Legislature Considering Puppy-mill Regulations

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Legislature Considering Puppy-mill Regulations

By Betty Mitchell Gray on WDNweb.com
February 2010

“I went to see the animals to understand the situation,” Davis said. “I walked around and looked at every one of them. It was just a mess. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”

Puppy mills — commercial dog-breeding operations, some with notorious reputations for animal cruelty — are moving away from neighboring states that are cracking down on them and relocating to North Carolina, where industry regulations are nearly nonexistent, animal-rights advocates told the Washington Daily News in recent interviews.

With the recent passage of legislation regulating commercial breeding operations in Virginia and Tennessee, “North Carolina has become a bit of a safe haven for puppy mills,” said Kimberley Alboum, director of the Humane Society of the United States’ North Carolina chapter. Georgia has puppy-mill legislation pending.


Justin Scally carries one of about 300 dogs seized from a kennel in Wayne County about a year ago. (Contributed Photos)

“Nobody wants to be known as the next puppy-mill state and, unfortunately, that’s where we’re heading,” she said.

Legislation in the state General Assembly seeks to stop that influx by regulating commercial dog-breeding operations.

The bill would require commercial dog breeders with 15 or more female dogs that have not been spayed and 30 or more puppies to register their operations with the state. It would also require commercial breeders to meet standards, to be established by the state Department of Agriculture, for the care of their dogs. The standards would include provisions for daily exercise, adequate veterinary care, housing and record-keeping.

The bill also sets penalties for commercial dog-breeders who fail to register or do not comply with the standards, once established.

It exempts kennels that board or train hunting, sporting, herding, show or working dogs.

The law would give animal-control and other law-enforcement officers another tool to combat animal cruelty other than existing cruelty and neglect laws that are difficult to enforce. It would give reputable breeders consistent standards to meet instead of the existing hodgepodge of local ordinances that now govern dog-breeding operations in some counties, according to state Sen. Don Davis, D-Wayne, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“Current laws make it difficult for counties to go in and close down (puppy mills) because they have no leverage to do so,” he said. “Law-enforcement officers have to demonstrate cruelty, and that consumes a lot of resources to do so.”

The bill was approved narrowly by the Senate last year, and is now up for discussion in the House Finance Committee.

Opponents of the puppy-mill legislation fear that the rules governing commercial dog kennels would set a dangerous precedent that could spell trouble for farmers.

The bill faces strong opposition from some farming groups and, as a result, narrowly passed the state Senate 24-22.

“The North Carolina Pork Council has serious concerns about any legislation that would restrict the ownership of animals, as it would set a dangerous precedent — one that could be used in the future to impose limits on the number of farm animals kept on a property,” said Angie Whitener, a council spokeswoman.

An area problem?

Last November, Dawn Austin, an Edward resident, voluntarily surrendered 131 dogs that animal-control officers said were being kept in deplorable conditions — some tethered to metal posts and others in wire cages that offered little or no shelter. Most of the dogs were pit bulls, but the surrendered dogs included Chihuahuas, poodles, boxers, a Maltese and a mastiff, among other breeds and varieties. At least one dog, a Chihuahua with puppies, required surgery for an untreated broken knee.

A list of animals surrendered by the woman indicated that at least 42 puppies, none older than 12 weeks, were found at the site. And animal-control officers have indicated the number of unspayed female dogs exceeded the 15-number threshold proposed in the bill.

Officials have stopped short of calling the site a puppy mill, but they have said Austin was breeding dogs for sale.

Based on the number of unspayed female dogs and puppies at the site, Austin would have been required to register as a commercial breeder and the deplorable conditions could have been prevented under the bill, Alboum said.

Today, an estimated 10,000 puppy mills operate nationwide, with some 300 of them found in North Carolina, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Under existing regulations, law-enforcement officers normally charge puppy-mill operators with animal neglect or cruelty if conditions warrant such charges.

Regulations governing commercial dog-breeders not only would give law enforcement another tool to bring charges against unscrupulous breeders, it would also provide standards that could help prevent cruelty in the first place, said Justin Scally, a former Wayne County animal-control director who now heads the Wilde Puppy Mill Task Force for the Humane Society.

“You don’t want it to get to the level of animal cruelty in the first place,” he said. “Standards would ensure that the animals are treated humanely.”

Scally was director of Wayne County Animal Control in Feb. 2009 when about 300 dogs were seized from a kennel in Mount Olive in what was called the biggest puppy-mill raid in state history. Scally and others said in interviews at that time that they were greeted by a gruesome scene. The dogs, mainly Lhasa Apso, Shih-Tzus and Chihuahuas, were suffering from serious medical ailments and housed in filthy conditions. Animal-control officers said many of the dogs were emaciated, had untreated cuts and wounds, severely matted fur and serious skin and eye infections. Authorities said they were being housed in unheated cages inside unventilated barns and outhouses.

Davis was one of those who witnessed the results of the puppy-mill raid.

“I went to see the animals to understand the situation,” Davis said. “I walked around and looked at every one of them. It was just a mess. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The Wayne County puppy mill was not the only such operation discovered in eastern North Carolina last year.

In September 2009, Wilson County authorities removed about 181 dogs from a puppy mill and charged the breeder with 13 counts of animal cruelty. Officials said many of the animals had ant bites, excessive fleas, ticks and other medical problems. Reportedly, they were living in terrible conditions.

Puppy-mill operations

Puppy-mill kennels may consist of anything from small cages made of wood and wire mesh to tractor-trailer cabs or simple tethers attached to trees. One Arkansas facility had cages hanging from the ceiling of an unheated, cinder-block building. At puppy mills, female dogs are bred twice a year, and they are usually destroyed or left to starve to death when they are no longer able to produce puppies, according to the Humane Society. Mothers and their puppies often suffer from malnutrition and exposure and receive little or no veterinarian care, according to the Humane Society.

At puppy mills, dogs are bred for quantity, not quality, so unmonitored genetic defects and personality disorders that are passed on from generation to generation are common, according to the Humane Society. This situation results in high veterinary bills for people who buy those dogs and the possibility that unsociable or maladjusted dogs will be disposed of by their unprepared owners.

“Potentially, these families could face hundreds of dollars in veterinarian bills,” Davis said. “From a basic business practice, I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Puppy mills are most often found in rural areas, making North Carolina particularly susceptible to puppy-mill operators, but they can also be found in the basements of homes in urban areas, Alboum said.

The rise of the Internet also has made it easier for such operations to go underground.

“Many times we see animals that have lived in cages all of their lives,” Alboum said.

Unlike operators of puppy mills, reputable breeders are breeding for the health and well-being of the dogs, and they screen people seeking to buy their puppies, Alboum said.