ODD as it seems, the state of Missouri is home to 1,462 licensed commercial dog breeders. Between them, they breed about 1m puppies a year. About 40% of all the dogs that end up in pet shops across America are born in Missouri’s smaller country towns.
Some breeding places hardly bear inspection. Cori Menkin, senior director of legislative initiatives for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has seen “horrific” conditions there, with up to 1,000 breeding bitches under one roof. The worst of these “puppy mills” are filthy with urine and piled-up faeces. The animals have such matted coats that they cannot defecate properly. Some bitches freeze to death; others spend their whole lives on wire-floored cages, unable to walk on solid ground. “Whenever you are engaging in an industry that uses live animals and is seeking to make as much profit as possible, less money is put into the business, meaning less care is provided for the animals,” Ms Menkin says.
Animal-rights supporters claim that the laws governing these breeding sheds are vague, unenforceable and insufficient to maintain even the most rudimentary care. This is why they gathered more than 190,000 signatures in support of the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act—an exercise in direct democracy that was passed on November 2nd to improve conditions in the state’s breeding facilities.
The groups created the ballot initiative after repeatedly failing to get bills passed by the Missouri General Assembly, explains Barbara Schmitz, director of the Missouri branch of the Humane Society. She estimates that licensed premises may account for only half the number of puppy mills in the state. There are probably as many unlicensed ones, adding up to almost 3,000 in all, operating under laws that have not been updated in 18 years.
In 2009 the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which oversees breeders, created a programme called Operation Bark Alert. Under this, individuals can report unlicensed breeders to the state. According to Misti Preston, a spokesman for the department, the initiative has helped rescue more than 3,600 dogs and put 180 unlicensed commercial breeders out of business.
But the department can only do so much. Ms Preston admits that there are only 12 inspectors and that, between them, they have to check on more than 2,800 facilities each year—including breeding sheds, dog pounds and pet shops. And with puppies selling for $50-200 each, the fines levied are so low that they are simply seen by unscrupulous breeders as part of the cost of doing business.
The new amendment will provide clearer, enforceable standards. It allows no more than 50 breeding bitches in any one facility. Breeders with more than ten will have to provide sufficient food and clean water, veterinary care, regular exercise and adequate rest between breeding cycles. The amendment also regulates the size of kennels, so that the animals have room to stretch. Any violation of this law will count as a class C misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of up to 15 days in jail and a fine of up to $300, still rather low.
Ms Menkin hopes the amendment will have an impact on breeders not only in Missouri, but other states as well. “We hoped that people in Missouri would understand the reputation they have garnered in the rest of the country as being the puppy-mill capital,” she says. “And I’m glad they came out to vote to change it.”