Puppy Wars: The Fight to Shut Puppy Mills Without Hurting Genuine Breeders
Advocates of pending legislation say it will help prevent puppy mills from selling animals in New Jersey, while opponents argue it will make things much tougher on legitimate breeders
A bill that would strengthen what some animal activists call the most comprehensive ban on “puppy mills” in the nation is close to becoming law, but some say it could make it harder for New Jerseyans to buy cats and dogs and could hurt the state’s small, hobby breeders.
The measure,, would revise the two-year-old , imposing stricter requirements on all pet dealers and harsher penalties for violations. The main goal, according to supporters, is to ensure that young animals from large, typically out-of-state breeders that generate a high number of puppies in conditions that are crowded, unsanitary, and even dangerous are not imported into New Jersey to be sold. This revision to the law Gov. Chris Christie signed in February 2015 is necessary because pet stores are still selling animals from puppy mills, according to advocates.
Animal activists, including the New Jersey chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, have applauded the passage of the bill by both houses and urged Gov. Chris Christie to sign it; Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a prime sponsor and proponent of the measure, as well as a gubernatorial candidate, has vowed to override if the governor vetoes the bill. However, the American Kennel Club and other pet owners and small breeders who may have only a few dogs and one or two litters a year are pushing for at least a conditional veto because the bill defines a pet dealer as any person, shop, or kennel selling more than 10 dogs or cats a year. A breed whose average-sized dogs have just two litters, or just one litter for a large or giant breed, would meet that definition.
According to Lesniak, who currently has two rescued pit bull mixes who are often featured on his Facebook page, May 1 is the date by which Christie must take action on the bill or it will automatically become law.
As is often the case with issues involving animals, this bill has created some controversy, with animal organizations taking opposing sides.
On the one side is HSUS, whose New Jersey director Brian Hackett said the bill is necessary to “bar the worst puppy mills from doing business in the state of New Jersey” and that anyone who truly cares for animal welfare should be supporting it.
On the other is the AKC, which says the measure could make it harder for people looking to buy a dog — as opposed to adopting one from a rescue organization — in New Jersey. They also say the legislation could subject responsible New Jersey breeders to additional regulation or harassment from people against the commercial breeding of dogs.
The 2015 law set stringent conditions on pet shops to try to keep puppy mills from being able to sell in New Jersey. These include prohibiting shops from selling animals from breeders not licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture and forbidding them from taking animals from facilities that were found to be in violation of federal animal welfare laws. But it didn’t stop the practice, as a 2016 HSUS investigation found; the state Division of Consumer Affairs has cited numerous stores for violations. Hackett said that was in part because the fine for violating the law was $500 and some shops found they could pay the fine and still make a profit.
“They were putting the $500 fine into the cost of doing business,” he said. “We need something tougher. That’s where this new bill came from. Its penalties are three strikes and you’re out.”
Far steeper fines
This revision, introduced in one version, amended several times and then introduced under a separate number, slightly changes the number of violations a licensed commercial breeder can have before being barred from selling in New Jersey. It also drastically increases the punishment for violating the law: up to $10,000 for the first offense, $20,000 for the second and a prohibition on selling in New Jersey for a third violation.
“We have been more than lenient with allowing the sale of animals from breeders with less than three violations,” Lesniak said.
Phil Guidry, a senior policy analyst with the AKC, said it is not known whether the legislation is needed because the Legislature has not given it enough time to take effect and has not studied the results. Instead, he said, lawmakers chose to move the bill “based on emotions, not information grounded in fact.”
He also said the potential impact of the legislation was never fully explored during hearings on the bill and it “has the potential” to make it harder to buy a pet in the state.
But Lesniak countered that pet shops and other dealers will still have an ample supply of animals — roughly 1,200 licensed commercial breeders across the country that operate with few or no violations of USDA animal laws.
“As long as they continue to operate in a manner that is healthy and safe for the animals, they can continue to do business here,” Lesniak said. “They are going to have to stay on their best behavior.”
The bill would also expand the rules beyond pet stores to regulate all pet dealers, including animal-rescue organizations, shelters, and kennels.
Hard on hobby breeders?
The AKC also maintains that people known as hobby breeders, who might offer puppies for sale from one or two litters a year, are also subject to regulation if they make a profit selling more than 10 animals annually. That would be especially troubling in New Jersey, which Guidry said is home to some of the best breeders and many former Westminster Dog Show Best of Show dogs.
“There is a lot of misinformation about this bill,” Hackett countered. “It was carefully crafted so most responsible hobby breeders would not be affected. The intent was to get at the puppy mills and those sourcing the animals. It was not intended to hurt hobby breeders.”
