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January 18, 2011

The People Have Spoken

Last week, I spent a couple of days in Missouri, speaking to lawmakers about the merits of Prop B — the ballot measure approved by voters in November 2010 that provides stronger humane standards for the care of dogs on large-scale dog-breeding operations. Even though voters approved this anti-puppy mill measure just two months ago, there have been eight bills introduced in Jefferson City to gut or repeal Prop B (with more on the way). I traveled to the state capitol to urge lawmakers to respect the will of the people — the very same people who elect the governor, senators, and representatives in the state.

Missouri puppy mill dog 
The HSUS
A dog in the snow at a Missouri puppy mill in 2010.

It’s not the first time we’ve dealt with an attempt by Missouri lawmakers to substitute their way of thinking for that of the people. In 1998, at the urging of HSUS, voters outlawed cockfighting in the Show-Me State, which was one of just five states at the time to have legal cockfighting. Right after the election, just as with Prop B now, there was a raft of bills introduced to undo the anti-cockfighting law, principally from legislators representing rural areas where a majority of people voted against the anti-cockfighting initiative. In the end, those repeal efforts were turned back, and the anti-cockfighting law has succeeded in dramatically reducing the prevalence of this barbaric activity in Missouri. 

If lawmakers had supported efforts to outlaw cockfighting or impose strong standards for the care of dogs on puppy mills, HSUS and its allies would have never needed to join concerned Missourians conduct a ballot initiative. We did it as a last resort precisely because lawmakers would not confront these two major animal welfare problems in the state. And that’s exactly why the right to conduct initiatives exists in the Missouri Constitution – as a safety valve when lawmakers bow to special interests and don’t act consistently with the wishes of the people. In this case, Missouri has perhaps 3,000 large dog-breeding operations, and they have stymied efforts for decades to have reasonable standards of care.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture has stepped up its work and begun to address the problem of unlicensed breeders, and has been shutting some of them down. We applaud those efforts.

But there is a deeper, underlying problem that Prop B sought to correct. The existing dog-breeding regulations, in place since 1992, are inadequate. For instance, current law allows stacking of dogs in small wire cages. It does not require a veterinary examination of dogs. In some circumstances, it allows dogs to be outside in the freezing cold (when I was in Jefferson City, the high one day was 5 degrees Fahrenheit). It does not require that the animals ever get out of their cages. In fact, if a dog is 24 inches long, the current law requires that the cage be only 30 inches long.

Do those standards sound adequate? They do not. And that’s precisely why The HSUS and other organizations pushed to qualify Prop B, and it’s why about 1 million Missouri voters favored the measure.

Now, even before the measure has taken effect (breeders have one year to come into compliance), some lawmakers are trying to undo it. That subverts the will of the people, and it’s wrong.

Prop B passed statewide, after proponents and opponents made their arguments. The winning side in an initiative gets to see the law implemented, presuming there are no constitutional problems with the measure. That’s the way our system works. You have an election, and there is a winner. You don’t bellyache after an election and immediately attempt to undo it, like some banana republic government in some other part of the world. In the United States, we respect elections. Elections mean something. The rule of law means something.

Prop B won by a decisive margin. It passed in a majority of state Senate, state House, and Congressional districts. It is time for commercial dog breeders to heed the message, and come into compliance with the law. And lawmakers, themselves elected by the citizens of Missouri, should heed the message of the electorate.

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