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MAJOR OVERHAUL OF MASSACHUSETTS ANIMAL CONTROL LAWS – Puppy Mills, etc.

Part 3 of Our Puppy Mill Series

Puppy Mill story in Massachusetts

[Click here for Part 1] [Click here for Part 2]

Last year, Governor Deval Patrick signed a law completely overhauling the laws relating to animal control in the Commonwealth.  The law was the culmination of several years of work by the MSPCA-Angell, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, the Department of Agricultural Resources, the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts (ACOAM) and the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association among others.

Kara Holmquist, Director of Advocacy, MSPCA-Angell told massrealitycheck.com how this law will make important progress in safeguarding both animals and the public.

  • Setting up a Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund to help cover veterinary care and spay/neuter for homeless dogs and cats to reduce their numbers and reduce costs for cities, in addition to assisting low-income pet owners with vaccinations and spay/neuter.  Residents will be able to voluntarily donate to the fund through a check-off on their state tax returns.
  • Including pets in restraining orders to protect both people and animals from domestic violence and encourage victims of abuse to seek help without having to worry about what will happen if they leave a pet behind.
  • Banning euthanasia via gas chambers.
  • Creating categories for kennel licensing ranging from residential to commercial.
  • Requiring health certificates for dogs and cats coming into the state.
  • Requiring training for animal control officers (ACO), which has not been mandatory, and ensuring they are not also licensed animal dealers who could potentially turn over animals to research facilities. ACOs will be overseen by the Department of Agricultural Resources and will be trained in a number of areas ranging from animal capture techniques and cruelty statutes to animal health inspector duties.
  • Improving the dangerous dog law to prohibit discrimination against any breed.
  • Increasing fines for animal cruelty.
  • Adding provisions to enforce the spay/neuter deposit law for adopted animals to ensure they can’t reproduce by requiring a written agreement and increasing the deposit, which is collected if animals are adopted out without being spayed/neutered.

One of the law’s chief sponsors, Rep. Kathi-Ann Reinstein (D-Revere) says it is critical that Massachusetts judges can now include pets in restraining orders. “This means victims of domestic violence can seek help without having to leave a pet behind,” said Reinstein.

Hilary Cohen, Animal Control Officer for Norfolk, Massachusetts explained that, “study after study has shown that victims in abusive relationships will not leave that relationship if they cannot take their pets with them. They fear retaliation onto the pet by the abuser if/when the victim does leave. I have seen animals that have been harmed, some fatally, when a party walked out of an abusive relationship and left their pets behind.”

“The voluntary tax return check-off has been a big success,” said Mike Cahill, Director of the Massachusetts’ Division of Animal Health. “With little promotion and lead time, Homeless Animal Prevention and Care Fund raised more than a quarter of a million dollars from 17,000 citizens taking advantage of the check-off donation on their 2012 taxes,” said Cahill.

The fund will provide financial support for cities and towns to shelter homeless animals, and help fund low-cost vaccination clinics. “The law requires training for animal control officers, which will professionalize the job and make it more consistent across communities.  Our office will be focusing on enforcement of licensing and vaccination laws, appropriate animal care, and thorough record keeping,” said Cahill.

The law also puts an end to Breed Specific Laws (BSL) which bans or restricts certain types of dogs in a given community based on their appearance, usually because they are perceived as “dangerous” breeds of dogs.  “The few cities and towns that had breed-specific legislation have adjusted to the new law; it’s great to see another state take a stand against BSL.  Since the Massachusetts law passed, 3 other state legislature have passed similar bills,” said Holmquist.

“The breed-specific thing is a quick reaction to a complex problem,” said Sen. Mark  Montigny (D-Fall River), a champion of the legislation. “What we really need is a major crackdown on the people who are breeding pit bulls and training them to be aggressive. They are beautiful, loving dogs if not mistreated by ugly, mean human beings,” he said, adding that the ban on BSL will also remove any incentive evildoers have from targeting another breed.

EXPANDING THE “LEMON LAW” AND REGULATING BREEDERS

This year animal rights advocates are back on Beacon Hill pushing another bill (SB 401 & HB 1874) designed to protect puppies and kittens in three ways; it will outlaw the sale of puppies and kittens under eight weeks old; improve the Massachusetts Puppy Lemon Law so that families who unknowingly purchase a sick puppy have better choices, and requires the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to promulgate rules and regulation for breeders that do not exist now.

The bill was filed by Rep. Reinstein and Senator Karen Spilka (D-Ashland).

