– The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Federal investigators have uncovered grisly conditions at puppy mills around the country where dogs were infested with ticks, living with gaping wounds and in pools of feces, according to a disturbing new report that placed the blame on lax enforcement.

Investigators say the Department of Agriculture agency in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act often ignores repeat violations, waives penalties and doesn’t adequately document inhumane treatment of dogs.

In one case cited by the department’s inspector general, 27 dogs died at an Oklahoma breeding facility after inspectors had visited the facility several times and cited it for violations.

The review, conducted between 2006 and 2008, found more than half of those large kennels — known as puppy mills — had already been cited for violations flouted the law again.

The report recommends that the animal care unit at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service immediately confiscate animals that are dying or seriously suffering, and better train its inspectors to document, report and penalize wrongdoing.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday the department takes the report seriously and will move to immediately improve enforcement, penalties and inspector training. He noted the investigation was conducted before his time in office and called it troubling.

“USDA will reinforce its efforts under its animal welfare responsibilities, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders and greater consistent action to strongly enforce the law,” he said.

The investigators visited 68 dog breeders and dog brokers in eight states that had been cited for at least one violation in the previous three years.

On those visits, they found that first-time violators were rarely penalized, even for more serious violations, and repeat offenders were often let off the hook as well.

The agency also gave some breeders a second chance to correct their actions even when they found animals dying or suffering, delaying confiscation of the animals.

The agency placed too much emphasis on educating the violators instead of penalizing them, the report added.