COLUMBIA — A few months into volunteering as a foster parent for the Central Missouri Humane Society, Jessica Schlosser found herself taking home a frightened shih tzu puppy with a filthy, matted coat.
The puppy, Tully, had come from a puppy mill, an operation set up by dog breeders who keep their animals in poor condition and over-breed them for profit.
Missouri law would be amended to:
- Require large-scale dog breeding operations to provide each dog under their care with sufficient food, clean water, housing and space; necessary veterinary care; regular exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles
- Prohibit any breeder from having more than 50 breeding dogs for the purpose of selling their puppies as pets
- Create a misdemeanor crime of "puppy mill cruelty" for any violations
Schlosser, 27, and her husband have taken in more than 40 animals — many from puppy mills. They sign on to care for the neglected dogs until they become adoptable, which "can take anywhere from three days to five months," she said.
Missouri has a reputation as the leading puppy mill state in the country, said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
An estimated 3,000 puppy mills operate in Missouri, he said. Oklahoma, the state with the second-most breeding mills, has an estimated 2,000.
Barbara Schmitz wants to change this.
Schmitz, Missouri's director of the Humane Society of the United States, is working with other animal organizations to gather 100,000 signatures to secure the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act a spot on the November 2010 general election ballot.
The act would set strict standards for large-scale dog breeders and make violating the standards a misdemeanor. Although puppy mills are illegal under current Missouri law, there is currently no criminal prosecution. Breeders in violation lose their license.
"Dogs raised in puppy mills typically live in confinement in wire cages," Pacelle said. "They're exposed to the elements, bred continuously and denied love and affection from people — all because someone wants to make a profit."
Puppy mills have a significant impact on the Central Missouri Humane Society at 616 Big Bear Blvd.
Two hundred dogs were brought from puppy mills during 2009 alone, Executive Director Alan Allert said. This is one-third of the 600 puppy mill dogs housed at the shelter between 2005 and 2009.
“It’s a big issue in the entire state,” Allert said. The Humane Society in Columbia receives dogs from a large area because it is the only society in mid-Missouri, he said.
The shelter can handle 250 dogs but operates as an "open shelter" so no animal is rejected. When puppy mills are raided, often dozens of seized dogs arrive at once, straining the shelter's resources.
The recent increase in dogs taken to the Humane Society might result from last February's Operation Bark Alert online, Allert said. The Web site allows citizens to report inhumane breeders or puppy mills to be inspected.
On Dec. 15, complaints led animal control officers to an unlicensed kennel near Columbia where 10 toy dogs were being kept outdoors with inadequate protection from the cold.
Officer Debbie Christoff inspected the owner's property and found the animals sick, cold and living in cages with little insulation or support.
"If it were to rain, the water would just come pouring right in," Christoff said.
The owner was cited and told to relinquish the dogs. Christoff said the owner intends to fight the allegations.
Since Operation Bark Alert was initiated, formal complaints have led to 200 investigations. Those investigations resulted in crackdowns on 200 unlicensed breeders and the rescue of 2,900 dogs, said Jon Hagler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
"We've accomplished more in one year than all the others combined," he said. "We're really proud of these results."
Although Schmitz applauds the outcome, she points to scores of puppies who still aren't given proper food, water, veterinary care and exercise. It is detrimental to these animals, she said.
“When these puppies are raised in dirty, factory-like conditions and then sold to unsuspecting families, everyone is harmed," she said.
As a foster parent, Schlosser said she has seen firsthand how puppy mill dogs behave. Their temperament and personality are noticeably different from most other dogs, something unsuspecting pet buyers may not realize at the time of purchase.
"They don't know they can trust people," she said. "They're timid and terrified because of a complete lack of socialization and human interaction."
Schlosser also said basic fostering steps, such as potty training, are complicated and frustrating.
"The vast majority of these animals are forced to live in their own waste, so it's extremely difficult for them to learn bladder control," she said.
Yet, many of these dogs overcome their past.
"The neat thing about dogs is the vast majority of them are ridiculously resilient," she said. "With a little bit of time and a lot of patience and coaxing, they realize that people are good."
The proposed Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act would require large-scale dog breeders to provide sufficient food, clean water, housing, veterinary care, exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles.
Pacelle said the act is not meant to attack all dog breeders, but rather to "fight puppy mills that essentially treat their dogs like breeding machines."
The act would also prohibit any breeder from having more than 50 breeding dogs for the purpose of selling their puppies as pets. The most recent legislation on inhumane dog breeders, 1992's Animal Care Facilities Act, has no cap on the number of dogs a breeder can have.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture enforces the current law, and Hagler said it is intended to ensure dogs under the care of breeders “receive adequate shelter, health care and proper socialization."
To obtain a license, a dog breeder must submit an application and pay a fee of $100. Only breeders with three or more females are required to be licensed.
An initial inspection is performed to ensure the breeding facility complies with standards, Hagler said. Currently, 12 animal health officers from the department perform these inspections.
The state is divided into 12 sections, one for each officer. Each licensed breeder is inspected once a year, sometimes more if a facility receives serious complaints from neighbors or other residents.
A breeder who does not pass inspection has the license revoked.
Hagler said the number of current inspectors is insufficient; ideally, there should be 15 to 20, but funding is not available to add more.
Having a license doesn't necessarily mean a breeder's dogs are treated well, Schmitz said.
"Getting people licensed is important, but making sure that everyone who is licensed is treating their animals humanely is also extremely important," she said.
She also thinks the current is law vague and “completely inadequate.”
"It focuses on revoking licenses as a punishment, but with no other deterrence, this leaves an awful amount of room for animal cruelty," she said.
Schmitz and Pacelle believe enforcement would be more successful because any law enforcement officer would be able to apply the misdemeanor charge to offenders. Fines and jail time could result.
Christoff is skeptical about the success of stiffer regulations.
"Since a lot of people doing this breeding don't have a permit or are under the radar anyway, I'm not sure that passing more laws will help the problem," she said.
Hagler believes the key to cracking down on Missouri's puppy mills lies in programs like Operation Bark Alert that seek out unlicensed breeders.
"We have seen consistently in the majority of cases, whether it be neglect or abuse, that failure to meet standards comes from illegal breeding operations," he said.
Setting up in secluded locations seems to be a tactic puppy mill operators use to stay undetected, Schmitz said.
"It's easier to partake in this kind of activity in rural areas," she said. "Since people make a great deal of money this way, it seems as if a subculture has taken root out there."
Pacelle said the Humane Society has attempted to take three bills regarding puppy mills to Jefferson City — one in 2001, another in 2005 and a 2009 antecedent to the current proposal.
"They were dead on arrival," he said.
Schmitz speculated that special interests have gotten in the way of the legislation.
"There are people who make a very large profit engaging in this kind of activity," she said. "When you go into a state capital and try to get an opposite message through, those special interests become very apparent."
The Humane Society has never failed to collect the required signatures and has submitted about 30 statewide ballot initiatives.
The shelter has also been successful in generating financial support. Last February, a flier urging adoption noted that "nearly 300 dogs and puppies came from puppy mills."
More than $15,000 in donations was generated from the flier, Allert said.
"The bottom line is that animals need to be cared for properly," Schmitz said. She will be giving a presentation from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Columbia Public Library's friends room at 100 W. Broadway to raise awareness of and discuss the state's puppy mill issue.
The Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act is supported by the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society of Missouri, the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Supporters hope to have 100,000 signatures by May 2. Once the petition is official and on the November ballot, they will begin campaigning for passage.