Rep. Reinstein strongly believes there needs to be better choices for consumers who buy a sick animal at a pet store.  “Right now if you buy a dog or cat, you’ve got two weeks to have the animal examined by a veterinarian.  If the vet finds a medical condition, the buyer has two days to bring the pet back to the store for a full refund or replacement dog.  That’s not enough.  We’re not returning a dress here,” said Rep. Reinstein.  She fears that if the dog is returned, it may likely be euthanized.  Under the HB 1874, the pet shop would be responsible for vet bills up to 150% of the cost of the pet.

Reinstein herself bought a golden retriever from a local pet store, supplied by a breeder from out-of-state, for her husband’s 40th birthday.  “Our dog “Mollie” got very sick, and it was very expensive to bring her back to health.  There was no way we were going to return her, we already loved her.”  She was able to work out some compensation with the pet store.  Six years later Mollie is a happy, healthy member of the lawmaker’s family.

Alexis Fox of the Humane Society agrees, “It can be heartbreaking for children and the whole family to return a dog that they’ve already fallen in love with, especially after in some cases spending thousands on vet bills. Pet stores need to be held responsible for selling a living thing and making sure the animal and its new family are off to the best start possible.”  She also pointed out that not everyone has the moxie of Rep. Reinstein to go back to the store and demand redress, “that’s why we need a law to arm people.”

Though unclear just what those regulations might look like for breeders, it may present the biggest hurdle to the bill’s passage.  The American Kennel Club and their member breeders are none too keen on becoming regulated.  In a letter to Bay State lawmakers, the AKC said they are “deeply concerned with unintended consequences that may flow from these bills. Specifically, if enacted in their current form, these bills would treat hobby breeders similarly to how commercial facilities are handled in the Commonwealth. Such a declaration could negatively impact home-based purebred dog fanciers whose residential property zoning classifications may, as a result of the new treatment, prohibit such activity.”

Alexis Fox of the Humane Society points out that Cahill’s Animal Health Deparment does not have the authority to regulate breeders, “but they should.”

Breeder/pet store owner Chris Basiul of Laughlin Kennels in Oxford had a mixed reaction to the proposed legislation. When told of the proposals to make breeders subject to the same regulations as pet stores, he said, “I don’t have any problems with regs that helps the dogs out.”  As for the improved Lemon Law, he suggested that putting the pet shop on the hook for vet bills for sick animals would result in the cost of dogs and other animals going up for the consumer.

What’s more, advocates and lobbyists acknowledge that certain bills, no matter how popular, can have tough sledding on Beacon Hill only one session removed from a big victory on the same subject matter.  It can be a combination of “issue fatigue,” and the reflexive question, “didn’t we just do that last year?”

ADOPTING OR RESCUING A DOG

According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), about 65 percent of pet owners acquire their pets free or at low cost.  The majority of pets are obtained from acquaintances and family members. Upwards of 30 percent of cats and dogs are adopted from shelters and rescues.

“The first thing you should check before adopting is to go to our Massachusetts Division of Animal Health website and make sure the rescue organization is registered with us and legitimate,” said Cahill.

http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/agr/animal-health/shelter-and-rescue/massachusetts-approved-shelter-and-rescue-organizations-generic.html

Pet store owner Kathy Blackader recommends you find out what the rescue organization charges for adoption.  “If a so-called rescue group is charging $800 to $1200 to adopt an animal, then I would question that.”

PAWS New England has saved nearly 5,000 abandoned, neglected, and abused dogs from high-kill shelters over the past four years.  PAWS provides them with veterinary care and places the animals with a network of volunteer foster families.  When they’re ready, the dogs are adopted into safe and loving homes.

Samantha Krasner is one such volunteer, who currently provides a foster home for a small chihuahua who has been with her for nearly a year.  Krasner only fosters one animal at a time because she lives in an apartment in Boston and is a full-time attorney.

“The great thing about PAWS is that we foster every single dog in a home environment.  Living with the dog every day, I see aspects of a dog’s personality that would not be possible in a shelter environment.   It’s important for us that the adopter and the dog are a good fit for each other in terms of time, energy and emotional makeup.

“Our foster volunteers are mostly local, the adopters can meet the dog, and fosters meet adopters.  That way everyone is on the same page,” said Krasner.

“Where you get your dog from is a personal decision, I won’t judge.  But I encourage people to look at rescues, even if they’re looking for a pure bred dog.  Not every dog is a pound puppy– I see purebred boxers, bloodhounds, bernese, all kinds of breeds all the time,” said Krasner.  It’s estimated that up to 25% of shelter and rescue dogs are pure bred.

