COLUMBIA — Missouri has been regarded as a prime carrier of puppy mills in the last decade, but the Missouri Department of Agriculture is beginning to work with the attorney general’s office to take stronger action than in the past.
Director of Agriculture Jon Hagler said the biggest hurdle in the past has been making this issue a priority.
If you are interested in a purebred dog —
A responsible breeder should be able to show you papers on the dog's parents and should have vet references and references from previous buyers.
You should be able to see both parents of the dog or at least pictures of them.
The breeder should give you some sort of health guarantee and should also let you know that you can bring the dog back if it doesn’t work out for you.
The breeder should be a member in good standing of a breed club. Contact the AKC. It will have a list of members and many responsible breeders in your community. The breed registry and breed clubs will have a list of many member clubs and should be able to give you a list of breeders in your area.
Be sure to contact the Missouri Department of Agriculture for further questions.
Talk to other people who own the breed you are looking into. If there is a local pet store or grooming shop in your neighborhood, stop in and ask employees or shoppers questions you have about owning a dog.
Always personally visit a breeder before buying a dog. It is important to see where your dog was born and raised.
If you are not interested in a purebred dog, rescue or shelter dogs are a good option.
“Before, we’ve never been able to get the two sides to agree or the many sides to agree,” Hagler said. “We have the humane societies and the shelters and the breeders and all the different groups, and they haven’t always agreed on what we should be doing.”
This is the first time the attorney general's office has paired with the Department of Agriculture in respect to illegal dog breeding.
“For a long time I think the General Assembly turned its back on the problem,” Attorney General Chris Koster said.
According to the The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Web site, there is no legal definition of “puppy mill,” and this compounds the difficulty of state officials to create laws that encompass all substandard practices.
In June, Hagler and Koster formed a partnership on the premise that the two offices will be able to diminish the number of substandard breeding facilities in Missouri.
“On the licensing front, the attorney general’s office will take these cases forward themselves,” Koster said. “On the animal abuse front, when we come up and find those situations, then we’ll work in coordination with local prosecutors. Those prosecutors have the first bite of the apple, but a lot of times since we have this ongoing effort under way, they may well transfer jurisdiction to us. But we’ll work cooperatively along those lines.”
The partnership marks the beginning of an initiative called Prosecution Bark Alert, a second phase of a February project called Operation Bark Alert. The former, created by Gov. Jay Nixon and Hagler, involved information gathering rather than legal action. The Department of Agriculture opened a Web site, barkalert.mo.gov, where citizens could report suspected poor breeders in their communities.
There has been one Bark Alert complaint from Boone County since the program’s inception, Hagler said.
Hagler said more than 200 unlicensed breeders have already been identified, and purports that now the the department will pursue legal action with Koster’s help. Koster said that where abuse has been found, the puppies themselves have been rescued and taken to local shelters for immediate treatment and rehabilitation.
“We verify an unlicensed breeder and give them the opportunity to get in compliance with the law,” Hagler said. “If they do not take immediate action and the necessary steps to become compliant, then we turn their name over to the Attorney General Koster's office for further action.”
Rather than an immediate shutdown, Hagler said the two offices will continue to work with breeders to bring their kennels to the standard set forth by the state of Missouri.
The Animal Welfare Act, a federal law passed in 1966, defines the minimum standard of care for dogs bred for commercial resale. It maintains that breeders defined as “wholesale” are legally required to be licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On the state level, the Animal Care Facilities Act Program that passed on Aug. 28, 1992, requires commercial breeders in Missouri to be licensed with the Missouri Department of Agriculture and to pass an annual inspection.
“We’re not trying to put people behind bars. We’re trying to get breeders to clean up their act and follow the law,” Hagler said.
The ultimate goal is not only to protect animal welfare and to give families peace of mind who want to buy a pet, but also to exalt quality breeders.
“In the end when you think about it, if you’re out there making a legitimate living, you’re paying licenses, you’re paying for the cost of really good quality care, you want people to know that if you go to a reputable breeder, you’re going to get a great dog,” Hagler said.