Over the last few months, as the U.S. has slipped deeper into an economic slump, there have been widespread surrenders of companion animals to animal shelters by those unable to financially care for them. (A slew of local articles can be found in response to a Google News search for “animal shelters”)
It is perfectly understandable that many cannot afford to care for their companions. However, it astounds me that in the face of this reality, puppy mills and kitten mills continue to breed dogs and cats at astounding rates, pet stores continue to sell them, and people continue to buy them. It is estimated that at least 90% of dogs sold in pet stores originate in puppy mills, of which there are thousands nationwide. It appears that Americans fail to recognize the broader implications of our love affair with dogs and cats, and our simultaneous disdain for buying “second-hand”. We remain wed to the idea of pet store windows filled with cute animals available for on-a-whim purchasing, and even the idea of giving animals as gifts to others who may not be ready or happy to accept the resulting responsibility. Consequently, our shelters are not merely full, but beyond full, being forced to kill millions of animals annually, most of whom are perfectly healthy and adoptable. A simple calculation reveals that each animal bought from a pet store (or directly from a breeder) is effectively a death sentence for an animal waiting for adoption.
Most puppy mills, because they sell to commercial pet stores, are animal “dealers” as defined in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). This means that they are supposed to be inspected and monitored by the USDA to ensure their adherence to the AWA, which requires the promulgation of minimum requirements for “handling, housing, feeding, watering, sanitation, ventilation, shelter [and] veterinary care.” It also requires minimum standards for “exercise of dogs, as determined by an attention veterinarian in accordance with general standards promulgated by the Secretary…” 7 USCA § 2143. The minimum requirements apply to wholesale dealers but not pet stores, as the USDA explains on its website. But as the Humane Society of the United States aptly explains: “Puppy mills can get around USDA licensing requirements by selling directly to consumers, and many simply rely on the limited reach of the law—with so few inspectors and only minor fines in place, it’s often easy for puppy mills to stay in business.” Consequently, the methods used by many puppy mills are illegal, and surely, many overseas puppy mills selling to U.S. customers maintain standards that would be illegal were they in the United States.
While there have been some large-scale and highly visible enforcement measures taken by authorities recently to crack down on illegally-functioning puppy mills, it seems that, rather than curb the problem, this has simply allowed it to morph. A National Public Radio story that aired today claims there has been, for the last 5 years, a growing U.S. market for dogs originating from overseas puppy mills, as a direct response to “U.S. authorities… cracking down on unscrupulous domestic breeders.” Luckily, the 2008 Farm Bill responds to this latest crisis by requiring any dog imported to the U.S. for resale to be at least 6 months old and generally healthy. (Section 14210). This is a big step forward.
Along with the law, public attitudes are also evolving in favor of adopting, rather than buying, companion animals. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show this year to revealing the reality of the U.S. puppy mill industry. She aired undercover footage from Pennsylvania puppy mills and pet stores. Recently, after President-elect Obama announced that his daughters were promised a canine companion, an online petition quickly emerged requesting that the Obamas adopt, rather than buy, their dog. In a matter of weeks, 50,000 people signed on. The news media then reported that Michelle Obama announced the family’s intention to adopt a “rescue dog.” Ironically, around this same time, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden received a German Shepherd puppy as a gift from his wife. The gift received widespread media coverage, and questions were raised regarding the dog’s origins, which turned out to be a large-scale Pennsylvania breeder. News stories have since publicized the breeder’s alleged citations by USDA for violating the AWA.
The fact that such a media story would take hold indicates how far we have come: I cannot imagine a credible newspaper questioning the origin’s of a politician’s dog in previous election years. Things are changing… but not enough. We must ensure that change, when it comes, is genuine and far-reaching: not a surface-level, knee-jerk reaction to temporary public sentiment. I think it’s fair to say that until we confront our conflicting relationship with man’s best friend, similar to our relationship to oil, we will find ourselves in the never-ending cycle of boom and bust, with animals paying the ultimate price.