The adorable puppies advertised for sale online often came from hell, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Dante-like, wants to take a tour.
Until now, puppy mills that sell their “product” online haven’t had to open their doors to scrutiny because of a legal loophole that classified them as retail pet stores rather than wholesale breeders, given that they sell directly to pet owners. The mills that sell to stores instead must pass government inspections to earn a license, without which they can’t operate.
The thinking behind letting retail pet stores coast without permits is that customers can see the state of affairs in the store and won’t buy animals there if they aren’t in good condition. In my experience this gets things exactly backwards. Animal lovers who see bad conditions in stores sometimes buy the pets to get them out of there.
In any case, the USDA had classified mills that sell directly to customers online as retail stores, but their rationale for not making pet stores get licenses never made sense for puppy mills. Online buyers could not see how the furry babies they bought were created and raised, or how their mothers were treated. The USDA has realized its mistake and now will look around the breeders’ facilities itself. Alternatively, breeders can choose to skip the license and open their doors directly to the public.
The USDA estimates that the new rule will affect up to 4,640 dog breeders, about 325 cat breeders, and up to 75 rabbit breeders, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. “Small-size breeders have lobbied against the changes,” complaining that government regulation may put them out of business. But the new rule exempts business-owners who keep no more than four breeding mothers, as they are considered hobbyists. I’m not sure which is more troubling: bringing new lives into being for their own profit or for one’s own amusement.
Though this change in the law is progress, as evidenced by the coalition of animal protection organizations that instigated and pushed for it, it will not fix the problem of abusive, neglectful pet mills. Government oversight of wholesale breeders has not stopped egregious cruelty in the past. In fact, the change in rules was motivated in part by an Inspector General report, which I described in “Puppy Torturers Out of Business in L.A.,” finding horrific conditions, injuries and diseases in puppy mills that had passed USDA inspections or incurred only minimal penalties.
Considering its failure to enforce animal welfare laws in the past, I don’t understand how the USDA concluded that sending its inspectors to visit more mills would help anyone, including the dogs, cats and rabbits.
The United Kingdom is also looking at online animal sales. The government there is considering requiring websites that publish offers to sell or barter an animal to take a few precautions, like posting only advertisements that include a recent photograph of the animal. It seems like the primary goal of the organization pushing for new rules, the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG), is protecting consumers from winding up with a lemon of a pet. The Guardian reports that PAAG’s chairperson said, “Every day we hear from people who have bought an animal online only for it to fall sick or die soon after.”
The USDA has the same consumer protection goal, though it is also supposed to protect animals. This is why retail pet stores don’t need licenses or USDA inspections — if shoppers buy in-store, they can often tell whether their prospective purchase is ill or injured.
If only those puppy mill owners were right that submitting to inspections and paying $750 or less for a license would put them out of business. A group of Chicago children understands why this would be a fantastic development for animals traditionally kept as companions: the 4th graders are calling on Chicago to ban puppy mills because thousands of dogs die in shelters while people who might otherwise adopt them fork money over to breeders instead.
Join these wise and compassionate kids in their call for an end to puppy mills by signing their petition to ban them in Chicago.
Pictured above: Some Long Island fifth graders also decided to fight puppy mills by joining the Humane Society of the United States‘ campaign to do away with them.
Photo credit: Thinkstock