Animal welfare advocates say the federal government recently snatched away a key tool for people to understand whether the puppies they might buy come from humane breeders or from callous operators of “puppy mills.”
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would return some animal welfare reports to public view online. Yet those reports deal with federal research facilities — not commercial pet breeders.
Missouri farms raise an outsized share of the country’s dogs, selling more than 100,000 a year from more than 800 breeders.
The industry said the move protects breeders from being tarred by the worst reports of a few sloppy operations. Animal welfare groups said the absence of the online reports chronicling rules violations will leave consumers, and some state regulators, in the dark about how well dogs are treated.
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“We’ve cautioned people when they go to buy a dog from a breeder to check on the conditions of the seller,” said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. “That just got much harder.”
In Missouri, both state and federal inspectors check dog breeders’ compliance with laws passed in Jefferson City and Washington.
Baker said that together, those reports provide the best picture of which breeders take good care of their animals and which don’t.
For many years, the federal reports could be found within a few minutes on the web. The records from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service remain public documents, but reading them now requires a Freedom of Information Act request that can take months.
Similar inspections, although focused on different rules, from the Missouri Department of Agriculture can be had by request more quickly. But they’re not listed online.
Midwestern dog-raising operations first took off after World War II when the USDA encouraged farmers to consider them as another form of income. Missouri’s puppy industry grew again in the 1990s when large-scale hog farms forced many small operators out of the pork business, and those farmers looked for other animals to raise.
The trend was particularly profound in the state because farms in the state tend to be small. Counted by number of farms, rather than size, Missouri trails only Texas.
By the start of the 21st century, some 2,000 dog-breeding operations dotted the state. They began to draw scrutiny, and criticism, as sometimes inhumane operations that crowded dogs tightly and gave only passing notice to the animals’ health and comfort.
The industry said those criticisms were unfair, arguing that if farms weren’t raising healthy pups, they’d have no pets to sell.
In 2010, Missouri voters passed Proposition B. The law insisted on larger cages and yearly veterinarian checks, and it placed a limit of 50 breeding dogs per outfit. The Missouri General Assembly the next year threw out the law. But a compromise law took effect in 2011 that kept most of the new rules approved by voters, although it dumped the limits on the number of dogs.
The new rules quickly slimmed the field, prompting hundreds of farms to back out of the puppy trade.
Those that remained, in Missouri and elsewhere, often complained that online posting of inspection reports painted a deceptively negative picture of the business — focusing undue attention on operators who left sick animals untreated or otherwise abused their dogs.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency compiling the reports, said it removed the inspections from its website because “the agency is striving to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy.” It noted that the change was in the works “before the change of administration” that put Donald Trump in the White House.
Rather, APHIS cited pending litigation as a factor. A year ago, two Texas lawyers sued the agency, claiming it violated their due process when inspection reports of horse-raising facilities led to the exclusion of their livestock from equine competitions.
The Humane Society of the United States, which is regularly at odds with the pet-breeding industry, said the government overreacted by taking the public documents away from where they can easily be seen.
John Goodwin, who heads the group’s Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, said the move will make it harder for states to enforce various laws that make pet sales contingent on clean inspection reports.
“For what? So a puppy mill operator can get some privacy? That’s nuts,” he said. “This information should be accessible so that people can understand where the animals come from and how they’re being treated.”
Hank Grosenbacher, president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, said the online posting of the reports mostly served to give the Humane Society something to sensationalize.
“They literally can’t wait to get those reports,” said Grosenbacher, who raises and sells English and French bulldogs and toy Australian shepherds out of MidMo Bulldogs in Edgar Springs, Mo. “If you want to buy a beagle, ask the breeder for the report. If he says, ‘Oh, no. I don’t want to send them to you,’ buy your dog from somebody else.”
Most states require that breeders have three years without a mark on their record, he said. So bad inspections can still put a kennel out of business, he said, whether the records are posted on the web or not.
Yet Petland Inc., a sizable puppy buyer, criticized the USDA for taking the records offline.
“We must now obtain USDA inspection reports from individual breeders” said Joe Watson, president and CEO of the Ohio-based company. “We encourage USDA to find a balance that affords both privacy (for breeders) and public transparency.”