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Missouri's Puppy Mill Politics

Animal welfare activists won a victory at the polls last November. They say some of that victory has already been taken away by the Legislature.

By Pamela M. Prah, Stateline Staff Writer

In Missouri, until this year, it was legal to put a full-grown dog in a cage the size of a dishwasher, never let it out for exercise, and leave it there for life. It's still legal in many states. But animal welfare advocates in Missouri, which has developed an unsavory reputation for this sort of cruelty, thought they had outlawed such practices last fall. Voters there approved a ballot measure aimed at eliminating the state's reputation as the puppy mill capital of America. Things haven't turned out quite as the advocates planned.

Late last month, amid pressure from the state's dog breeders, among others, Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation repealing the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act that voters had approved. In its stead the legislature approved new standards the governor says will protect dogs in a way that won't put responsible breeders out of business.

Not everyone agrees with him. "It's politics at its worst," says Barbara Schmitz, Missouri state director of the Humane Society of the United States and a lead proponent of the ballot measure. She and other animal welfare activists say the law the governor signed falls short of the sweeping and immediate protections of the ballot measure. Larger cage spaces, for example, will be phased in over the next five years, rather than by this November, as the ballot measure would have required.

Breeders say the new law strikes the right balance. "We're happy with it," says Lisa Peterson, of the American Kennel Club, which opposed the ballot measure, primarily because it put a cap on the number of dogs an individual breeder could own. That cap is now gone.

The term "puppy mill" generally refers to a large commercial breeding operation where the animals do not receive proper care. Not all large breeders function this way, but many do. The Humane Society says there are about 10,000 puppy mills in the United States, 30 percent of them in Missouri. Puppy mill puppies are typically sold to pet shops -- usually through a broker, or middleman -- as young as eight weeks of age.

The lineage records of puppy mill dogs are frequently falsified. Because the breeders often fail to remove sick dogs from their breeding pools, puppies from puppy mills are prone to congenital and hereditary conditions, which can include heart and kidney disease and respiratory disorders. Puppies from puppy mills often arrive in pet stores -- and their new homes -- with mange, heartworm, ticks and a host of other diseases or ailments.

Vick's Legacy

There's no disputing that animal rights forces are making progress across the country when it comes to the treatment of dogs. Twenty years ago, for example, you would have been hard-pressed to find more than a dozen states that treated dogfighting as a crime. Even fewer had stiff penalties for animal cruelty. Today, dogfighting is a felony offense in all 50 states, thanks largely to the 2007 arrest and imprisonment of NFL superstar Michael Vick. And just this year, Mississippi became the 47th state to make cruelty to dogs and cats a felony. Only Idaho and North and South Dakota lack such protective measures.

Oprah's Influence

"For a long time," says Cori Menkin, senior director of the puppy mill campaign for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "puppy mills were not considered an important issue." But that started changing just a few years ago.

One catalyst was the revelation that two eastern Pennsylvania kennel operators shot 80 dogs after wardens ordered some of the animals examined by veterinarians. After that case became public, Pennsylvania passed what advocates call a landmark puppy mill law.

The 2008 Pennsylvania law doubled the minimum amount of floor space required for each dog, eliminated wire flooring that can destroy a dog's foot, and required twice-a-year veterinary exams. Dog lover Oprah Winfrey helped push the issue to the forefront after a Pennsylvania animal rights group put up a billboard near her Chicago studios pleading with her to do a show on the issue. She did in 2008.

But Missouri, voting last fall, was the first state in which voters weighed in on the puppy mill issue. The animal rights forces won passage of their initiative with a narrow 52 percent of the vote. They hoped the measure, commonly known as Prop B, would bring relief to some 200,000 dogs in Missouri's 3,000 puppy mills.

Barely a month after voters approved Prop B, efforts were underway in the legislature to repeal it. "Telling our breeders how many dogs they can own and how to raise them is just the tip of the iceberg," state Senator Mike Parson said when he introduced legislation in January that he insisted would correct "the wrong doings" of Prop B.

Many of the provisions that breeders opposed most strongly in Prop B have been eliminated. These include restricting to 50 the number of female dogs a person can own for breeding purposes; limiting breeding to no more than twice every 18 months; and requiring that the cages be tall enough so all dogs can stand up straight.

Striking a Balance

Gov. Nixon says the new law "upholds the will of the voters" by adding its own new anti-cruelty protections. Within five years, breeders will have to provide dogs three times the space currently required; give them unfettered access to an outdoor exercise run; and ensure that wire strand flooring, commonly used in commercial dog breeding kennels, is not used for new enclosures.

The new law also increases to $2,500, up from $500, the maximum fee for obtaining a license to operate certain dog facilities, and promises $1.1 million to the state Department of Agriculture for more inspectors and veterinarians to ensure breeders are complying with the new law.

Dog breeders are generally happy with these changes, particularly because they impose no restrictions on the size of breeding operations. They also approve of a new law enacted this year in Wyoming, which doesn't try to define "puppy mills" based on the number of animals someone owns. Instead, the final bill that Gov. Matt Mead signed in March defines "household pet animal cruelty" as any action that keeps household pets in "a manner that results in chronic or repeated serious physical harm to the household pet" or keeps the pets "confined in conditions which constitute a public health hazard."

Dog breeders weren't the only vocal opponents of Missouri's Prop B. The agriculture industry, a potent political force in the state, worried that that the new protections for dogs could be the forerunner to strict rules for farm animals. "Missouri farmers and ranchers are concerned that animal agriculture will be the next target of the radical animal rights agenda," Missouri Farm Bureau President Charles E. Kruse said after Prop B passed last fall.

Chris Chinn, an independent hog farmer from northeastern Missouri, has been outspoken in expressing her concern that protections for pets could be written in such a way that her livestock would be covered. "Supporters of Prop B claim it was ONLY about dogs," she wrote in a recent blog post on the American Farm Bureau Federation's website. "If that was true, why not define the term `pet' as a canine?"

Michael Markarian, chief operating officer of the Humane Society, dismisses the idea that a law to protect dogs "will somehow morph into a law that affects livestock." But for now, what's important to Markarian and other animal rights advocates is making sure that this spring's ballot measure repeal won't happen again in Missouri. A broad coalition of organizations has formed the Voter Protection Alliance and is working on a new measure: a constitutional amendment to require a three-fourths vote in both houses of the legislature, or a subsequent vote of the people, in order to repeal or amend any citizen-passed initiative.

"One hundred and ninety-seven lawmakers and one governor substituted their judgment for the judgment of voters," says Schmitz, of the Humane Society. "It's a travesty," she says, "a real twisting of the political process."

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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