In an important ruling for dogs and a critical ruling for all animals protected by local and state laws, a federal appeals court today upheld New York City’s law restricting pet stores to selling only dogs obtained from breeders licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and with a solid record of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, or dogs obtained from a shelter or rescue. The law strictly forbids pet stores from sourcing dogs from middlemen brokers who conceal the origin of the dogs. In support of the law, The HSUS submitted an amicus brief in the case before the Second Circuit – one of the most important appellate courts in the country.
Noting that the New York City law was passed “to address a tangle of problems surrounding the companion animal business—including irresponsible breeding of animals destined for the City market, their subsequent sale to unwitting consumers, and an overpopulation of unwanted animals,” the federal court found that the ordinance advanced important local interests, and rejected claims by breeders and pet stores that the law imposed unlawful burdens on out-of-state business interests. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the federal Animal Welfare Act preempts local ordinances restricting the trade in animals. This ruling has implications for a larger set of issues, for example in instances where locales and states attempt to restrict the sale of dogs, ivory, meat, or other animals or animal products derived from cruelty or unsafe practices.
The New York ordinance, like many others around the country, specifically depends on the USDA database of Animal Welfare Act violations in order to function. The USDA’s recent decision to block public and local law enforcement access to the online database will severely compromise the long-term effectiveness of the New York law, and many others around the country.
Also today, The HSUS released an investigation revealing that several pet stores in Palm Beach County, Florida, appear to have violated local laws designed to prevent their buying from breeders with serious animal welfare violations, while other stores were apparently violating laws that require the disclosure of certain information to potential buyers.
A Palm Beach County ordinance, which went into effect in 2016, requires pet shops to make information visible to consumers about where the puppies come from – a measure similar to the New York ordinance. It requires that pet stores buy only from breeders without severe or multiple (three or more) recent violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. Under the USDA regulations, breeders must provide a clean cage, food, and water, but they can keep a dog in a wire cage for its entire life, as long as there is six inches above the dog’s head, and in front of his/her nose.
So even in the best of circumstances, these laws are tough to enforce properly, because the commercials breeders and the pet stores are trying to skirt them. But now with the USDA database of animal welfare inspections pulled down, that enforcement task becomes virtually impossible. More than a half-dozen state laws that rely on the public availability of the USDA database are also crippled by the takedown of the materials from the website.
We are continuing to push the USDA to restore its records on puppy mill inspections. While the agency has restored some animal research data, there’s nothing yet back up on puppy mills. With the Second Circuit affirming the constitutionality of the law, it’s a real issue, with consequences for consumers and for tens of thousands of animals who depend on people in government and in the private sector doing the right thing.