On Friday, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by 42 plaintiffs, including dozens of dog-breeding clubs, that aimed to neuter a U. S. Department of Agriculture rule to crack down on Internet sellers of puppy mill dogs who don’t meet basic care standards. Commercial puppy breeders and others filed their suit in federal court last December challenging a regulation that sought to bring all large-scale commercial dog breeders, regardless of their sales strategies, under the regulatory authority of the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA.
In a detailed and witty opinion, the court concluded that these breeders "are barking up the wrong tree" because "their complaints are more policy disagreements with APHIS’s regulatory approach than they are valid legal objections to APHIS’s authority." Dismissing the breeders' legal claims as "a dog that won't hunt," the court granted judgment in favor of USDA and The HSUS – which intervened to help defend the agency’s rule.
I am very pleased that this long-overdue USDA rule, to bring oversight to as many as 5,000 dog, cat and rabbit dealers who sell over the Internet, has been upheld by a federal court. Every large-scale commercial breeding operation, whether it sells to a pet store or directly to the public through an Internet site, should be licensed and inspected, and every dog should be provided with a bowl of clean water and enough space to move around. The original Animal Welfare Act never contemplated the idea of Internet sales of dogs, with the dogs shipped to a buyer several states away who would have no knowledge of the underlying conditions endured by the dogs. In the last 20 years, thousands of dog breeders have escaped any oversight by adopting an Internet sales approach, while their competitors did have to deal with USDA oversight. Last year’s rule-making action – fortified by an effort in Congress to pass the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety (PUPS) Act, which enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in both chambers – was overdue, and it filled a gaping hole in the law that was being exploited by unscrupulous puppy sellers. Responsible breeders, many of whom we work with, support the new rule.
We hear so much from animal-use industries that they care for animals so well, and that our actions to secure and enforce minimum standards are unneeded and unwelcome. Well, here we have a modest rule that simply asks for inspections and the most basic care standards for dogs. Any decent and responsible breeder automatically conforms because the standards are so modest – clean water, enough space to turn around, the animals’ fur not matted and covered in feces. Their opposition to such a rule means either that they believe they cannot comply with the minimal standards (and they really don’t give a damn about the dogs), or they are philosophically opposed to any kind of government oversight of their operations. Either way, it doesn’t inspire confidence, and frankly, it’s an embarrassment.
Our past investigations have uncovered that many Internet sellers of dogs had gleaming websites, seeming to show well-cared-for dogs. But the situation on the ground was entirely different. Many dogs under the control of these breeders suffer in substandard, filthy and overcrowded cages, often for the duration of their lives. A good number of these breeders were licensed by the American Kennel Club (AKC), making a mockery of its so-called inspection program – with standards and inspection reports the non-profit organization won’t even disclose. The interventions we make – where we work with law enforcement to intervene and rescue the dogs – costs The HSUS and other animal welfare groups millions of dollars every year. In North Carolina alone – the home state of the AKC – we’ve conducted more than 20 puppy mill rescues in the last three years, demonstrating the problem in spades; yet the puppy mill industry and their allies in the legislature have thwarted any state standards, creating an even greater need for the consistent federal oversight and a level playing field.
The question is, why should the dogs and the whole of society have to absorb the effects of the reckless and inhumane behavior of these puppy mills? As a result of these breeders treating the dogs like objects or mere commodities, dogs suffer immeasurably, and the humane community picks up the bill to handle thousands of animals horribly mistreated by this industry. What a sad statement that dozens of dog-breed clubs worked to nullify this sensible regulation. I’m so pleased that the court left them out in the cold on this one.