Pet breeders play defense as activists press for licensing bill
After six failed attempts, animal welfare advocates are not giving up on a bill that would require dog and cat breeders in Minnesota to obtain licenses. The coalition of rescue groups, veterinarians and concerned citizens contends it is far too easy for unscrupulous breeders to peddle animals online, and buyers never see the inhumane conditions where animals are raised.
Among those leading the charge is Nancy Minion, a member of the Speak Up for Dogs and Cats coalition. She has pressed state legislators to focus on animal welfare for 24 years.
"I was just sitting at the couch watching TV one night, and I saw a story of a dog that was beaten blind and deaf," she said of the moment that first brought her to the state Capitol. "And I just went, 'All right, that's it.'"
She pushed for a law that allows authorities to seize animals from people convicted of animal cruelty. In 2001, Minion helped persuade state legislators to pass a felony animal cruelty law. And in 2004, she and other advocates prodded legislators to ban tigers, monkeys and bears as pets.
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For the past six years, Minion has focused on dog and cat breeders, who are unregulated by the state. Those who sell to pet stores have to abide by U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, but a very small number of breeders make such sales. In some communities in Minnesota, local ordinances cap the number of animals that pet owners can have.
The next measure Minion wants the Legislature to pass would license operations with 10 or more breeding animals that produce more than five litters a year. Under a bill sponsored by state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, licenses would cost $10 per animal, up to a maximum of $250 a year. Breeding facilities would also be subject to annual inspections from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
Animal breeders say Minnesota already has animal cruelty laws in place, and good breeders should not be punished. With that in mind, the Minnesota Pet Breeders Association and the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, however, support a competing bill.
The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, would leave it to veterinarians to inspect pet breeders.
Minion argues that stronger measures are necessary because current animal cruelty laws are triggered only if someone makes a complaint, and unscrupulous breeders are unlikely to allow buyers to see their operations.
"I saw a story of a dog that was beaten blind and deaf ... And I just went, 'All right, that's it.'"
"They don't want you in their barns or sheds," Minion said. "So they'll meet you a truck stop or a weigh station or a parking lot, show you five to six puppies or kittens and you pick and then you leave, and you don't see any suffering."
Minion, however, keeps track of the suffering that she can document. She has binders of photographs taken during animal cruelty investigations in Minnesota. They include photos of animals with fur matted by urine and feces; animals whose eyes were so infected they had to be removed; animals that are fed roadkill; and those that are emaciated.
"There was a breeder in St. Paul who had these dogs in his basement, breeding to sell the puppies," Minion said of a toy poodle shown in one photograph. "Her back legs are all deformed and her spine -- she can't walk on her back legs because she was kept in a carrier so small that she couldn't develop.
"If this bill were law, this person would have been inspected, and they would not have been licensed."
Minion's tactics disturb Belinda Donley, the president of the Minnesota Pet Breeders Association. She fears such photos will tarnish the image of legitimate breeders.
"They find the saddest things that they can ... and they're trying to get to people's heartstrings by showing those," Donley said. "And not everybody is like that."
Donley, who raises miniature schnauzers, cairn terriers and westies, is rankled by efforts to portray people who make their living breeding dogs and cats as callous operators who don't care about their animals.
"I'm not going to tell you how many dogs I have," she said, "but I will tell you that the minute that I tell somebody that I raise three different breeds ... I bet you probably every third phone call I get, 'You're not a puppy mill are you?' I say, 'No, I'm not. I'm an educated breeder. I consider myself a professional in this field."
"They find the saddest things that they can ... and they're trying to get to people's heartstrings by showing those [photos]."
Donley said reputable breeders want bad operators to get out of the business. She said some regulation is needed but adds that pet breeders are tired of playing defense against the bill Minion and her coalition are pushing.
"We have been back and forth with these animal rights people for the last six years ... five of which we spent our own money and our own time down at the Capitol many, many times," she said. "There are some areas of that bill that are too lenient, and some of it that's too harsh."
In February, Lesch, the lead sponsor in the House, reintroduced the pet breeder bill to the Civil Law Committee, of which he is chairman. Lesch's bill picked up an endorsement from Gov. Mark Dayton and passed three committees before it hit the one in March where it dies every year: the Agriculture Policy Committee.
Faust, vice chairman of the policy committee, is troubled by how much Lesch's bill would expand government.
If passed, the bill would require the state Board of Animal Health to hire at least five full-time inspectors. Combined with other costs, that would amount to about $500,000.
Faust also thinks the bill would penalize breeders who are doing a good job.
He favors a solution proposed by lobbyists for the Minnesota Pet Breeders Association and the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. The two groups came to see him, he recalled, "And they said, 'You know, we'd really like to offer our own bill; in the past we've just tried to kill that bill but now we actually think it's time to write our own bill, a competing bill' ... so that's how it came to be introduced."
The bill Faust is sponsoring would not require licensing. Instead of routine inspections from the Board of Animal Health, Faust would like to see veterinarians sign off on pet breeders: "The veterinarians are going there anyway, especially for the larger breeders," he said. "Animals are getting sick all the time and so the veterinarians are out there all the time ... and I believe that the veterinarian is better qualified to make the call whether or not the dog breeders are doing what they should be doing."
Faust thinks pet buyers would help monitor the system by asking to see a pet breeder's certificate of veterinary inspection before buying a puppy or kitten. He does not think it's a conflict of interest for breeders to select and pay the vets who inspect them.
Neither bill has received a hearing before the House or Senate agriculture committees. But Lesch said he is optimistic about a breakthrough on what has become a perennial issue at the Capitol.
"It's ironic, but it sometimes it takes six years for people to really understand the bill and for the bill's authors, me included ... to find the sweet spot where that legislation is going to work," he said.
Both sides are trying to come up with a compromise. If they do, the chairwoman of the House Agriculture Policy committee, state Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, has promised to give it a hearing.