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The Controversy Behind Puppy Mills and Kitten Mills

Puppy and kitten mills have long been the subject of heated controversy among animal lovers. These controversial mills operate as for-profit kennels, breeding puppies or kittens en masse to wholesale them to pet stores. Due to the large scale of these operations, it is not uncommon for the animals that are bred to be kept in negligent and often dangerous conditions.

In 2011, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) posted thousands of photographs of the deplorable living conditions of pets in large scale commercial breeding operations. These photos informed pet owners everywhere of the problem of puppy and kitten mills. Rather than conventional kennels or smaller breeding operations, the photos featured the emaciated animals in undersized cages at a large scale breeding operation.

During the USDA’s investigations into these operations, hundreds of animals were found with serious medical conditions that would have otherwise been ignored. Many of these animals were bred at the mill and have lived neglected and trapped for their entire lives. What’s worse is that these animals were bred to meet the demand of potential pet owners while stray animals and rescues are occupying shelters and awaiting adoption.

Current federal law requires that commercial pet breeders are licensed and that their facility and practice are to be regularly inspected. This law, the US Animal Welfare Act (AWA), has been interpreted by the USDA to exempt retail pet stores. This oversight allows puppy and kitten mills to completely circumvent regulation by selling directly to consumers. In April of 2009 the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the government agency that works with the USDA to interpret and enforce AWA, publicly admitted that this interpretation provides a “massive loophole.”

The Tides Turn

The same way that Blackfish has recently diminished demand and support for Sea World, ASPCA’s photographs have changed public sentiment about pet stores. In a poll performed by The Associated Press and Petside.com, only 14% of pet owners stated that they purchased from a pet store and only 8% stated that their next pet would come from a pet store. Additionally, this public awareness has led to grassroots movements and new anti-mill legislation at the local level.

The city of Phoenix has banned the sale of animals that have come from a mill. This means that in order to acquire animals, a store must obtain the animals from a shelter, rescue or pound; stores that procure their animals elsewhere are being threatened with a $2500 fine and up to six months in jail if they are caught. The city council hopes that this will discourage unethical breeding practices by limiting the demand for freshly bred companion animals.

Over 40 cities have passed similar legislation, with regulations ranging from the complete ban of all pet stores to restrictions on where pet stores can purchase animals. A majority of the legislation was passed in 2011 or later, indicating a rising trend. This trend has led to a massive change in policy by the USDA that is a huge victory for the ASCPA and animal lovers everywhere.

In September of 2013, the AWA's loophole was finally resolved with new legislation from the USDA. The new law requires all commercial breeders to be licensed and inspected by the USDA. However, this new legislation presents the bureaucratic challenge of enforcement. According to a 2012 study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a conservative estimate of 733,131 individual puppies were found advertised across a selection of nine websites.

Far From Over

Recently, a mill was closed in Iowa that was owned and operated by a licensed breeder. For years, the USDA had inspected her property and cited her for an ever-expanding list of violations. In spite of this record of negligence, the Pratt puppy mill shut down only after years of their egregious violations earned them a spot on the Humane Society’s list of the worst 100 puppy mills.

This indicates that even with USDA restrictions, it can be a huge struggle to enforce these restrictions and prevent abuse. Currently, USDA inspectors hold no legal authority to remove animals or close operations. Inspectors need to go through the state to file criminal charges, which takes additional time and effort.

Unfortunately, most inspectors don’t have the necessary time or freedom to file these reports due to the large quantity of necessary inspections. Between 2006 and 2008, there were a mere 100 inspectors left to do more than 15,000 inspections per year. Furthermore, the number of inspections will undoubtedly increase as the new addendum to the AWA requires even more breeders to become USDA certified. This means that a substandard breeding operation can evade both closure and retribution while their animals suffer.

Even if the USDA were to successfully shut down puppy mills, there is still the problem of what happens to the animals that are in the mill when it closes. When the Pratt puppy mill was shut down, it initially held an auction to get rid of its puppies as quickly as possible while earning more than enough money to pay for their fines and legal fees. However, this auction did not resolve the problem entirely.

A Hard Transition

After the Pratt puppy mill closed, there were 17 puppies that were not purchased left at compound where the dogs were being kept. These dogs were quarantined on the property and kept in the same deplorable conditions that shut down the mill in the first place. These conditions earned the owner, Debra Pratt, a ban from breeding or selling animals. That same ban does not prevent Pratt from owning animals, meaning that because the remaining dogs are her property, criminal charges of animal abuse would need to be processed to have them removed from her possession.

Puppies being rescued from puppy mills usually don’t have the brightest future ahead of them. The dogs that are not able to be sold, like those that remained on Pratt’s estate, are often ripe with medical problems and made unseemly by a lack of grooming and visible lacerations. With each puppy mill being shut down for neglect, there are bound to be many more animals that will face similar difficulties when searching for a new home.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that 2.7 million healthy dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year. Compare this to the 2.5 million puppies produced in a large scale breeding operation each year and the statistics reveal the iniquitous irreverence of these operations. These statistics show that for almost every animal purchased from a mill, there is another being put down in a shelter.

Even if legislation successfully deters large scale breeders from abusive practices, there are still millions of companion animals that will need to be relocated from illegitimate breeders. This truth should not discourage efforts, as preventing these operations would prevent future generations of animals from overpopulation, homelessness and euthanasia. Instead, this truth should remind us to be mindful about where we get our pets and to be aware of our community to report animals in abusive conditions.

What Else Can Be Done

Laws and regulations differ not only from state to state but also from city to city. Though the new expansion of AWA increases scrutiny from the USDA at a federal level, these mills are most easily fought with local restrictions rather than by federal authorities. Due to the USDA’s overwhelming domain and limited enforcement capability, it is in the hands of animal rights supporters and pet lovers everywhere to help regulate breeders.

Though not all large scale breeders qualify as puppy mills, it is important to report breeders that keep animals in abusive conditions. These mills cannot be shut down unless abusive conditions are first reported to authorities by a reliable witness. The definition of abusive conditions may vary depending on the area and local legislation, but a lack of clean water and fresh food, sick dogs that are not being medically treated, or a lack of adequate shelter for hazardous climates generally qualify as substandard animal care.

Once an abusive breeder has been reported, the authorities may investigate said conditions and enforce the local law of your area. There are also contacts at the HSUS and USDA that can respond to concerns if local authorities are unresponsive. Reporting these crimes is the best way to close an operation that is offering substandard care to its animals; however, it is more likely that you will come across a puppy from a mill than the mill itself.

If you purchase a sick animal from a pet store or notice that a pet store is selling animals that are sick then this might indicate that the store has purchased its animals from a puppy or kitten mill. The HSUS has a system to keep track of these pets and investigate the breeder to ensure that they are applying safe practices for their animals. Lastly, be mindful when purchasing or adopting pets. The best thing you can do is to adopt a pet from a shelter or rescue instead of purchasing your pet from a breeder.

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