PAWS adoption fees, cover transportation, vaccinations, and other care.  “Usually the cost of rescue is more than the fee we charge adopters, it’s an offset really.”  Adoption “donation” fees often run between $200 and $400 which covers all vaccinations, the dog being neutered, and may include a $140 fee for USDA approved transportation.

“Depending on where the dog is coming from, it also may need to be quarantined for 48 hours out-of-state to certify that there are no diseases entering the state,” said Krasner.

Krasner has noticed that her foster chihuahua is not particularly good with children, which makes it a tougher sell on their website, and explains the longer stay than the usual few weeks or months.  PAWS website reveals detailed stories on each dog, with important information to consider such as, “no kids”, “no cats”, or “better with another dog in the house.”

INTERNET CREATES A REGULATORY LOOPHOLE

While pet store owners and animal rights activists don’t often see eye to eye, the people interviewed for this story all agree that you should not buy a dog sight unseen over the internet.

The Humane Society is seeing an increase in the selling of puppies via Internet and newspaper classified ads. Since the breeders weren’t selling puppies to middlemen or pet stores, they were able to take advantage of a “retail sales” loophole in the federal Animal Welfare Act, evading the basic oversight required in the regulations.

Tanya Espinosa of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) told MassRealityCheck.com they will soon be promulgating new rules to close a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that allows potentially unscrupulous breeders to sell pets sight unseen over the Internet and via phone and mail-based businesses. “The problem is the current definition of “retail pet store” was developed over 40 years ago and predates the Internet, exempting internet sellers from oversight by the USDA and their ability to enforce the basic requirements of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA),” said Espinoza.

“We look for proper sanitation, nutrition, proper veterinary care by inspecting these commercial breeders at least once a year, or more often if there is non-compliance.  If the breeder still is out of compliance we may investigate and take further steps like assess fines or revoke their license,” said Espinoza.  But breeders who market their animals over the internet can evade these inspections.

The PUPS Act, being pushed by the Humane Society in Congress also seeks to close that loophole, requiring direct sellers of 50 or more puppies to be federally licensed and inspected for basic humane standards of care.   The Humane Society has been keeping track of “puppy mills” licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, watching their numbers decline almost 40 percent since 2007. While some of that decline can be attributed to operators who were shut down due to stronger enforcement, the Humane Society fears that many others are simply dropping their federal licenses in order to convert to online sales and avoid regulation altogether. “The PUPS Act will keep bad breeders from slipping under the radar,” according to the Humane Society website.

Interestingly enough, the American Kennel Club, considered the gold standard of dog breeding in the U.S., strongly opposes both the PUPS bill and the APHIS proposed regulations.  While the AKC would not do a phone interview for this story, they offered to respond to specific questions by e-mail.  When asked about these proposals, the AKC said: “Animal rights groups are concerned with stopping or limiting breeding.  AKC is concerned about the care and well-being of all dogs whether it’s a single pet or one of many. The issue is not the number of dogs kept or bred, the issue is the care and conditions of how those dogs are kept.  There are those who may own one dog and not properly care for it while another owner of many dogs may be very responsible in their care. The government’s focus should be on quality of husbandry and care, not quantity of animals owned/maintained.”

“AKC shares the USDA’s concerns about unscrupulous and substandard internet-based pet sales and do not oppose the concept of regulating commercial breeders, (however) the proposed federal regulation currently under review… would exponentially expand the pool of breeders regulated and inspected by the (USDA’s APHIS).  A May 2010 audit of this program by the USDA’s own Inspector General demonstrated that the existing inspections program is insufficient to carry out current responsibilities. AKC believes these issues and full funding for the current program should be addressed before attempting to exponentially expand the program’s responsibilities and workload.”

The AKC themselves were taken to task by the Today Show for insufficient inspections in a May 1, 2013 story detailing “miserable” conditions existing at some AKC-registered dealers.  While no one is suggesting that the majority of AKC-registered breeders aren’t on the up-and-up, it called into question whether the AKC tag was simply an “honor system.” In the story, and AKC spokesperson could not answer what percentage of AKC breeders received an inspection, and conceded that they only had 9 inspectors nationwide.

Because of demand created by America’s love of “man’s best friend,” there is simply no way for any group, government or private, to effectively monitor conditions on the tens of thousands of large and small breeders across the country.

MILLIE FINDS A HOME

Millie had some problems.  “She looked good physically, but she had a mammary tumor, probably because she had never been spayed, needed some dental work, and had a heart murmur which required a low dose of anesthetics when removing the tumors,” said Bertoni-Josephson.

“We worked with MSPCA to obtain low cost vet and slowly brought her back to health.”

