The Chelsea Kennel Club – a boutique Manhattan pet store that was the focus of an HSUS undercover investigation released just two months ago – appears to be shuttered. In July, we posted a heartbreaking video of sick puppies and deficient care there, which attracted five million views on Facebook. Today no one is answering the phone at the store, and photographs reveal a “closed” sign on the front door and rows of empty shelves.
While we certainly want outliers in regard to animal care and cruelty to change their ways or to go out of business, we cannot do in-depth investigations at the hundreds of places throughout the country that are supplying stores like the one in New York. That’s why the nation needs sound policies that set measurable standards of care and assure that these standards are enforced.
Sometimes puppies acquire an illness in a pet store, and the health problems are compounded by cost-cutting measures and inexperienced and inattentive personnel. But in many cases, the dogs arrive sick because of terrible conditions at puppy mills. These are precisely the mills that are the focus of our major reform efforts.
There are plenty of tricks that mill operators use to hide their abuses. Many scofflaw operators purport to having clean inspection reports, but that’s only because they dropped a noncompliant license under one name, and opened a new one under a different family member’s name or a different business name. We found this hide-the-ball strategy at work in several such businesses selling to Chelsea Kennel Club. Sadly, it’s not illegal. There isn’t even a specific rule that requires people who have been convicted of animal cruelty to disclose their conviction when applying for or renewing a USDA license.
But there’s good news. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the federal law that requires certain animal businesses to abide by basic standards of care, is requesting public comment on a proposed rule on the topic. The proposal would close the loophole, leading to the actual shut-down of recidivist puppy millers, as well as roadside zoos and substandard circuses covered under the same regulations.
Allowing noncompliant licensees to continue operating is harmful to animals, a waste of government resources, and can also lead to public and animal health crises. In 2010, authorities linked an outbreak of distemper at a Wyoming pet store to Jeff Fortin, who owned a USDA-licensed dog breeding kennel in Kansas. That resulted in the killing of 1,200 dogs. Fortin had been found in violation of AWA standards for years, but he used a technique that many problem dealers have used in the past—they “erase” their histories by simply dropping a non-compliant license and getting a new one under a different business name. In addition, the CDC is currently investigating a seven-state outbreak of a bacterial disease in humans that has been linked to a major national pet store chain that buys its puppies from USDA-licensed breeders. For the safety of animals and the public, it only makes sense that the USDA require licensees to affirmatively demonstrate compliance with the AWA’s health and welfare standards before renewing a license.
The new proposed USDA rule can help prevent puppy millers from gaming the system. We have a chance to urge the USDA to make four vital changes:
- Require licensees to affirmatively demonstrate compliance with the AWA before renewing a license or significantly expanding their operations
- Prevent noncompliant licensees from simply transferring their operation to another person or LLC on the same (or adjacent) property
- Require license applicants and renewing applicants to disclose any animal cruelty convictions, and
- Make the process for denying or revoking a license more effective and efficient
The pet industry will most likely fight against closing these gaps in AWA oversight, so the agency needs to hear from you. You can help by commenting directly on the Federal Register site, or comment via our Action Alert. Please remember to personalize your comments, and to be respectful and polite.