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Yes, Pretty Nearly, the Only Good Bill is a Dead Bill
by Walt Hutchens
Illustration by Nick Van Duren
Gretchen Bernardi, well known in dog breeding circles in Illinois and Missouri, has an article supporting PAWS in the July 2005 issue of Canine Chronicle. The article is online at:
I believe Ms. Bernardi raised the right issue: "[W]hat result in the current debate is the best thing for the dogs and for our sport?"
Unfortunately, I'm afraid she got the wrong answer. As one of those she probably regards as one of the "few very loud and annoying people, at the heart of the matter" I'd like to try to set that straight.
Proposals like Sen. Santorum's 'Pet Animal Welfare Statute' (PAWS), (currently awaiting action in the Senate and House of Representatives agriculture committees) ought to pass two basic tests:
First, it ought to be clear that the new law will make things better.
Under current law, persons who sell only at retail are exempt from USDA licensing, record keeping, dog-keeping standards, and inspections. The key provision of PAWS is the extension of regulation to all persons selling over 25 dogs and cats (total) who also sell more than six litters of dogs and cats bred and raised on the owner's premises.
(Note that the six litter exemption is only available if you sell no dogs or cats that you don't breed or raise yourself. If you sell any dogs or cats from another source, then you are limited to a total of 25 before licensing is required.)
The bill would thus bring in all but the smallest retail-only sellers and would remove from regulation the smallest wholesale sellers. The net effect is expected to be a rough doubling to tripling of the USDA inspection workload.
Who would these newly inspected breeders be? Some are actually hobby breeders like you and me, except that they're in breeds with high demand, probably have been showing for decades, and have now grown their hobby to be self-supporting through sales of puppies. Most of the newly regulated folks, however, would be commercial breeders who have chosen to sell retail-only.
I don't have to tell fellow breeders that retail-only selling of puppies is hard work, even for those of us who sell only ten a year. Nor are there significant 'economies of scale': No matter how many you sell, every sale requires the same amount of puppy care, time spent on contacts that don't become a sale, actual sales time and delivery time. Those who do it strictly as a business may cut the time per puppy considerably compared to hobby breeders, but 100 sales still takes them close to ten times as many hours as ten sales and 1000 sales takes ten times as many, again. Thus, retail-only sellers tend to be smaller operations.
The quality of dogs from some of these mostly-small retail only breeders is probably lower than from an average hobby breeder -- though there are arguments both ways on that point -- but USDA regulation won't do anything about that. It's also true that some of these breeders are abusive (some keep dogs in filth, breed bitches too often, and so on) and it would be logical to think that licensing and inspection might do something about that.
The truth is otherwise. Because of limitations on facilities and funding, USDA's powers are effectively limited to shutting down non-compliant breeders. That works well for wholesale dealers, especially the larger ones: Because they have a payroll to meet, bank loans to repay, and delivery contracts to comply with, the possibility of a shutdown makes knees get weak and violations get fixed.
Retail sellers, however, are portable: If an inspector tells Fred's Farms (Puppies Always Available -- YES! We have designer breeds! -- All major cards accepted!) "I'll be back in 21 days to check on you again; you know I'll have to shut you down if you don't get things cleaned up" he may very well find that three weeks later there's a 4-sale sign on the singlewide, tire tracks from a semi, and ashes where the sheds were. Who is to know whether Fred retired and disposed of his animals at auction or sold them to his sister three counties over and is even now helping to start up Dees Deelightful Doggiees? Either way, Fred's perfectly legal.
What it comes down to is that the USDA is set up to regulate ongoing businesses that might cut a corner here and there. They are not set up to slam an abuser. Fred knows he's violating state animal welfare laws on a scale that could send him to prison for years; he's not too worried about the threat of a shutdown.
A friend who used to be a USDA inspector tells me that they had the 'vanishing breeder' problem even with smaller wholesalers.
The USDA inspector might tell the local sheriff about Fred's filthy operation and suggest a seizure, but the sheriff has known about the problem for years. He doesn't do anything because his budget is stretched to cover two dispatchers, seven deputies and two cars; caring for 234 dogs in poor condition as evidence for maybe three months (if there are no appeals) does not strike the sheriff as a popular use of taxpayer money.
