The effectiveness of a new Maryland law banning pet shops from selling dogs raised in "puppy mills" is in question after the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed an online database of animal welfare reports from its website.
The move by the federal agency threatens to undermine the compromise measure, which sailed through the General Assembly last year with the backing of animal welfare advocates and the pet industry. State law only permits sales of dogs from breeders with a good track record of USDA inspections.
The law was underpinned by what looked like a robust transparency measure: Pet-buyers, advocates and law enforcement could check an online database of USDA records to make sure stores were using good breeders. But in early February, the department abruptly stripped the database from its website.
Animal welfare activists say the law is unenforceable without the federal database, and the pet industry acknowledges that making less information public doesn't instill confidence in consumers, who are less able to vet suppliers and stores.
Del. Benjamin Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Maryland law last year, called the loss of the federal database extremely disappointing.
"We now will have no information about what the puppy mills are doing and how they're being cited and which are the more egregious violators," he said. "It's an abhorrent industry to begin with, quite frankly, and producing dogs and cats on an industrial line like manufacturing cars is absolutely inexcusable."
He's proposed a legislative fix, requiring pet stores to obtain more data about their suppliers. While the bill has buy-in from animal rights and industry advocates, and received a hearing last month in the House Economic Matters Committee, it has not been voted on.
Meanwhile, puppies continue to be sold in Maryland pet stores. Mitch Thomson, the owner of Just Puppies in Towson and Rockville, said his stores already go the extra mile to ensure the puppies they sell are healthy and raised humanely.
"We don't try to withhold information on our kennels," Thomson said. "Our kennels are all in good standing with the USDA and if they're not, we can't buy from them. ... I think there's probably some pet stores out there that don't do a good job, but we don't think of ourselves as one of those."
It's not clear why the USDA took the data down. It was removed from the agency's website shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January and amid reports that incoming officials altered other federal websites or deleted information from them. The USDA said it was moving toward removing the data before Trump took office.
A spokeswoman said the department continually reviews court cases interpreting the Freedom of Information Act, which governs the public release of government records. The agency also seeks related guidance from the Department of Justice.
The spokeswoman declined to say whether there was a specific new court ruling or piece of guidance that affected the publication of the animal welfare records. But the Humane Society of the United States pointed to a federal lawsuit filed against the department in Texas by two horse breeders that alleged the agency database maligned horse owners accused of violating the federal Horse Protection Act. The breeders dropped their suit shortly after the database was taken offline.
Whatever the cause, "the move caught us all by surprise," said Robert Likins, an official at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
The USDA has put some records back online. But Emily Hovermale, the Maryland director for the Humane Society, said the group estimates that 99 percent of the data relating to dog breeders remains unavailable.
She said that makes it easier for puppy mills — a term used to describe breeders that raise animals in unsafe, unsanitary conditions — to sell dogs in the state. Maryland is one of a handful of states that have laws designed to thwart the sale of animals raised in mills by using the USDA database.
"The data that was removed was absolutely essential for the enforcement of the law," she said. "Without it, the law is basically unenforceable. Consumers are unable to confirm that the stores are complying with the law."
Likins said the pet industry is pushing the USDA to put as much of the data back online as possible because pet buyers have come to expect transparency and assurances that they are buying an animal that has been raised humanely.
Likins said there are legitimate privacy concerns because many breeders are small family farms that have been the target of harassment, but he thinks a resolution can be reached.
"This industry needs transparency in order to maintain its credibility," he said.
Travis Martz, an attorney for Just Puppies who tracks legislation in Annapolis, said when the pet stores learned the USDA data had been taken down, they worried that animal welfare advocates would argue that the Maryland law was unenforceable and would push for stores to stop selling puppies.
Instead, he said, a detente seems to have held.
"They clearly wanted to have the blackout lifted as much as we do," Martz said.