With public opinion continuing to turn sharply against the safari hunting escapades of American trophy hunters and a cascade of major airlines announcing they won’t transport trophies from the African Big Five, there was other big news on other fronts – in particular, on factory farming and puppy mills. At the top of the list is a federal court ruling earlier this week striking down Idaho’s ag-gag law, which criminalized whistleblowers who record animal cruelty or other abuses in factory farms. It’s the first judicial ruling on the merits of a series of statutes manufactured by the agribusiness lobby to stop undercover investigators from exposing harsh and sometimes illegal practices toward animals. Credit goes to our friends at the Animal Legal Defense Fund who led the coalition that challenged and argued the case.
Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill put it well in dismissing Idaho’s defense of its ag-gag law. “The State’s logic is perverse,” he wrote, “in essence the State says that (1) powerful industries deserve more government protection than smaller industries, and (2) the more attention and criticism an industry draws, the more the government should protect that industry from negative publicity or other harms. Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.”
The HSUS has been at the heart of the battle to defeat ag-gag laws, which seek to stop the public from seeing the cruelty that goes on inside factory farms and puppy mills. We’ve been working in state legislatures to block these ag-gag measures, helping defeat two dozen ag-gag bills in the states in the last two years. But seven ag-gag laws remain on the books, and agribusiness is still pushing these measures in other states. This court’s powerful ruling should dramatically influence the trajectory of the ag-gag debate, as we continue to lead the effort to block additional measures from being enshrined in law.
HSUS has also helped secure a series of important, precedent-setting wins on upholding local anti-puppy mill ordinances. Last week, a federal court in Phoenix, in a case where The HSUS intervened in support of the city’s defense efforts, rejected a pet store’s challenge to that city’s ordinance banning the sale of commercially-bred dogs (the ordinance requires pet stores to only sell dogs from shelters and rescue groups). The Court held that the ban is constitutional and affirmed the city’s right to enact a local law restricting the sale of animals or animal products that are the product of animal abuse. This decision comes on the heels of three other similar rulings also upholding local ordinances that restrict retail sales of commercially bred dogs.
Animal Welfare Act regulations applying to dogs at large-scale dog breeding operations impose only extremely minimal standards of care. USDA inspection reports describe extreme suffering and serious animal welfare violations at licensed facilities, including unsafe and unsanitary living conditions and dogs in desperate need of veterinary care. The deficiency in the federal framework to protect dogs is one major reason why more than 70 local governments across the country now stop the selling of dogs from puppy mills.
Although we will continue to support increased standards of care for breeding facilities – and we’re pleased to work with the USDA to close a loophole that had allowed Internet sellers to bypass any federal inspections – the best way to stop puppy mill cruelty is to cut off the market for the puppies produced in these facilities. We need only look to all of the licensed breeders on our Horrible Hundred list to demonstrate that institutionalized cruelty in puppy mills is alive and well.
Our public-policy specialists and our attorneys will continue to work with local governments to defend local retail standards, and to fight off ag-gag measures in state legislatures and in the courts. These are both critical arenas of activity for us, and these recent rulings demonstrate we’ve got the momentum.