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After long slog, ‘puppy mill bill’ advances

Mike Mosedale//March 19, 2014

After long slog, ‘puppy mill bill’ advances

Mike Mosedale//March 19, 2014

This July 10, 2013, photo shows some of the 170 dogs seized from a home near Wheatland, N.D. Officers said the animals were being kept in filthy, cramped conditions. (AP file photo: Cass County (N.D.) Sheriff’s Department via The Forum)
This July 10, 2013, photo shows some of the 170 dogs seized from a home near Wheatland, N.D. Officers said the animals were being kept in filthy, cramped conditions. (AP file photo: Cass County (N.D.) Sheriff’s Department via The Forum)

In what has become an annual ritual, animal welfare advocates returned to the Capitol again this session with puppy mill horror stories and the demand that lawmakers impose meaningful regulations on commercial pet breeders.

Similar efforts have come to naught in past years, with proposals derailed by opposition from groups as disparate at the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, the Minnesota Pet Breeders Association, the Minnesota Farmers Union and the National Rifle Association.

This session looks like it might yield a different result.

In large part, that’s because the bill backers forged compromises with three of the aforementioned groups. (The sole exception, the NRA, has not weighed in.)

Under a bill that advanced in both the Senate and the House this week, commercial dog and cat breeders would be required to obtain an annual license and submit to yearly inspections from the Board of Animal Health. The so-called “puppy mill bill” also empowers the Board to fine breeders who break the rules, with administrative penalties of as much as $5,000 per violation, and to permanently bar the worst offenders from obtaining commercial licenses.

“I don’t think there’s another bill in my 12 years as a legislator I’ve worked on longer with more parties,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, the chief author of the House version of the bill. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is carrying the companion bill in the Senate, which also cleared a committee hurdle this week.

Lesch said existing law is “clearly inadequate” to prevent the sorts of abuses that have become a staple of “television news reports that most of us don’t want to watch.”

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has regulatory oversight over the 33 commercial dog and cat breeders in the state who supply pet shops, Lesch noted, “all those producers who sell to you in the parking lot of the Home Depot or on Craigslist are completely uninspected.”

What’s different about this session?

Numerous compromises

“We have reached across to the opposition and made numerous concessions to make the bill palatable,” said Keith Streff, an investigator with the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley. “I think it’s as well-worded a bill as can be passed and still remain effective.”

Among the changes: an elimination of all references to hobby breeders, a term that proved contentious during negotiations last year. Instead, the bill simply defines a commercial breeder as a person in the breeding business with 10 or more unfixed adult cats or dogs that produce in excess of five litters per year.

An earlier version of the bill set that number at six adult animals. That bothered some farmers, who thought that 25 would be a more appropriate threshold, said Thom Peterson, governmental relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Peterson said the Farmers Union’s previous opposition to the bill was rooted in “a slippery slope argument” — a concern, since allayed, that the rules intended to govern cats and dogs might be extended to livestock in the barn.

“This bill is truly about pet breeders, about dogs and cats, not rabbits,” said Peterson. Asked to handicap the bill’s prospect, Peterson noted its steady progress through committees in both chambers and pegged its likelihood of passing at 80 percent.

The Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, which last year backed an alternate bill that did not contain licensing and inspection obligations, relented in its opposition as well. For veterinarians, the current bill offers a measure of economic stimulus: a mandate that commercial breeders establish a written veterinary protocol and obtain a veterinary health certificate for every animal sold.

A different provision added to the bill helped quell pushback from the Minnesota Pet Breeders Association: a requirement that the Board of Animal Health develop a program to recognize “commercial breeder excellence.” In a nod to the breeders’ privacy concerns, all information about commercial breeding operations — aside from the name and license numbers — would be classified as non-public.

Still, opposition has not dissipated entirely. At a meeting of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee on Tuesday, four dog breeders testified against the bill.

Some breeder opposition remains

Elaine Hanson of Minneapolis disputed official estimates that peg the number of commercial breeders in the state at 475. In other states that have instituted such requirements, she said, such numbers have been much lower than initial projections. Over three years, she said, the state will spend more than $1 million “to monitor the activities of an unknown number of dog breeders.”

In a fiscal note, the Department of Revenue estimated that the new regulations would cost approximately $620,000 in its first full year of operation, and require the equivalent of six full-time employees. License fees paid by breeders would generate an estimated $95,000 annually.

“This is absolutely not needed and it’s a waste of taxpayer funds,” said Valorie LaBeau, who breeds and sells golden retrievers in rural Clearwater. LaBeau said the money spent on the program would be better spent on shelters and rescue groups.

Those complaints elicited a surprisingly sympathetic response from Humane Society investigator Streff.

“I don’t care what industry you’re in, if you’re operating freely and then someone comes along and wants to regulate you, you’re not going to support that,” Streff said. “Nobody wants to be regulated.”

Streff, who has worked for the Humane Society since 1987, said animal-related legislation is virtually always contentious and, consequently, it often takes three to five years to forge compromises.

He said he was optimistic about the chances for a breeder bill this time, especially given the support garnered from various stakeholders groups. “This is the most confident I’ve been,” he added. “But it’s never over until it’s over.”

Gov. Mark Dayton has previously signaled his support for such legislation.

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