Commercial dog breeding in Missouri: Part 1 - What a difference a law makes

Friday, August 22, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:18 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 2, 2014

COLUMBIA — More than three years after Missouri passed a law to crack down on the state's worst puppy mills, officials have seen a threefold increase in prosecutions.

Enforcement of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, initially known as "Prop B," has also resulted in a surge in the amount of civil fines levied against substandard breeders.

An analysis of legal documents, obtained from the Missouri Attorney General's Office through a series of Sunshine Law requests, illustrates the effectiveness of these regulatory changes:

  • Since April 27, 2011, when the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act became law, more than 1,300 dogs have been rescued, said Sarah Alsager, public information officer for the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
  • In the 27 months after the law was enacted, 37 businesses or individuals were referred to the Missouri Attorney General's Office for prosecution.
  • As a result, more than $25,000 in civil fines were assessed and nine licenses revoked, ranging in length from three to 10 years.
  • By contrast, in the 24 months before the law took effect, 10 businesses or individuals were referred to state officials for violating Missouri's animal welfare laws. No civil fines were assessed in those cases.

Before the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act was enacted in 2011, officials rarely punished anyone for breaking the state’s animal welfare laws.

Graphic: Travis Hartman | Missourian

Breeders were subject to the Animal Care Facilities Act, a state-level animal welfare law that regulates a variety of animal-related organizations and businesses.

Under this law, breeders could be prosecuted for posing "a substantial ongoing risk to the health and welfare of animals” or for posing "a substantial ongoing risk that consumers will purchase diseased animals."

Violators were subject to fines, license revocations and even jail time. This rarely happened.

In 2000, the Oversight Division of the Committee on Legislative Research discovered that not a single license had been revoked since the inception of the Animal Care Facilities Act in 1992.

The Oversight Division also found that state officials had fined only two substandard breeders through administrative hearings in the previous year.

At the time, administrative hearings were expensive, time-consuming and nearly impossible to produce, said Jessica Blome, a former Missouri assistant attorney general.

Local county prosecutors were often unwilling to take their constituents to criminal court, she said, and the "substantial ongoing risk" standard was extremely high, making civil prosecutions a rare occurrence.

These hurdles made it difficult to regulate the Animal Care Facilities Act and to prosecute animal welfare violators.

Leading up to the November 2010 election, Missouri was gaining a reputation as one of the nation's worst states for puppy mills — a reference to commercial dog breeding facilities with substandard conditions.

In the election that fall, Proposition B passed with just over 51 percent of the vote. Nearly 1 million Missourians — and more than 22,000 Boone County residents — voted in favor of the effort to improve standards of care for animals confined in breeding facilities across the state.

Farmers and others in agriculture, however, expressed concern about Proposition B's definition of a pet: "any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of the owner thereof."

They worried that this interpretation could be applied to more traditional forms of livestock. As a result, farmers and ranchers would become subject to the laws and regulations of the legislation.

Commercial breeders argued that a 50-dog limit would create dire financial consequences, potentially running many breeders out of business.

Graphic: Travis Hartman | Missourian

Over the next few months, the Missouri General Assembly acted to repeal many key provisions of Proposition B.

Eventually, a compromise was struck between state legislators and Gov. Jay Nixon, known as the "Missouri Solution," or the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, which kept some of the initial standards of care and provided funding for inspections.

Concessions were made by all parties involved.

The 50-dog limit was removed, and "pet" was redefined as a "species of the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, or resultant hybrids."

On the other hand, animal welfare activists won on a number of fronts: expanded space requirements for dogs and constant, unfettered access to outdoor exercise areas. Provisions covering food and water and breeding frequency regulations were also improved.

One of the biggest victories for animal welfare activists came in the form of veterinary care. Each breeding animal must be inspected at least once a year by a licensed veterinarian.

The provision also calls for "prompt" treatment of any serious illness or injury and more humane forms of euthanasia, which must be approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and conducted by a licensed vet, according to the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. The nonprofit alliance, founded in 1990 and based in St. Louis, lobbies for the passage of animal welfare laws that protect animals from abuse, neglect and inhumane treatment.

