Raids on puppy mills give weight to push for more state regulation
Animal rescue officials are scrambling to combat commercial dog-breeding farms, saying that as surrounding states clamp down on puppy mills, Texas risks becoming a haven for a largely unregulated industry.
Police and animal officials have entered barns and sheds around the state to find hundreds of dogs stacked in cages, many malnourished and diseased.
In Central Texas, the Gulf Coast and the southwestern part of the state, inquiries into animal brokers, dealers and dog breeders have nearly doubled in the past two years, said Marissa Gabrysch of the Better Business Bureau.
Animal-welfare advocates are looking to the Legislature to help, saying Texas’ size and lack of strong laws to regulate breeders have allowed cruel operations to flourish.
“We have the perfect element: geography, land demographics for buyers, little regulation,” said James Bias, executive director of the Dallas chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
But some breeders will seek to defeat those efforts, saying a legislative crackdown is not needed.
Dallas SPCA officials said they have seen an increase in complaints about breeding practices. In the past three years, Bias said, his group has removed animals from at least a dozen puppy mills just in the Dallas area.
“These operators have gotten very covert,” said Bias, who helps law enforcement officials inspect commercial breeding farms.
In August, the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department and local and national animal rescue groups confiscated 550 dogs from Margaret and Tony Boyd’s Klassie Kennel on a farm near Mabank.
Dogs were crammed in wire cages, many sick, with missing fur and skin diseases, surrounded by feces smeared on the walls and trash strewn throughout the buildings.
Owner Margaret Boyd, 72, who had been breeding and selling dogs for about 40 years, denied hurting the animals and said she considered them to be a part of her life.
The couple was found guilty of animal cruelty, and paid $1,045 in fines and court fees. Costs for basic care and medical services for the animals could reach $150,000, said the Humane Society and the SPCA.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, wants to stiffen regulations for commercial breeding operations. A similar bill failed in the last Legislature after opposition from pet breeders and veterinarians.
The new proposal would require a commercial breeder to obtain a license, pay a fee set by the Department of Licensing and Regulation and allow initial and annual inspections to uphold basic U.S. Department of Agriculture rules.
A commercial breeder would be defined as a person who has 11 or more adult female animals and is engaged in breeding animals for sale.
An agency within the Agriculture Department now regulates commercial breeders that sell wholesale, or through pet stores, but it does not regulate businesses selling through the Internet, flea markets or classified ads. Breeders who are not licensed fall under the state’s animal cruelty laws, but their operations go without inspection unless police get a complaint.
In May, the federal department’s inspector general chided the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s efforts in protecting animals. The report cited “leniency toward violators, the ineffectiveness of its enforcement process and the harmful effect they had on the animals.”
“The USDA doesn’t do a very good job of enforcing their own regulations,” said Skip Trimble, chairman of the Texas Humane Legislation Network, a group helping Thompson draft her legislation.
The Responsible Pet Owners Alliance opposes breeder regulations, saying the increasing raids prove current laws are sufficient to root out abusers, said executive director Mary Beth Duerler.
“The Humane Society of the United States has an agenda to stop all breeding,” she said. “This is not an anti-puppy mill bill, it’s an anti-breeding bill.”
Some breeders agree. Leslie Becker of New Braunfels has been breeding Norwich Terriers for 49 years and said reputable breeders like her do not need to be regulated.
“There are so many variables in breeding that one rule just doesn’t apply,” Becker said.
Since 2009, local law enforcement agencies across the state have conducted 10 raids of commercial breeding farms, in contrast to an average of two raids in previous years.
“Puppy mills have grown tremendously in the public eye,” said Dale Bartlett, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. “People are more and more aware of what a puppy mill is and how some are treated.”
Texas is among the top 10 states in the number of licensed commercial breeders, said the federal Agriculture Department. About half the states have regulations over commercial breeding farms.
Texas is now, after Oklahoma recently passed a law, one of the top puppy-producing states left that doesn’t have any regulation, Bartlett said. He predicted Texas will become a magnet for some larger and less scrupulous operations.
Opposition from the Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the Responsible Pet Owners Alliance helped derail the last puppy mill bill. Elizabeth Choate, a spokeswoman for the veterinary group, said the doctors will seek to help shape the new measure.
“No one is for puppy mills,” she said, but her group “wants to make sure commercial breeders are allowed to operate in a humane way.”