“While she loved other animals, probably because they are often stored in groups of 30, she was afraid of my husband Micah, and was afraid of grass. Probably had never played in it.”

“For months we too took her out to events, posted a pic on the ‘SPCA’ page, but people often shy away from puppy mill dogs, and we had to admit that she could probably never be house-trained with eight years of urinating in the cage.”

‘Finally, we found a woman who was willing to take Millie.  A play date showed us they were a good match, she and her husband had another dog and a cat, and she was willing to deal with the house training issue.”

“Micah and I had remarked that Millie wasn’t a dog as we all know dogs from her ordeal at the puppy mill.”

Three months later Micah visited Millie and the adopted family.  “When he came home he told me that Millie seemed happy, was running around with their other dog, playing, acting like a…dog,” Janet said with a laugh.

It was a long journey for Millie, from being an expendable breeding machine at an Indiana puppy mill, to the timely rescue by a resourceful activist, her rehabilitation by caring a foster family, to finally finding a true home.  Millie had made the transformation from animal to dog.

OUR TAKE

The ongoing efforts of animal rights groups like the Humane Society, the MSPCA, the Animal Rescue League of Boston are paying off.  Fewer dogs are being euthanized, and more are being rescued and adopted.

The facts are that pet stores and large scale commercial breeding operations, “puppy mill” or not, are legal and regulated by the federal and state government.  Smaller breeders to a large extent are not regulated.  What’s more, in Massachusetts, pet stores are by far the most highly regulated and inspected source of companion animals, yet they are also by far the smallest source of pets.

It seems reasonable that as the number of rescue organizations grow, we as consumers should be given the tools necessary to know that these rescue groups are legitimate non-profits, and that the fees or “donations” are enough to cover their costs while not being too high to discourage adoptions or suggest that there may be a profit motive.  Mike Cahill’s Division of Animal Health website is a great place to start. Before you do your puppy search, make sure a pet store or rescue operation is licensed with the state.

Lawmakers and regulators, in their efforts to protect animal and human health, should show care not to create regulatory barriers to legitimate rescue organizations doing what they do best; rescuing homeless and abused animals and placing them in loving homes.

Last year’s omnibus law brought most of Massachusetts’ animal control statutes up to date.  We agree there ought to be a way for consumers, if they buy a sick dog from a pet store, to treat the animal and perhaps share the cost of veterinary care with the pet store, as most people don’t want to return a living creature like they would a defective television.  But perhaps improvements in the “Puppy Lemon Law” ought to be extended to purchases from breeders as well since they sell significantly more puppies than pet stores do.

The issue of inspecting breeders is a tougher question.  While the USDA does inspect larger-scale commercial breeding operations, there is virtually no oversight over smaller specialized or hobby breeders, and the AKC themselves admit they can’t inspect all the breeders who carry the AKC seal.  The AKC should have more inspectors and a better handle on the percentage of the members they inspect.  The AKC has been criticized by animal rights groups for their push-back on regulations of both large and small breeders.  The AKC, however, raises a legitimate question if it even feasible to have effective inspections and oversight of the tens of thousands of smaller breeders while the USDA’s resources are already stretched to the limit.

The intense scrutiny paid to small pet shops seems a bit unfair when small breeders fly completely under the regulatory radar.  However, when large so-called “puppy mill” breeders continue to come under fire by animal rights advocates despite being inspected and regulated by the USDA, it begs the question if resources are indeed available to deal with an even larger pool of breeders.

Martha Smith of the Animal Rescue League raises an important point.  “While dogs for most people are family members, here in New England they are more likely to live with us in our house than some other areas of the country, we need to remember that animals are not people, that dogs are still animals.”

Perhaps we can’t confuse or equate the rights and proper treatment of animals with human rights when trying to craft workable public policy.

For people who are concerned about where a local pet store obtains their dogs, ask for the paperwork, and check for yourself with the USDA-APHIS, the Humane Society for a record of inspections.  If you’re buying from a breeder, visit the premises, see the conditions for yourself.  A good breeder should also be interviewing you for your fitness as an owner of one of their dogs.

Most importantly, individuals need to do the soul searching necessary not just to decide where to buy or adopt a companion animal, but what kind of dog or animal is right for you and your family, if at all.  There’s a reason why so many dogs end up in shelters and it’s not just because of “puppy mills.”  Remember, 25% of dogs entering shelters are pure-bred, telling us that just because a dog is pure-bred is not a guarantee of a happy life with responsible dog owners.  To that end, the pet store owners and animal rights advocates we spoke to agree most on one thing– a dog should never be an impulse buy.

[Click here for Part 1] [Click here for Part 2]