Additionally, the Missouri Department of Agriculture can now ask state prosecutors to sue breeders for past violations of the Animal Care Facilities Act and the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.

State prosecutors can now assess civil penalties of $1,000 per violation and charge violators with the crime of canine cruelty, according to the alliance.

These changes provided state officials with more regulatory muscle and resulted in more legal action. They may also have led to a reduction in the number of licensed commercial breeders in Missouri.

Graphic: Travis Hartman | Missourian

Since 2010, the number of commercial breeders licensed with Missouri's Animal Care Program has dropped from about 1,400 to just over 800, a decline of more than 40 percent, according to data obtained from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Some tie it directly to the legislation.

“The main reason is the passage of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act,” said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation.

“Now that noncompliance is being prosecuted,” he said, “hundreds of breeders have chosen to shut down their breeding operations rather than face stiff penalties.”

Others cite additional factors, chiefly financial obstacles.

“I think the primary reason is the economic recession and very slow recovery. Most people get into the dog breeding business to make a quick buck, which is why violations are so numerous,” Blome said.

“Most voluntarily go out of business simply because they cannot make money,” she added.

Baker has been investigating commercial breeders since 1980. Since then, he has visited more than 1,000 facilities across the country.

“When I started investigating puppy mills,” he said, “many were farmers’ wives who were supplementing the farm income by raising dogs in their spare time.”

Dogs were kept in chicken coops, rabbit hutches or even old refrigerators, washing machines or dryers that breeders had picked up from junkyards, Baker said.

As large corporate hog farms expanded production and cornered the market, small, family-owned hog farms were forced to evolve to ensure their survival. Many turned to dog breeding, Baker said.

They introduced a “factory farming system” to the world of commercial breeding, he said.

These dogs were often housed in hog stalls, in closed, cramped quarters, he said.

In 1992, after several national media exposés, a growing reputation as the “puppy mill” state and the urging of animal welfare activists, Missouri legislators passed the Animal Care Facilities Act.

The act established state laws concerning the housing, care and treatment of animals in breeding facilities, but as Baker pointed out, the “requirements only provided for ‘survival’ standards and not humane standards of care.”

Spacing was minimal, wire flooring was permitted and there was no exercise requirement for animals housed together in a single unit. Food had to be available every 12 hours and water every eight hours.

The laws were regulated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s Animal Care Program, but a variety of issues rendered the system largely ineffective.

A 2001 state audit report concluded that “(state) inspectors did not properly inspect animal care facilities and canines were left at risk. Program personnel chose to encourage breeders to comply with regulations rather than sanction them.”

Inspections were sporadic. The system was overwhelmed, said Debbie Hill, vice president of operations for the Humane Society of Missouri.

“We continually saw animals coming out of facilities with multiple health issues,” she said.

They found dogs with ear infections so severe their ear canals began to close, teeth so rotten they had to be pulled, and some animals so malnourished their bodies began absorbing their bones to survive, Hill said.

A 2004 state audit report “found the majority of findings noted in the first audit of the animal care inspection program were still occurring, four years later.”

By providing state authorities with more legal options, the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act was able to improve the effectiveness of Missouri's animal welfare laws.

"The most important thing the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act did was give the Missouri Department of Agriculture the authority to refer a case to the Attorney General's Office for enforcement," Blome said.

The former state assistant attorney general was charged with the task of developing – and heading – the Canine Cruelty Prevention Unit, a group of attorneys and staff members responsible for enforcing Missouri’s animal welfare laws.

Blome created a website, trained hotline operators and developed litigation protocols for dealing with cases.

After the Animal Care Program built a case against a noncompliant or substandard breeder, the information would be forwarded to Blome.

“Once I received the case file from MDA, which included all inspection reports, breeder and investigator statements, and photos, I would draft a petition for injunction within one week,” she said.

“Usually, the breeder would consent to an order with a schedule of compliance and pay a fine so they could get back in business, or, alternatively, the breeder would simply consent to an order shutting them down,” she said.

During her six-year tenure with the Attorney General’s Office, Blome prosecuted more than 40 breeders, most of them after the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act was enacted.

“I had a 100 percent success rate,” she said.

“She really did a remarkable job,” Baker said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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