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April 01, 2009

Battling to Breed Better Laws

Today, Oregon’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian, endorsed legislation, H.B. 2470, to crack down on puppy mills by setting standards for the care of dogs used for commercial production and capping the number of sexually intact dogs a puppy mill operator can maintain at 50. It’s a moderate bill, and similar to those in more than 25 other states. The provisions vary by state, but all these bills are grounded on the principle that the nation has a serious puppy mill problem and that government must step in and impose some limits to protect helpless creatures.

Two Yorkies rescued from Arkansas puppy mill
© The HSUS
Two dogs rescued from an Arkansas puppy mill in March.

In the last few months, The HSUS and law enforcement officials have raided nine puppy mills, and rescued dogs from deplorable mistreatment. We found animals near starvation, animals with parasites and matted fur, animals living in filth with an ammonia smell that burned the lungs of our rescue teams, and animals in overcrowded conditions without any ability to exercise or receive loving attention. These were factory farms for dogs, and the puppies were nothing but a cash crop. The millers would minimize their expenses by depriving the dogs of any semblance of a decent life.

In addition to the raids, we’ve conducted a series of investigations of pet stores, including Petland, documenting the flow of dogs from Midwest-based puppy mills to pet stores, to pinpoint the key links in the chain of sale to an unsuspecting public. We’ve looked into auctions where puppy millers sell mother dogs after they are done with them, extending their miserable exploitation as breeders. And we’ve done investigations that have revealed a massive undercounting of commercial puppy mill operations. There are perhaps more than 10,000 mills in the nation, with Missouri accounting for more than 3,000, and then Oklahoma and Iowa the next biggest.

Last year, I appeared with Bill Smith of Main Line Animal Rescue of Pennsylvania on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," demonstrating to the nation that the puppy mill industry is thriving and dogs are being abused. We followed up by working together, along with the ASPCA, on legislation to crack down on puppy mill operations in Pennsylvania—“the puppy mill capitol of the East.”

But despite overwhelming evidence of abuse, including the mass shooting of dogs by puppy mill operators in the state, we faced stiff opposition from dog breeders, and not just the organized puppy mill industry. Many rank-and-file breeders, along with the NRA and others, fought this legislation. Thanks to determined efforts by leaders in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and the unflinching and active support of Gov. Ed Rendell and his Department of Agriculture, we got legislation enacted.

This year, with all of the awareness and exposés of puppy mill abuses, there are more reform efforts than ever in the states—from Maine to California, and more than half the states in between. And again, what we get is vitriol and antagonism from zealous dog breeders, silence or opposition from the American Kennel Club on the legislation, and even resistance from a few state veterinary medical organizations.

Dog on wire floor in W.Va. puppy mill
© The HSUS
Nearly 1,000 dogs were at this W.Va. mill.

I understand when cockfighters or bear baiters attack HSUS-backed legislation, spreading their invective and outright falsehoods. They are generally not good citizens, and their ideas have long been discredited. But there is a class of commercial dog breeders out there—apparently, a good number of them who are not even high-volume puppy mills—who raise their voices loudly against any attempt to impose reasonable standards of care for dogs and limits on how large these operations can be. Since they can hardly attack the substance of the legislation—because the provisions are so obviously rational (such as giving the animals an opportunity to exercise, or not forcing them to live on wire flooring their entire lives)—they attack The HSUS, almost unable to restrain themselves. They spew knowingly false things about The HSUS wanting to ban all pet ownership. In the past, in my blog and elsewhere, I’ve addressed these prevarications, where they take one quote completely out of context from 15 or 20 years ago, and treat that fragmented comment as doctrine, even though there are decades of public statements and action on my part and that of my colleagues that unmistakably celebrate the human-animal bond and The HSUS’s vigorous support of pet keeping.

Not only is pet keeping a birthright and bedrock principle of The HSUS, but we actively support responsible breeding. We always advocate that would-be pet owners go to shelters or breed rescue groups to get a life-long companion, but we ask those who do not to please follow specific guidelines in purchasing a pet from a breeder. In fact, we are about to launch an HSUS Breeders’ Advisory Group, comprised of long-time dog breeders who care about the welfare of dogs and support reasonable limits on the conduct of commercial breeders.

The opponents of any and all reform efforts—led by Patti Strand, a board member of the American Kennel Club and a founder of an organization called the National Animal Interest Alliance (supported by the full gamut of fur retailers, trophy hunters, and other animal-abuse industries)—never propose anything positive. They are just naysayers and knee-jerk opponents, and they just want to tear down any law to help animals. They don’t advance reform ideas of their own, because the fact is they want no laws to protect animals. In some cases, it’s because they operate under the assumption that there’s just no problem, or the ludicrous notion that passing a piecemeal reform will inevitably lead to a ban on all breeding. In other cases, it’s simple self-delusion or hatred of government regulation.

In the face of these desperate and malicious tactics, we will only step up our efforts. We’ll put more resources into the fight, knowing more than ever that we are on the side of right and that God’s creatures need us to stand up for them more than ever.

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