March 9 (Bloomberg) -- A bug-eyed, tan-and-white Chihuahua named Axel Rose was rescued from a Missouri puppy mill recently thanks to a law passed last November.
Yet the measure, aimed at improving conditions at these notorious commercial breeders, has stirred up opponents with enough clout to stymie it. They’ve accomplished the strange trick of turning cruelty to puppies into a political issue.
Proposition B, a Missouri ballot initiative passed in November, will force many commercial breeders to improve conditions in their facilities. Two Missouri mills recently closed down, apparently in anticipation of new restrictions imposed by the initiative.
Axel Rose was among dozens of the mills’ dogs that ended up in Washington animal shelters. They were unusual in one way.
“We were expecting the worst, but these animals that came in from Missouri were in surprisingly good shape,” says Gary Weitzman, executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League shelter. “They came in tails wagging.”
Many dogs out of puppy mills are in terrible condition. Weitzman, a veterinarian, has witnessed the horrors of these places, where gum and tooth disease, eye problems and physical ailments too sickening to recount are commonplace.
Some of the Missouri dogs had been imprisoned in wire cages, not much bigger than the animal’s body, with the enclosures stacked on top of one another.
“The real tragedy is that a lot of these dogs never leave the cage,” Weitzman says. “And it’s not a nice cage.”
The Missouri initiative, backed heavily by the national and Missouri Humane Societies, will force breeders to provide their dogs with adequate living space, outside exercise areas, reasonable breaks between litters and annual medical checkups.
Looking to Repeal
Proposition B was expected to mend the problems in Missouri, which accounts for about a third of the 10,000 U.S. puppy mills. Unfortunately state lawmakers are now looking at ways to change or repeal it.
The Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association and Tea Party enthusiasts are among those seeking to change the legislation. The gist of their beef: They don’t like it when Washington interlopers tell them what to do.
Last fall, an angry harangue emerged from Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, a fixture of the John McCain election campaign who has morphed into a conservative Everyman.
Writing for biggovernment.com, he warned that puppy regulation would lead to more restrictions on raising livestock. He said the Humane Society’s real goal is to bring about “the extinction of our food industry.”
Dave Miller has a medium-sized operation in Neosho, Missouri, where he breeds Newfoundlands and other dogs. His family-run farm (which also includes 70 head of beef cattle) has 40 breeding female dogs whose puppies sell for $400 to $2,500.
“This proposition was authored by the U.S. Humane Society and the Humane Society of Missouri and they had an agenda,” Miller tells me by telephone. “As written, it was designed to put the breeders out of business.”
The new regulations would accomplish that, he says, by pricing even the responsible breeders out of the industry.
“We’d have to put in 12 new buildings, with five times the indoor space of what we have now,” Miller says. The expanded living quarters would also need heat and air conditioning to comply with the new regulations.
If Proposition B isn’t repealed or modified, Miller says he would reduce his operation to 10 breeding females -- a move that would cost two people now working for him their jobs.
These days, Miller is making frequent trips to Jefferson City, the Missouri state capital, to push for changes in the new law, and his chances look good, unfortunately.
This week, the Missouri Senate began debating changes to Proposition B. State Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey is quoted on the legislature’s website saying to reporters, “I want to see the heart of the bill left intact and that we have a strong bill that cracks down on the bad actors in the breeding industry.”
‘Will of the People’
The fight to gut the bill is a dispiriting development for those who campaigned for it.
“It’s an outrageous attempt to subvert the will of the people and to turn back the clock on dog welfare in Missouri,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the U.S.
Pacelle has seen firsthand the brutal conditions in puppy mills, much of it in the name of turning a profit.
“If they take their responsibilities seriously, they can comply with Prop B,” he says. “But many of them have made a career out of cutting corners.”
I sympathize with the Millers but Pacelle is right. If a responsible breeder cannot meet these basic standards because of cost, perhaps it is an indication that profit-driven facilities shouldn’t traffic in living beings in the first place.
If the Missouri law survives, as it should, many more refugees like Axel Rose will be looking for homes.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
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