It started out as a hobby, a way for the Dollarhite family in Dixa, Mo., to teach a teenage son responsibility. Like a lemonade stand.
But now, selling a few hundred rabbits over two years has provoked the heavy hand of the federal government to the tune of a $90,643 fine. The fine was levied more than a year after authorities contacted family members, prompting them to immediately halt their part-time business and liquidate their equipment.
The Dollarhite’s story, originally picked up by local Missouri blogger Bob McCarthy, has turned into a call to arms for critics of the government’s reach and now has both Democratic and Republican lawmakers vowing to intervene.
John and Judy Dollarhite began selling rabbit meat by the pound in 2006, and as pets to neighbors and friends in 2008.
Raised on the three-acre lot on which their home sits, the rabbits were heralded by local experts for their quality and kept in pristine condition.
When a local pet store asked them to supply their pet rabbits, the Dollarhites had no idea they would be running afoul of an obscure federal regulation that prohibits selling more than $500 worth of rabbits to a pet store without a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under the law, pet stores are exempt from regulation.
By by selling to pet stores for resale, the humble Dollarhites became “wholesale breeders of pet animals,” said Dave Sacks, a spokesman for USDA who defended the fine, even while admitting it “looks curious” to the average person.
That’s especially so since the Dollarhites face no accusation they mistreated any animals. Instead, they committed what’s called in regulatory parlance a “paperwork violation” under the Animal Welfare Act, a 1966 law intended to prevent the abuse of animals.
The fine is part of a campaign to step up enforcement of the law that has included levying fines on magicians who use rabbits in magic hat tricks. An Inspector General report prompted increased enforcement, Sacks said.
In an interview, Judy Dollarhite, who said she “passionately” voted for Ross Perot in the 1990s, told of her interactions with government bureaucrats that sound like they came from a libertarian’s nightmare.
Blissly ignorant about the licensing requirement, a USDA inspector arrived unannounced in November 2009 at the Dollarhites’ home. The inspector had viewed invoices at a pet store that was purchasing the rabbits, helping her track down the family’s home.