Pet breeding laws under threat from House farm bill

Pet breeding laws under threat from House farm bill
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The pet industry and animal welfare groups are ramping up lobbying efforts around an obscure section of the House’s farm bill that would have an impact on not just farm animals and agriculture, but also domesticated pets.

The House is moving to take up legislation that would reauthorize spending on agricultural and nutritional programs. As it did during the last farm bill debate in 2013, the House included an amendment in the bill from GOP Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingWarren calls out GOP congressman for 'white supremacist propaganda,' encourages donations to his opponent GOP lawmaker accuses black students of supporting 'George Wallace's segregation' The stakes are sky-high for the pro-life cause in the upcoming midterms MORE (Iowa) that would prevent states from creating laws that would regulate “agriculture products” manufactured or offered for sale in other states. 

Among other things, that amendment would essentially preempt state and local laws already enacted that aim to prevent puppy mills from selling sick or abused dogs.

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The Humane Society and other animal protection organizations, including the Animal Welfare Institute, are mobilizing to keep the King amendment out of the final package, which will have to be agreed upon by the House and Senate.

“We certainly are horrified about what [the] King [amendment] would mean for so many things, so we’re working hard to not having it lined up at the end of the process,” said Nancy Blaney, the director of government affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute.

King’s amendment didn’t make it into the final farm bill in 2013, and the legislation being worked on by the Senate now is likely to be vastly different from what the lower chamber is considering.

“While history repeats itself, you can’t take anything for granted this Congress,” Blaney said. “We don’t want to lay it at the Senate’s feet and say, ‘Well, we hope this happens.’ ”

The Animal Welfare Institute has created a grass-roots letter-writing campaign and held briefings on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to abandon the provision.

King’s amendment would extend further than just the commercial breeding of pets and preempt state regulations on the sale of crops, dairy products, farmed fish or shellfish, farm animals and manufactured meat products. 

Recently, two pet groups and pet stores, Petco and Petland, hired a lobbying firm — Federal Advocates — to work on issues related to the farm bill.

Another new client of the firm, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), expressed support for the general idea of King’s amendment, saying it is concerned with the state preemption of federal law and regulations for animal welfare.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA), though the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is responsible for regulating commercial breeding operations on the federal level.

While Mike Bober, who helms PIJAC, says he doesn’t support the King amendment “as written,” the group thinks that the federal government, not states, should be handling regulations about animal welfare to create a single standard.

“Our concern is that when this sort of thing is addressed using a patchwork of local regulations or laws, it does a disservice to the animals and prospective pet owners,” Bober says. “It allows people to essentially say that it doesn’t matter what’s being done on the federal level, they don’t trust what the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing, they’re going to take it upon themselves to regulate it or prohibit it.”

Asked what his ideal amendment would contain, Bober couldn’t say. 

Bober said state and local laws banning certain types of animal sales would also have unintended consequences, including moving the sale of unsavory commercial puppy breeding operations into an unregulated “black market,” which would result in consumers having less transparency about the dogs they’re purchasing.

“It may make people feel good. It really doesn’t have the ability to affect the change they want it to,” Bober said.

Bober says he isn’t currently engaged with Capitol Hill, despite hiring a lobbying firm.

John Goodwin, who leads the Stop Puppy Mills campaign at the Humane Society of the United States, says that it’s not clear that consumers would resort to buying dogs from websites that ship puppies — sight unseen — or other dubious sources, should states crack down on puppy mills.

“Isn’t it likely a good percentage will end up adopting from a rescue they see at PetSmart, the local shelter, or from a breeder who they meet and visit in person to make sure they are doing things humanely?” he said. “Can some go to other puppy mill sources? Yes, but it’s just as likely many won’t. And with the USDA standards for pet store breeders being so inadequate, I don’t see pet stores as being on very good footing when they imply they are better than the flea market person.”

Some pet stores have faced allegations that they purchase often-sick puppies from puppy mills and sell them to customers. The stores have strongly pushed back against the allegations.

Last month, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed into law a measure that would ban pet stores from obtaining puppies from puppy mills, despite lobbying from pet stores. The pet industry argued that responsible breeders were being wrongfully lumped in with bad actors.

Animal protection groups claim that not allowing states and municipalities to craft rules that go beyond federal standards is a dangerous prospect, especially because those requirements, outlined in the Animal Welfare Act, are so weak.

Under that statute, a breeder must be licensed if, among other things, they have five or more breeding female dogs, cats or other animals covered under the law.

Both animal welfare groups and industry groups like PIJAC agree that USDA regulations are lax and need to be updated. Groups have been pushing for increased standards for animal housing, medical care, exercise and opportunities to become socialized with humans and other animals.

USDA regulations, for example, allow licensed breeders to keep dogs in stacked cages with only six inches of space around their bodies. 

There are no limits on how long or how many times females can be bred, and some of the other regulations around care are vague, mentioning that the animals need to be supervised by a veterinarian.