The promo for PAWS talks about internet selling as if the Freds of this world were now able to completely hide, but you'd be hard put to find one who doesn't do some on site sales. What the net has done is make buyers a whole lot more savvy and if Fred has even one person a month coming to the farm on a day when the wind is blowing the wrong way, he has been reported to local authorities. No federal law is going to make those authorities act on that report unless it gives them money to pay the bills. PAWS does not do that.
Maybe Fred sells some animals wholesale and thus lessens his exposure to the public? Maybe -- but if he sells even one puppy wholesale he is already required to have a USDA license.
The issue of imported dogs is also cited as a reason for more regulation. But the USDA won't be inspecting those overseas kennels so conditions there won't be improved. Licensing of importers who bring in substantial numbers of dogs would make sense, as would provisions for an effective quarantine against new diseases.
Bottom line: While there a couple of small provisions that are useful, the main part of PAWS will do almost no good for dogs or people.
Second, the bad effects of a new law ought to be small.
The immediate price of PAWS will be a mixture of cheating and cutting back on breeding as breeders who might be close to the line for licensing change their practices to stay safely below. Watch those average litter sizes drop if PAWS passes -- after all, why put yourself on the spot for pups that you don't expect to be show prospects?
The AKC says that only about 4% of their registrants would be affected, but they ignore the effect of selling non-self bred/raised dogs, non-AKC registered dogs, and co ownerships, which (taken together) would considerably raise that percentage. Would it be 10%? 20%? Who knows? And that number is just those expected to be over the line -- it doesn't take into account those who will change what they do because they are afraid they might be close.
Why won't dog breeders simply comply? Current USDA regulations require a kennel; a small one might possibly be built for $50,000 or so if you don't have to pay much for land. However, that USDA license will make you a business in almost any city or county in the country. Meaning a business license and tax number. Then the zoning people will pay a visit: either tear it down or get a conditional use permit or zoning variance. Your neighbors will be asked to approve and they may well have an absolute power of veto. With your business license may come other regulatory issues. Will you need to be handicapped-accessible? Must you have published business hours? What about a public restroom? Parking facilities?
Even if you have the time and money for all this, will it still be a hobby? What happens to the idea of raising your puppies in your home so they'll be ready for the home of another family?
The ever-cheerful Dr. Holt tells us that of course nobody's going to have to build a kennel, because the new regulations (to be written after the bill itself passes) will allow home breeding. Well, maybe they will, but we're not going to know until its too late; and the AKC has put itself in the weakest possible position to negotiate such regs.
Even if in-home breeding is allowed, why would we think that while USDA regs currently require a much larger than standard crate size enclosure for a dog, the new regs will permit the sizes we actually use (which work for housebreaking purposes) just because they're inside a residence?
In this and other areas we should not fool ourselves that the hoped-for residential breeding regs will consist of one sentence saying that "Breeding and care of dogs for sale within a reasonably clean home is acceptable as an alternative to a compliant kennel." There will be things home breeders will be required to change. We won't know the details until we see the regulations and the experience of current USDA licensees is that individual inspectors have varying interpretations and the regs themselves are changed from year to year.
But dog breeders won't be the first group to be hit hard. That honor goes to the incorporated dog and cat rescue groups that will basically have to close up shop. Good rescues rehab their animals in one's and two's in volunteer 'foster homes' but the (incorporated) group owns those animals and does the buying and selling. Many, maybe most, rescue groups handle a hundred or so dogs per year and many are in the several hundred to 1000 range.
HSUS and their friends at the AKC tell us that rescue won't be covered, but opening a loophole for rescue does the same for Fred's Farms. If that loophole is nonetheless inserted in the regulations it will be closed within a couple of years, either with or without a DDAL lawsuit.
Many shelters that release dogs to rescue require you be an incorporated non-profit. If PAWS passes, such organized rescue is over and with it will come the near end of rescue as a way to help save dogs and cats in shelters.
Purebred cat breeders too are out of the game right from the start. Because of the different reproductive cycle of cats, 25 or six litters sold per year is a much smaller number for cat breeders; they are nearly all affected. Nor can they simply comply and get a license. Cats are much more disease prone than dogs and inspecting catteries is a larger threat to them than it is to dog breeders.
