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May 26, 2010

Federal Audit, Lawmakers Spotlight Puppy Mill Problems

There’s long overdue action on the issue of puppy mills, and the issue got some much-needed attention yesterday from the federal government. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and David Vitter (R-La.) took a big step in their effort to crack down on these abusive mass-breeding facilities by introducing the PUPS Act (Puppy Uniform Protection Statute, S. 3424)—legislation that would close a massive loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that currently allows large, commercial breeders who sell puppies online and directly to the public to escape licensing, regulation, and inspection. A companion bill in the House of Representatives is expected to be introduced by Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Bill Young (R-Fla.) within the next day or two.

The legislation came right on the heels of the release of a damning report by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the law enforcement arm of the agency, that criticized the USDA’s long history of lax oversight of commercial dog breeders (identified as dealers in the report) under the Animal Welfare Act. The report reviewed inspections and enforcement actions taken against dog dealers from 2006-2008 and found that USDA inspectors failed to cite or properly document inhumane treatment and brought little to no enforcement actions against violators. OIG observed horrible conditions at dog facilities inspected by the USDA, including dogs needing medical treatment, dogs covered in ticks, starving dogs who had resorted to eating dogs who had already died, and dogs who had swarms of cockroaches and insects crawling through their food bowls. The USDA responded to the violations by taking little or no enforcement action, according to the report, and even failed to confiscate suffering or dying animals.

Dogs in wire cage at Missouri puppy mill
The HSUS
Dogs at a Missouri puppy mill.

From the report: "At the re-inspection of 4,250 violators, inspectors found that 2,416 repeatedly violated AWA [the Animal Welfare Act], including some that ignored minimum care standards. Therefore, relying heavily on education for serious or repeat violators—without an appropriate level of enforcement—weakened the agency’s ability to protect the animals."

Of course, The HSUS has been saying for years that the USDA has historically allowed puppy mills to violate the law without fear of any kind of aggressive enforcement actions. Last week, I was pleased to hear the Obama administration publicly announce that the USDA would take a tougher stance on Animal Welfare Act enforcement, by conducting more inspections and imposing higher fines. We’re glad to hear it, and we're grateful to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for stepping up the enforcement actions.

The report also highlighted how some large dog dealers are escaping USDA oversight because they sell dogs over the Internet or directly to the public, and the OIG recommended legislative change to require that all applicable breeders selling through the Internet be regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA’s own interpretation of the term “retail pet store” provided these puppy millers an exemption—something battled out in court and ultimately left to the agency’s discretion. Many of the puppy mill raids The HSUS has assisted on over the last several years have been at such facilities, so we’ve seen firsthand how much this legislation is needed. The USDA has now agreed to this recommendation and we hope Congress will soon take action by passing the PUPS Act.

In response to pressure from their constituents and in the interest of addressing animal cruelty, legislators in many states have also stepped up to pass laws and regulations to protect dogs at these facilities. Just this year, Oklahoma and Iowa, the second- and third-largest puppy mill states, respectively, behind Missouri, passed legislation to crack down on puppy mills. And our efforts are moving forward in Missouri to put the issue on the ballot there this November. Not all states have laws regulating commercial dog breeders though, so it’s essential that the USDA aggressively enforce the law.

Of course, at the heart of the puppy mill issue is consumer education, something The HSUS has worked on for decades. “We only use USDA-licensed breeders” is one of the common but hollow assurances pet store staff give when pushing puppy mill puppies on the sales floor. What The HSUS has long noted is that a puppy mill inspected by the USDA is still a puppy mill. Dogs kept for breeding still suffer for years on end in tiny cages and have almost zero hope of having a loving home of their own. This point was underscored just last week on "Animal Planet Investigates: Petland," a one-hour special about The HSUS's investigation into the nation's largest retail supporter of puppy mills.

Yesterday’s report and legislative introduction should serve as a warning to all those who protect this dubious industry—from “kennel clubs” to pet stores to lobbying front groups who claim to care about purebred dog breeding, but in fact only care about how much money they can make peddling loads of puppies. Your days of abusing dogs for profit while snubbing the laws of this country and many states are coming to an end.

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