Pet Overpopulation, Puppy Mills, and Lessons from Proposition B

I was sitting on a panel discussion during the Building a No Kill South Florida conference this past weekend in Ft. Lauderdale when the panel was asked the following question: “Given that pet overpopulation is a myth, should we still fight to stop pet stores from selling puppies?”

My answer was “Yes.” Because even if every shelter embraced the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services that make it possible, even if no dog or puppy was killed in a shelter again, we’d still want to close down puppy mills. You don’t have to believe in or perpetuate the lie of pet overpopulation to work on efforts to curtail harm to dogs in puppy mills. Puppy mills fuel inbreeding, provide minimal to no veterinary care, lack of adequate food and shelter, lack of human socialization, overcrowded cages, and cause neglect, abuse, and the killing of animals when they are no longer profitable. That is a distinct and separate harm from the fact that shelters are needlessly killing them.

The animal protection movement is a wide and varied field. While some of us are focused on stopping “shelter” abuse/killing, others of us are focused on stopping puppy mill abuse/killing, and still others are working in other areas, we are all working to prevent harm to dogs (and other animals).

True dog lovers embrace the No Kill philosophy because they want to prevent harm to dogs, such as their systematic slaughter in shelters. True dog lovers also want to shut down the puppy mill trade because they want to prevent harm to dogs, such as their systematic abuse. That is ethically consistent. To claim to want to shut down puppy mills, but to ignore or fight reform efforts to stop shelter neglect, abuse, and killing (as groups like HSUS and PETA do) is not only ethically inconsistent, it is morally bankrupt. Neglect is neglect, abuse is abuse, killing is killing regardless of by whose hand that neglect, abuse, and killing is done. To look the other way at one because that neglect, abuse, and killing is done by “friends,” “colleagues,” or simply because the perpetrators call themselves a “humane society” is indefensible.

So my answer was not only “Yes,” it was a resounding “Yes.”   We must close down puppy mills. And we must do so, even though pet overpopulation is a myth and we could—and should—be a No Kill nation today. So, how do we do that?

If you go to the websites of the large national organizations, they’ll tell you what they are doing, but to find out what you can do, it wouldn’t be obvious beyond not buying from a pet store, signing a pledge, and sending them money. These organizations have built a dependency model where you give them money and they promise to take care of things, rather than empowering the grassroots to actually go out and solve the problem. But if signing a pledge that does nothing but earn you future solicitations for money from these groups isn’t your idea of effective activism, how do you wage a campaign to shut down puppy mills in your community or state?

First, we must engage in community education and protest, a simple but powerful exercise of our constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. People love dogs and want to do right by them.   Tell them the truth at the point of sale, in front of the pet stores, and give them alternatives. This is the underlying philosophy behind the No Kill movement and it applies here as well: make it easy for people to do the right thing, and they will.

Second, we must expose these organizations for what they really are. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports of these facilities are available through public disclosure laws. The USDA now has a searchable database where you can download the inspection reports as PDF documents and post them to your website. When people do searches for breeders in your area, they will find the reports and see the kinds of neglect and cruelty that go on there.

Third, we can close down markets through legislation that prohibits puppy mill dogs from being sold either at pet stores or online, with incentives such as tax breaks for pet stores which open their facilities to the adoption of rescue and shelter animals. Several cities, such as West Hollywood and Austin, have already done that. While we hope this will increase local adoptions, we should do this to shut down the puppy mill trade even if it doesn’t. Because let’s be absolutely clear about this: even if a city bans the sale of puppy mill dogs from pet stores, there is no guarantee that shelter deaths will be reduced if shelters are still run by lazy and inept directors whose underperforming staff continue to neglect, abuse, and needlessly kill dogs and puppies. To adopt more animals, shelter directors have to want to do so and all the evidence clearly demonstrates that far too few of them actually do. They have to work with volunteers and rescue groups, they have to have public access hours, good customer service, and a proactive marketing campaign—simple common sense alternatives to killing too many shelter directors simply refuse to implement.

Fourth, when we work to reform local shelters, we are also working to impact the puppy mill trade. When shelters turn away good homes because of poor customer service or arbitrary rules, we fuel the pet shop trade. Moreover, when shelters go head to head with the competition, they win. During the 1990s, at the height of its adoption success and popularity, the San Francisco SPCA had seven offsite adoption locations throughout the city seven days a week. Consequently, the number of pet stores which sold puppies was reduced to zero. They simply could not effectively compete. As I write in Redemption,

[T]he more animals dying in a given community (which traditionalists claim means lack of homes), the greater number of pet stores that sell dogs and cats (which shows homes readily available). Generally, pet stores succeed when a shelter is not meeting market demand or competing effectively, and because animal lovers do not want to go into a shelter that kills the vast majority of the animals:

Fifth, we can file civil lawsuits and push for criminal prosecution. A panel on “Litigating an End to Puppy Mills” at No Kill Conference 2009 in Washington DC showed that there are several potential causes of legal action against puppy mills including land use, environmental impact, and fraud, among other civil (and criminal) statutes.

