CHATFIELD, Minn. A Minnesota ranch that raises chinchillas for pets and for use in medical research faces potential disciplinary action from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

The USDA filed a complaint against Moulton Chinchilla Ranch, on the outskirts of Chatfield, Minn., in November 2018, claiming that its owner, Dan Moulton of Rochester, "willfully violated" the act. It seeks to rescind the ranch's operating license.

Moulton responded to the complaint, and a civil trial pitting the USDA against Moulton is to begin in July.

“I denied the complaint and also objected to the behavior of the USDA,” Moulton said.

The Animal Welfare Act was placed into law in 1966 and established requirements concerning the transportation, sale and handling of certain animals, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website.

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In the complaint, the USDA cites nearly 90 violations from inspection reports dating from 2013 to 2017. Moulton said he’s filed numerous responses and appeals to the citations.

The violations ranged from failing to seek veterinary care for chinchillas with open wounds and sores, to chinchillas unable to open their eyes due to swelling and “crusty” material.

The complaint also listed the ranch’s enclosures as violating regulations. A 2014 inspection found the decomposing body of a deceased newborn chinchilla under an enclosure and buried in waste. The ranch has about 1,000 chinchillas.

Several USDA “focused inspections,” in which the USDA comes to a property to inspect a prior citation, showed Moulton corrected or addressed some of the areas in those citations.

“The USDA and I have been at odds with each other since 2014,” Moulton said. “It’s the same veterinarian … I don’t know why. I like him and I think he likes me, but I’m not sure what’s going on.”

The Moulton Chinchilla Ranch near Chatfield June 11, 2021. (Emily Cutts / ecutts@postbulletin.com)
The Moulton Chinchilla Ranch near Chatfield June 11, 2021. (Emily Cutts / ecutts@postbulletin.com)

USDA inspection reports since the complaint, however, continued to show chinchillas in the ranch suffering from eye conditions, eroding skin and open lesions. Focused inspections showed the chinchillas were later treated.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization has been calling for the ranch’s closure after an undercover investigation, and actress Angelica Huston sent a letter to the USDA also calling for the ranch to be seized.

“The record of violations of federal law there is astounding,” PETA Vice President Dan Paden said.

PETA was put on to the ranch in late summer of 2020 and sent someone undercover to it in October.

The person left the ranch a few months later with documents he’d taken from Moulton, and with a small number of chinchillas, Moulton said.

PETA published the findings from its investigation in February.

Moulton said the chinchillas the PETA investigator claimed were being mistreated were receiving care.

“What they have done is they have found animals that need treatment and are getting treatment, but they forget to tell everybody that the animals were getting treatment,” Moulton said.

Paden said PETA initiated a criminal investigation into the chinchilla ranch in December 2020 when the organization applied for a search warrant of the ranch. The state of Minnesota allows for citizens to apply for a search warrant if they have knowledge of suspected animal cruelty.

PETA did so and presented its findings and evidence to the court, including the USDA citations for Animal Welfare Act violations. The judge granted the search warrant and order for a search warrant and investigation into the ranch.

Paden said the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office conducted the search warrant and a criminal investigation is underway with the ranch.

Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson declined to comment if a search warrant was enacted on the property and whether there is an active criminal case against the Moulton. Paden said the case is currently sealed.