A Senate subcommittee recently held a hearing about a controversial bill aimed at regulating puppy mills by bringing federal oversight to large-scale pet breeders who sell directly to the public and over the Internet.
The Pet Animal Welfare Statute would create protections for puppies and kittens bred by a segment of the pet industry accused of operating below acceptable welfare standards. Critics say the bill is too sweeping, however, and will ultimately harm hobby and sports breeders as well as pet rescuers.
Still, the AVMA, Humane Society of the United States, and American Kennel Club are part of an ideologically diverse body that has coalesced around PAWS, and on Nov. 8, they expressed their support before the Subcommittee on Research, Nutrition, and General Legislation.
The hearing drew a number of supporters and opponents of the legislation. Many people wore either fluorescent pink stinkers declaring "I'M PRO PAWS" or T-shirts emblazoned with "NO PAWS" or "Stop Animal Bans."
In May, Republican Rick Santorum, subcommittee chairman, introduced the bipartisan legislation (S. 1139) with Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat, as an original sponsor. A companion bill in the House—H.R. 2669—has more than 70 co-sponsors.
"Substandard dealers give the entire pet industry a black eye, all the while preying upon the public," Santorum said. "By regulating high-volume retail sellers, we will assure that they meet the same standards for the humane care and treatment of animals that breeders and brokers selling at wholesale have been meeting for 30 years."
Wholesale dog and cat breeding facilities are licensed by the Department of Agriculture and must comply with Animal Welfare Act regulations for humane handling and treatment of animals.
Under current law, only breeders and others who sell animals at wholesale are regulated, however, allowing some commercial breeders and brokers to avoid regulation by selling directly to consumers. Moreover, the USDA only has limited resources to oversee the care and condition of animals in these facilities.
PAWS would remedy this problem by amending the AWA so that large-scale commercial breeders who sell directly to the public would be regulated. Breeders who breed seven or more litters of dogs or cats per year would be required to obtain a license from the USDA.
Additionally, PAWS would cover importers, Internet sellers, and other nonbreeder dealers who sell more than 25 dogs or cats per year; strengthen the USDA's enforcement authority; and ensure government access to source records of persons acquiring dogs and cats for resale.
Finally, PAWS expands the USDA's authority to seek injunctions against unlicensed dog and cat dealers.
Citing data from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Sara Amundson, legislative director of the Doris Day Animal League, said more than 200,000 U.S. households bought puppies online in 2004.
"Because this Internet technology ensures the ultimate consumer never sees their puppy prior to the purchase and, therefore, simply cannot assess the case and living standards provided by the breeder, we need a federal law to appropriately regulate this burgeoning interstate commerce to protect puppies and the people who love them," Amundson said.
AVMA President Henry E. Childers told the subcommittee that the PAWS amendment would authorize the USDA to mandate health plans for animals from high-volume breeders and importers who currently "escape" regulation.
"The high-volume breeders and importers that this statute will affect have profit as their only goal," Dr. Childers said. "Neither morals nor ethics guide the misery they breed. ... They have been exempt from the law. (The AVMA) believes this must be corrected. Congress has the power to do that."
"The vast majority" of high-volume breeders, as well as smaller breeding establishments, do a conscientious job of breeding and raising quality puppies, according to Ronald Menaker, chairman of the AKC board of directors.
However, "we also know from firsthand experience in the field that, in spite of our efforts and the efforts of the USDA, there are still significant problems that need to be addressed for the sake of both the dogs and pet-buying public," said Menaker, adding that amending the Animal Welfare Act would solve some of these problems.
Michael Maddox, legislative director of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the largest pet trade association in the world, said his organization worries that, as written, PAWS would create new restrictions for pet stores, which typically fall under state and local oversight.
Moreover, certain provisions within the bill could require a person who sells a single pet to adhere to federal regulations, Maddox said.
Although those testifying before the Senate subcommittee were largely supportive of PAWS, critics of the measure would not be silenced. Numerous dog breed and ownership groups ran an advertisement in the Nov. 8 Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, blasting Santorum for not allowing PAWS opponents a chance to speak.
The ad went on to state "PAWS imposes USDA regulation on many private hobby breeders, most rescuers and every buyer and seller of a dog for hunting, security and breeding purposes, in a misguided effort to close perceived Animal Welfare Act 'loop holes.'"
Santorum went to great lengths to assure critics that passage of PAWS would not result in federal inspectors knocking down the doors of pet breeders. These and other concerns would be allayed in a revised version of the bill available in the weeks ahead, the senator said.
"Today's hearing presents a meaningful opportunity to hear from individuals regarding my legislation ... and the unfortunate mistreatment of our companion animals," Santorum said. "I look forward to gaining even more support for PAWS as a result of this hearing, and ultimately, to passing this legislation in the Senate."