And sixth, we can attempt to regulate and/or eliminate puppy mills directly through legislation, as several states have done. But we also need to follow up with enforcement of whatever laws are passed, as that has proven to be a challenge because government agriculture agencies responsible for oversight are often in league with those they are suppose to regulate and fail to follow through on enforcement. According to Missouri dog advocate Brent Toellner,

According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are 1,525 licensed commercial breeders in the state—nearly [three times] more than any other state.   The rest: are unlicensed.   In other words, Missouri could cut in half the number of ‘puppy mills’ just by closing down all of the unlicensed operations in the state.

Unfortunately, one of the big reasons we are unable to close down these operations is due to a severe lack of state inspectors.   As of right now, the state only has 13 licensed inspectors—who not only have to inspect all of the licensed operations, but also are charged with identifying and closing down unlicensed operations.   There are 120 unlicensed operations per state official assigned to close them down—and another 120 that they have to actually inspect each year.

Protest, educate, litigate, legislate, push for enforcement, and reform the shelter. And oh yeah, don’t buy from a pet store, sign my pledge, and send me money. (Just kidding.)

Enter Proposition B: The Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act

On November 2, Missourians will go to the polls to determine the fate of Proposition B, the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act, a voter initiative supported by a whole host of organizations, but primarily spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States. Among other things, the bill will require commercial breeders to provide each dog with sufficient food and clean water, necessary veterinary care, housing, sufficient space, regular exercise, and limits on how many times per year a dog can be bred.

If I lived in Missouri, I would vote “Yes.” If you live in Missouri, you should vote “Yes.” But Proposition B is not without its problems, and we need to heed those lessons as there is still time to mitigate the initial unintended harm and so that, going forward, anti-puppy mill crusaders do not make the same mistakes.

The Politics

The average dog lover would be shocked and appalled that the provisions of Proposition B are necessary and not already being enforced. Nonetheless, the opposition is using the support of groups like the Humane Society of the United States to claim this is part of a radical animal rights agenda. For example, the Tea Party has seized on this claim to urge a “No” vote. But Proposition B is not “radical animal rights” legislation.

From an animal rights standpoint, the bill leaves much to be desired. It continues the breeding, buying, and selling of dogs. It specifically excludes dogs in animal research labs. It excludes breeding operations who sell “hunting dogs.” And it excludes animal shelters, even though dogs in shelters are often also kept in deplorable conditions by equally unsavory individuals. I don’t mention these realities to attack the bill. This is the nature of political reform. And it is the nature of joining coalitions where members agree on the puppy mill issue, but disagree on others. Moreover, HSUS and its coalition partners may not, and in some cases do not, agree with those other animal rights issues, but even if they did, it could impact Proposition B’s prospects for passing at this time in history.*

In other words, even if you agree with these animal rights principles, Proposition B is still worthy of support as all or nothing often means nothing for the animals. Compromises must often be made to achieve piecemeal success which can be built on over time. Or, as Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist once said, the state can tackle evil one at a time. For example, I would support laws banning the killing of animals in shelters altogether. But given tremendous opposition from the shelter killing industry, and the support of that industry by powerful groups like (ironically) the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, and Best Friends, local and state governments are not willing to do that at this time in history, so I work on legislation like the Hayden Law and Assembly Member Micah Kellner’s rescue access bill in New York State to reduce the number killed. That is the nature of the political process. I only mention it because it shows how mischaracterized the law has been by Joe the Plumber and his band of misguided, mean-spirited, uneducated wing nuts.

Some dog advocates in Missouri are, however, rightfully concerned that the proposition is poorly written (e.g., can more than one “business” be under the same roof, each with their own maximum number of dogs?) and argue that the bill could have been made much stronger without reducing its chance of being approved. Given that the law was part of an initiative process and not legislative compromise, there was little reason to give up so much from the very beginning. And given that the opposition was going to label this as radical and extreme no matter what it actually did, why not write the strongest possible law? HSUS initiatives in other states banning battery cages for chickens, ending bear baiting, and banning gestation crates for pigs (all of which I support) have been tremendously successful and people do not have personal relationships with chickens, bears, and pigs. Why wouldn’t people support stronger dog protection laws when they consider dogs to be cherished members of their families? Why compromise right out of the gate?