Hobby breeders that sell directly to consumers, don’t use a middle man, and are not required to be licensed by the USDA under federal rules do not have to meet any new licensing or inspection criteria, according to Hackett. He said this is actually more relaxed than the current law, which defines a pet dealer as any breeder selling more than five cats or dogs a year. All it would do, he said, is require those hobby breeders selling more than 10 animals a year to submit an annual report to the DCA.
“We thought that was reasonable,” Hackett added. “It’s a mere once a year.”
But Guidry said the AKC is concerned about unintended consequences of the bill. By making hobby breeders into pet dealers, they become commercial operations, subject to regulation by municipal officials, more and more of whom have been slapping local regulations on the sale of pets.
“Local officials can come in and regulate pet dealers to the strongest extent possible,” he said.
It would also subject them — their names, addresses, phone numbers and other information — to open-records searches. That could make them the target of harassment by those who oppose dog breeding. Guidry said there have been “some well-documented cases” of harassment once breeders’ personal information has been publicized.
“The bill is making what many people really want — a dog raised in a home environment — unavailable,” said Maureen Tauber, a hobby breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. As large dogs, they tend to have large litters, and Tauber said 10 is a typical litter size. “If this passes, we all become pet dealers.” She and others wonder if their home-based hobby breeding would suddenly be in violation of local zoning ordinances that prohibit businesses in residential zones.
Since the passage of the 2015 law, the state has had several high-profile cases involving pet shops. For instance, the owner of the chain Just Pets was charged with hundreds of charges of animal cruelty related to the alleged mistreatment of puppies at some stores. In April 2016, according to news reports, 67 puppies were found crammed in dirty cages in a van parked near the Paramus Just Pups on a cold night. Owner Vincent LoSacco wound up pleading guilty to five health-code and borough violations and paid a $19,000 restitution penalty. East Hanover closed the last open Just Pups store two months ago after an unsanitary health inspection.
But some see the new bill and the debate over it as part of a wider question of whether people should get animals only from rescue organizations, or be able to purchase dogs because they want a certain breed for its temperament or hypoallergenic qualities. Small breeders like Tauber are committed to their breeds, operating in a manner that values the dogs’ welfare, seeks to enhance their chosen breed, or breeds and ensure the breeds continue to thrive.
While pet stores were commonplace in the state’s malls and on main streets decades ago, publicity about the unsafe and unsanitary treatment of some animals in puppy mills has pushed more people to adopt animals from shelters or rescue organizations or deal directly with a smaller breeder. The HSUS estimates New Jersey has only about 27 pets stores at the moment, an average of little more than one per county.
But some pet owners feel the rules that could be imposed by the bill on Christie’s desk and others wending their way through the Legislature are designed to make it harder for people to get dogs from even small breeders.
Improving the breed
“A true breeder, is someone whose life, in large part, is devoted to taking care of and improving their breed of dogs. Not for financial gain,” said Pat Ferdinandi, whose dog was one of 11 in a litter. “They are involved throughout the life of the dog. They follow the breed’s code of ethics and standards for health, look, and temperament. These dogs do not wind up in shelters. These breeders have long waiting lists… This bill targets wonderful breeders of dogs like mine. If this bill goes through, I or anyone in New Jersey would have minimum choices to buy many popular breeds from a quality breeder in New Jersey.”
The Humane Society does promote “adopt, don’t shop,” Hackett said. “But then there are responsible breeders people can go to and we give advice on how to find them.”
Guidry said the adopt, don’t shop movement, which has been decades in the making, “has done a great job getting the public to accept the idea that it is better to get a dog from a shelter or a rescue than from a breeder.” The AKC’s policy, on the other hand, is against putting restrictions on where a person gets a pet from a public policy standpoint. Its mission is “to protect these breeds for preservation.”
Ferdinandi said she is also concerned about other bills pending in the Legislature and how they would affect breeders, fanciers, and enthusiasts should the Lesniak bill become law and even small hobby breeders are considered pet dealers.
For instance,would require the spaying or neutering of cats and dogs prior to their sale or release from pet shops, kennels, and rescues. Co-sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), it would mandate that pets be spayed or neutered before being given to a purchaser or adopter unless the animal is less than two months old, a vet determines the cat or dog cannot by neutered for health reasons, or the animal is being placed in a foster home. The bill passed a Senate committee and was amended last month on the floor of the upper house but not yet approved by it, or the Assembly.
Closer to passage is, which has bipartisan sponsorship and is awaiting final passage in the Assembly. It would make exposing an animal to extreme weather conditions, cruelly restraining a dog, improperly confining an animal, and failing to properly shelter a pet cruelty to animal offenses punishable by fine and, for repeat offenses, to possible forfeiture of the animal.