In a puzzling and contradictory move, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has appointed an outspoken anti-animal-welfare advocate to a post that will exert influence on enforcement of federal laws related to puppy mills. Julian Prager, an official with two anti-animal-welfare groups and an opponent of the very regulations that he’s now assigned to help advertise and enforce, has been appointed to serve as the Canine Program Advisor to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Prager has been an official with the National Animal Interest Alliance and the American Kennel Club – two groups that consistently lobby against virtually all forms of breeder regulation, especially policies aimed at curbing puppy mills.
Today, in a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack, The HSUS urged him to reconsider Prager’s appointment. Prager is on record opposing the USDA’s own retail pet stores rule, as well as many reasonable state laws, such as Pennsylvania’s cost of animal care law that would allow courts to require people charged with animal cruelty, including puppy mill operators, to cover the cost of care for the animals seized. He even voiced opposition to a Pennsylvania law that would prevent puppy mill operators from performing surgeries such as C-sections and debarking on their own dogs.
The Obama Administration has certainly stepped up enforcement of poorly operating and inhumane puppy mills. Last year, it adopted a rule to bring as many as 2,000 large-scale Internet sellers of puppies under the regulatory authority of the USDA. For two decades, these folks had escaped any federal oversight, and so many puppy mills were shifting their sales strategies just to avoid any USDA inspections. And just weeks ago, the USDA finally implemented a rule to ban imports of puppies from foreign mills in Mexico, Russia, South Korea and other countries trafficking in these animals. Many dogs get sick or injured in long-distance transport, and American consumers have no knowledge of the conditions that the animals endure in these unregulated facilities in other nations.
These are all notable advances and accomplishments for the USDA, which has long been criticized by animal protection groups for its cozy relationship with the agribusiness lobby and the puppy mill industry. Cumulatively, the recent series of reforms and stepped-up enforcement by the USDA represents one of the big areas of reform for the Obama administration on animal welfare. That’s why it’s utterly perplexing that the USDA would bring on an anti-regulatory ideologue to a post connected to implementation of the Animal Welfare Act and related laws.
There’s been momentum for reform on puppy mills, in the states and with the federal government. And there’s movement in the corporate sector, too. Petco and Petsmart long ago abandoned selling dogs from mills—and they now use their stores as adoption centers for local shelters and rescue groups. The HSUS has been working with other pet stores to replicate that model – helping to convert from selling commercially raised puppies to offering only puppies and dogs from animal shelters for adoption. Stores like Pets Plus in Jenkintown, Penn., which converted to shelter dog adoptions only in April, have already had such success. And we are hopeful that the company will convert to an adoptions-only model for all of its outlets. We are working to drive consumers to these businesses, to animal shelters and rescue groups, and to responsible breeders as an alternative to puppy mills.
At a time when we’re making real progress on the issue, the appointment of Prager is just bizarre. The USDA can and should unwind this decision, or it risks a loss of confidence in a program it’s worked hard to rebuild and remake.