Does anyone know of a genuine 'kitten mill' out there? Let's agree that there probably is one somewhere, probably even more than one, but cats are more delicate than dogs: You are so not going to make money breeding them in abusive conditions. Including cats in PAWS amounts to throwing out the baby without even drawing water for the bath. They're in there just as a logical 'next step' on the way to no pets for HSUS and DDAL; and "who cares?" for the AKC.
Those are just the 'right now' bad results -- the stuff we'll see about 2008 or so, right after the future regulations become effective. The real disaster for dog breeders will start a few years down the road, as a gathering torrent of state and local breeder licensing laws are proposed.
Today we can beat nearly all of these things, with concerned breeders naturally in the lead. But there is ample experience showing that where breeder licensing does take effect, most breeders will no longer fight. Some are in hiding, some are compliant but afraid of being targeted and nobody speaks out on the next law. PAWS would give us nationwide breeder licensing at a single whack.
Right now we are losing the AR wars slowly while gathering our strength with the hope of turning things around in the future. If PAWS passes then four years down the road, our losses will no longer be slow.
Let's consider the impact on the AKC. Right now they run the largest serious registry in the world. That registry, however, depends on mostly voluntary compliance with just enough checking up to discourage cheating. That database will be seen as a source of enforcement information for PAWS and one way or another, our AKC will provide that information. What will that do to voluntary compliance?
And who will do the inspections? In today's federal budget climate the chance of the USDA getting the money to hire more staff is zero. Will they move inspectors from big operations to cover the new smaller ones, thus weakening enforcement where it is most useful? Or will they effectively deputize a private organization like the AKC to do their inspections for them and charge us a fee? The AKC has made it clear that it's proposing the latter. Of course the AKC's name won't be written into the regulations. Instead there'll be a description of a qualification process that any non-governmental organization could follow to become licensed to do inspections; why shouldn't HSUS and PETA also go into that business?
Then of course there's the near certainty that in future 25 will become 12 and six litters will become three. Why not license everyone? That is the goal of the AR movement and we're having a tough time beating PAWS now when most of us are not licensed: We will be far weaker when those smaller numbers are proposed.
HSUS has said that PAWS represents a first step. Do we doubt that they will want to take steps two and three?
You can probably spin out the details as well as I can. Probably the AKC will pick up some commercial breeder registration business, but one way or another they're going to lose heavily on hobbyists as we stop routinely registering all puppies, reduce showing, switch part of our business to the UKC, establish our own underground stud books, and so on. Sanctioned dog shows will be an important enforcement venue. Dog fights remain popular; does anyone doubt there'll be an increasing number of unsanctioned invitation-only non-AKC dog shows that file reports with no one?
Some breeders actually enjoy the hobby breeding and selling of top-quality pets more than they do showing; they register with the AKC because that's part of today's ticket to quality. But when push comes to shove, some of this group will stop registering and showing altogether before they stop breeding or allow the government to inspect their homes to see if they're good enough to sell 26 dogs in a year. "You want to license me, fine, but you'll have to find me first."
In the process of all that, 120-some years of accumulated good will toward the AKC is going to be destroyed. AKC management seems willing to attempt a death-defying leap from depending mainly on show/hobby breeding, to getting its money from a combination of commercial breeding and non breeding-related income such as the AKC credit card. What they're overlooking is that those hear-no-evil clubs that are silent today are going to be furious when they discover about five or six years down the road that they've been snookered. And those clubs (and the growing number already opposing PAWS) choose the delegates who elect the AKC Board of Directors which hires management.
Our AKC's high-wire act depends on being able to fool all of the people all of the time for the best part of ten years. My bet is that it's not going to work. Guided by what may be the worst management in its history, the strongest and best known voice of U.S. pets is heading for a train wreck.
Overall there's little good in PAWS and much that is terrible. The bill doesn't even come close to passing the tests to be "the best thing for the dogs and for our sport."
As to whether the only good bill truly is a dead bill, pretty much the answer is 'Yes.' Nearly all the good bills are already law. There may be a few states without sound basic animal welfare laws applying to all owners; if there are, those gaps should be filled. Better enforcement of those laws is needed: Fred doesn't need a license, he needs a jail cell. There are fringe issues such as the best handling of the dangerous dog question. But further attempts to regulate breeding of dogs will without exception do more damage to the quality of the dog supply through shifting of breeding from hobby and retail commercial breeders against whom welfare laws can be enforced to 'moonshine' operators who can duck enforcement; with minor exceptions they should be opposed.