Last month, Maryland made history by becoming the second state to ban commercially-bred dogs from being sold at pet shops. By and large, these dogs come from USDA-licensed breeders, a fact that pet industry defenders cling to as they fight this new law. And while there are only about a half-dozen pet shops selling these dogs in Maryland, the issue remains significant. I would know: Back in 2011, I bought my dog Izzie at a pet shop, assured she wasn’t a “puppy mill” dog because she came from a USDA-licensed breeder.
I bought the story. I bought the dog.
Many of us know about puppy mills, or at least we think we do. But in most cases, the places we picture when we hear the term “puppy mill” are legal. Every year, around 1 million dogs are born at these facilities, licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (yes, agriculture) and, as a result, are treated as livestock in factory farming conditions. Federal inspectors breeze through these breeding facilities once a year, turning a blind eye to repeated instances of cruelty because, under the Animal Welfare Act they are charged with enforcing, that cruelty — such as keeping a dog in a cage only six inches longer than its body for its entire life — is perfectly acceptable.
USDA-licensed, in the dog breeding world, almost guarantees that you’re buying from a puppy mill, animal welfare advocates tell me. The imprimatur of those four letters conveys authority and safety: We trust the USDA to tell us which meat is safe to eat, which milk is good to drink. But why is the federal agency in charge of so much dead meat acting as the watchdog for our pet dogs? In short, it’s not.
That question sent me on a two-year investigation into the USDA. I found documented evidence that the USDA is not holding up its end of the bargain, allowing breeders with the worst possible infractions to stay in business. In some cases, I was able to find reports from state inspectors documenting violations of the Animal Welfare Act at the same facility on the same date that USDA inspectors had recorded finding nothing.
My dog Izzie is incontrovertibly a pet. When she licks my toddler’s hands after a sticky meal to steal a taste of his dinner, when she jumps into bed with me during a storm, when she lunges after a tennis ball as if it’s the only object in the universe worthy of her attention — she’s a pet. And yet, if she were being used to breed, she would be considered livestock in the eyes of the law. As one attorney who defends animal protections under the law informed me, much to my surprise and dismay, if I use one dog for breeding and one as a pet, they each are entitled to different protections under the law.
But perhaps the bigger problem here is that efforts to reform commercial dog breeding have been routinely thwarted by Big Ag. For proof of that, look no further than the Trump administration. At the helm of his USDA transition team was Brian Klippenstein, formerly the head of Protect the Harvest, the farm lobbyist group that routinely locked horns with the Humane Society over the issue of puppy mills. So it should come as no surprise then that within 15 days of taking office, before a USDA secretary had even been appointed, all of the agency’s inspection records on animal welfare for dog breeding went dark, yanked from a previously public online database. How’s that for top priorities? So if reform at the breeder level isn’t possible, it only makes sense that animal welfare advocates want to stop incentivizing the inhumane production of these dogs by passing a law that stops their sale.
By next January, California’s ban on commercially bred dogs in pet shops will go into effect. By 2020, Maryland’s will too. But the fight will not end with pet stores. The Internet is now king, and, as a result, this promising new legislation could be easily undercut if Maryland and California buyers fill the void by purchasing dogs online. Make no mistake: Any breeder that will ship a dog to you sight unseen is more than likely the same USDA-licensed breeder who previously sold to pet shops — but with a better Internet connection. Because today, the doggie in the window is now just the doggie in the Internet browser window.
Rory Kress (www.rorykress.com; Twitter: @rorykress) is the author of “The Doggie in the Window: How One Dog Led Me from the Pet Store to the Factory Farm to Uncover the Truth of Where Puppies Really Come From.” (Sourcebooks).