In January, bowing to farm interests, the Missouri Legislature set out to trash Proposition B, which Missouri voters narrowly approved in November.
Proposition B aimed to eliminate Missouri's shameful status as the Puppy Mill Capital of America by enacting tough standards for commercial pet breeding operations.
The Legislature passed a bill that neutered Proposition B. But then — after a hard-fought, but good-faith, battle among competing interests and a deal brokered by members of both parties and the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon — the Legislature passed a second bill, Senate Bill 161.
SB 161 reinstituted many of Prop B's provisions but gave existing breeders time to phase in some of the more expensive (and important) changes, such as increasing cage sizes and banning wire flooring. It also authorized the Missouri attorney general to prosecute violations of the Animal Care Facilities Act. Nixon signed both bills and got the Legislature to cough up an additional $1.1 million for enforcement.
National animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, which had helped fund the original Proposition B campaign, regarded SB 161 as a sellout.
But state and local animal welfare groups, including the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation and the Humane Society of Missouri, backed the so-called Missouri Solution. They said the compromise could work to improve the care of dogs and cats being bred as pets.
It appears they may have been right.
Last week, the state Department of Agriculture issued final regulations for implementing SB 161. The regulations clarify the requirement that a veterinarian personally examine every animal in a breeding facility at least once a year, documented with written records.
The department also has toughened enforcement, a shift that began when Nixon named Jon Hagler as director in January 2009.
A horse rancher with a Ph.D in political science from Washington University, Hagler has overseen a 123 percent increase in inspections and 85 percent more citations for violations by breeding operations.
With that has come a 33 percent decline in the number of licensed commercial dog breeders.
Hagler also launched a program called "Bark Alert" through which citizens can report substandard and abusive breeders, most of them illegal and unlicensed. The department said it has rescued some 5,200 dogs in the last two and a half years.
Animal welfare activists told us that Hagler has replaced much of his inspection staff with people more attuned to animal welfare concerns. With the funds appropriated this summer, he increased the number of inspectors to 14 — four more than in 2008 — and added an investigator and a full-time veterinarian to the staff.
The intensity and success of Proposition B's proponents clearly helped push elected officials to take long-delayed action against Missouri's disgraceful puppy mill operations.
But it also took the practical, solution-minded approach of established local animal welfare organizations to reach a fair-minded compromise with breeders. It also took the support of Hagler and his boss, Nixon, two skilled political animals who have credibility with Missouri's powerful farm lobby.
A key challenge remains: Fixing the grossly unfair fee schedule that treats non-profit animal shelters and rescue groups the same as for-profit breeders. Given the recent progress, it shouldn't be that difficult.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.