Sacks said. “That is a commercial business. He knew of his responsibility and ignored it.”
Sacks also said the $90,000 penalty is not a fine, but a settlement agreement. He said that settlement agreement could even be more. He also said the Dollarhites have the right to appeal the penalty.
“It is a settlement offer,” Sacks said. “(Dollarhite) can request a hearing before a USDA administrative law judge.”
Sacks said the license the Dollarhites were required to get cost $200 annually. And, he said, it is the USDA’s job to enforce the animal welfare act.
The license gives the USDA the right to do unannounced inspections on private property.
“We have a responsibility to enforce the Animal Welfare Act,” he said. “Licensed is the key. If you don’t have a license we don’t have the authority to come onto your property. That is the only way—we can’t peak through the fence (to ensure) proper nutrition and proper veterinary care. That is what the Animal Welfare Act is all about.”
Branson attorney Richard Anderson is representing the Dollarhites. Anderson refused to elaborate on the particulars of the case. He would not say what might happen if the fine was not paid by May 23, or whether there was any evidence that the government had informed Dollarhite of such dire consequences. He said he believed his client.
“In my experience John Dollarhite is a honest fellow with a good character. Whatever John Dollarhite said I would tend to believe,” he said. “I am representing him and I have a duty to do so professionally and not to provide information to the world at large.”
Sacks acknowledged that the settlement fee is a lot of money, but says enforcing the law is important.
“I know that is a lot of money, that is why we take it so seriously, “ Sacks said. “He was conducting a regulated activity without a license. When an individual applies for a license we explain what is expected. The whole reason this program exists is to ensure the welfare of the animals.”
UPDATE: USDA Spokesman David Sacks contacted the Headliner News after the print deadline with this additional statement:
"We are working out an alternative to the $90,000 fine and plan to reach out to Mr. Dollarhite over the next week to discuss. We are hopeful he’ll be amenable to discussing it with us and let us visit his facility as we work the issue out."
People supporting the Dollarhites against the USDA’s $100,000 settlement agreement scheduled a peaceful protest from 3 to 5 p.m. today, May 25, in front of the USDA’s Ozark office, 1786 S. 16th. Springfield and Branson Tea Party members are slated to participate.