Washington Post: We all hate puppy mills. States are finally taking action

Originally published in Washington Post

While political junkies obsessed over the results of the New Hampshire primaries, dog lovers obsessed Tuesday night over an even more urgent question: Who would win Best in Show at the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show? It was clear the crowd favored Daniel, a comely purebred golden retriever. Still, dog lovers everywhere went on to embrace the ultimate winner, Siba, a stately and gorgeous black standard poodle.

But if you want to buy a similar dog, it’s getting increasingly hard to purchase one from a pet store. A growing number of cities and states have either banned, or are in the process of banning, the sale of commercially bred dogs and cats at retail establishments. At the beginning of 2016, about 100 U.S. cities had forbidden them, but the number has approximately tripled since then. States are also getting in on it: California, Maryland and Maine no longer allow such sales.

The movement goes back more than a decade — Albuquerque was the first major city to pass such a law, in 2006 — but it’s picked up steam since President Trump’s election. There’s a reason for that.


Lackadaisical in the best of circumstances, federal oversight of the notoriously abusive puppy mill and animal breeding industries deteriorated dramatically since Trump (a man who routinely insults opponents by comparing them to dogs) took office. Shortly after his swearing-in, the Agriculture Department’s animal welfare database went offline. (The site previously tracked inspection reports and violations at commercial pet-breeding facilities, and after an uproar, some online access was restored. The USDA claimed access was restricted because of a lawsuit.)


Disciplinary actions are down, too: The Post reported late last year that the number of citations issued by the department to breeders — along with zoos, circuses and research labs — declined by two-thirds between 2016 and 2018. This matters, because large-scale commercial breeding of dogs and other animals is often accompanied by extreme abuse.

But Trump’s radical regulatory actions collide with the ongoing upgrade to the status of animals — especially dogs — in our personal lives. Emotional support animals on airlines are the tip of the iceberg: States are passing laws permitting everything from dogs on restaurant patios to their burial next to their owners in graveyards.


The shift is so incredible, it’s overriding traditional political divides. Republicans’ traditional concern for small business? Not always here. Signing Maryland’s ban on puppy-mill sales in pet stores, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said, “There are about seven pet stores in Maryland that might be affected, but there are thousands of puppies.” And the full USDA info should also be back online soon — Congress demanded that as part of recent omnibus legislation.


Today there are two bipartisan bills in Congress demanding increased regulation of large-scale animal breeding facilities. The WOOF! Act would put an end to breeders with multiple violations from re-registering their operation under a different individual but at the same address. The Puppy Protection Act would significantly heighten the care animals receive at breeding facilities, as well as require breeders to test their breeding stock for hereditary conditions.


But the legislation is unlikely to go anywhere, observers say. Instead, the USDA — bowing to public pressure — is expected to release new regulations offering incremental improvements: Puppy-mill dogs would need to receive an annual vet exam, for example. (How inadequate is this? First daughter-in-law Lara Trump, hardly a pro-regulation champion, teamed up with conservative firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Republican lobbyist Pam Bondi to push for improvements.)

The lack of interest from the top leaves states and cities in the position of attempting to tackle puppy mills themselves — much as they have taken on everything from raising the minimum wage to tightening gun regulations.

Before Trump entered the White House, two states — Arizona and Ohio — stepped in to restore the rights of pet stores to sell puppy-mill dogs. But since then, efforts to do so have faltered in states ranging from Florida to Michigan, where former Republican governor Rick Snyder vetoed a similar effort as one of his last acts in office before leaving in 2018. New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Wisconsin are now also considering legislation that would end the sale of puppy-mill dogs. (Ohio, a major player in the puppy business, bowed to public pressure and beefed up kennel regulations in 2018, making them significantly tougher than the federal standard.)

“In the ideal world, the federal government would do their job and regulate the breeders,” New York state Sen. Mike Gianaris, who is sponsoring his state’s legislation, told me this week. “Many of the puppy mills are located outside our jurisdiction. So what we can do is cut off the supply chain and regulate at the breeder level.”


There is no question that the regulations are taking a bite out of the pet breeding industrial complex. According to the Omaha World Herald, the number of licensed commercial breeders in Nebraska — one of the largest states for puppy mills — fell by a third between June of 2018 and June of 2019, something the industry attributes to a combination of increased in-state regulations and the dwindling commercial store market.


But never underestimate capitalism. Much the way California’s AB5, which cracks down on employee misclassification, also caused companies to look to workers in other states when they could, breeders are already figuring out ways around the rule. In California, for instance, which still permits in-store sales of dogs obtained by rescue groups, investigations have uncovered dealers who’ve rebranded themselves as nonprofits — “puppy laundering” so pet stores can continue to market their goods to the public.


All this points to the fact that more federal action is still needed, but for now, we’ll have to take the states. The charmingly archaic Kennel Club competitions will continue. But here’s hoping that one day the classic song “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” will need to come with an explainer — because listeners will no longer understand how someone could so easily buy a dog.