The Initial Effects

Whenever you impose a limit on the number of dogs a facility can have, as Proposition B does and should, the question becomes “What will happen to the dogs above the limit?” This is very foreseeable and begs the question of what contingencies are in place to make sure those dogs do not suffer further abuse or death?

Tragically, there is a very disturbing lack of interest on the part of HSUS to save dogs who may end up in kill shelters and pounds, sold at auction, or simply killed outright throughout Missouri as puppy millers reduce their numbers to comply with the 50-dog limit when Proposition B passes. If you really care about dogs, if you really want to protect them from harm and from killing, wouldn’t you also put some resources and thought into mitigating the killing that will arise?

According to Kansas City Dog Advocates, HSUS has not prepared for and does not appear willing to set money aside for that scenario. In an e-mail to HSUS’ Proposition B campaign manager, KCDA asks,

If this passes how much money has been set aside : to re-home the potentially thousands of dogs due to the 50 dog limit being imposed? What plans are being made to make sure they’re not merely killed as there isn’t anything in the ballot language to keep people from just killing the extra dogs?

According to HSUS’ Proposition B campaign manager, HSUS

Will try to convince puppy millers to: a) spay or neuter some of the breeding dogs as that would help to bring the facilities into compliance with the breeding dog cap in Prop B, or b) relinquish the dogs to a humane organization rather than killing them or auctioning them off as is often done now.

Spit take!

HSUS will try and convince people who exploit and neglect dogs for profit to spay them and turn them into pets?

In other words, there is no plan. On the one hand, HSUS admits we need a law to get them to stop abusing animals in order to maximize profits. On the other, they claim that puppy millers are going to voluntarily spay/neuter dogs and spend money on their lifetime care without any profit in it. That is an exercise in sheer self-delusion at best, and an intentional misrepresentation at worst. Plan B, according to HSUS, means the dogs will go to “a humane organization” which simply means a Missouri kill shelter. Either way, the dogs are dead.

The real answer: not HSUS’ problem. Historically, HSUS has a disturbing pattern of raising money on an issue, and immediately moving on, just as they did when they raised $30 million on Hurricane Katrina rescue, spent $4 million, shipped the animals off to kill shelters, announced “Mission: Accomplished,” and went   home $26 million richer with two criminal investigations on their fundraising practices in their wake.

KCDA’s effort to mitigate any adverse impact is crucial to reducing harm even while efforts to pass laws like Proposition B are supported. Because if you truly love dogs, you plan on voting for Proposition B, even as you wish a group that was fully committed to the dogs wrote it, made it as strong as possible, closed the loopholes, made it illegal for puppy mills to simply kill dogs, auction them off, or dump them in kill shelters, and were prepared to spend the millions they raise on it on dealing with any unintended consequences, such as an initial upsurge in killing. (Wayne, are you listening?)

Going Forward

In the end, there is no possibility of amendment now that Proposition B has been certified for the ballot, and it will face either an up or down vote. And Proposition B deserves a “yes” vote. But let’s be absolutely clear. Going forward, we need groups which are more committed to the best interests of animals than HSUS (or a more committed HSUS) taking the lead on issues like this. And we need local and other national groups to act less like simpleton cheerleaders of HSUS and more like what they should be—groups whose mission is to advocate for dogs. Surely, they could have demanded more from HSUS. Surely, they could have tightened up the language. Surely, local groups could have insisted on a share of HSUS’ fundraising on this issue and their assistance to mitigate the unintended but very real and immediate danger this Proposition B creates for dogs over the maximum limit of 50.

How about HSUS taking some of its $110 million annual budget (of which only ½ of one percent goes to shelters), ASPCA taking some of its $120 million in annual revenues, and Best Friends taking some of its $40 million per year it takes in to rescue only 600 animals per year (at a whopping $70,000 each) and actually use that money to help these dogs? How about they combine resources to rescue the dogs at risk for being killed?

In fact, that is exactly what could have been done from the beginning, what (other than changes to the proposition language) could still be done, and what should be done. If HSUS and others fully commit resources and energy into creating a safety net for dogs currently in puppy mills who will be discarded when Proposition B passes, any potential downsides resulting from this legislation would be eliminated. And when Missourian dog lovers vote “Yes,” as they should, they could do so with a clear conscience.

Join the discussion this Sunday at 12 pm PST on the Animal Wise Radio network:


* In truth, I believe people are ready for laws banning puppy mills altogether and that would make sense, so long as we do not inadvertently open up markets to puppy mills from places like China, where medieval levels of barbarity would likely be the norm and they would remain out of regulatory reach.