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New legislation attempts to regulate Oklahoma's many puppy mills

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Mugsy had lost almost all of her teeth by the time she was 5 years old.

The Yorkshire terrier still had a few teeth left when she was rescued from a puppy mill, and her new owner took her to a veterinarian. But the vet pulled most of the teeth. They were too rotten to save.

Multiple bills
Citizen bill
Opposition
Divided support
Consumer protection

Mugsy, who weighed 2-and-a-half pounds, had been bred so many times in her few years that her body couldn't produce enough calcium, and her bottom jaw was rotting away.

Mugsy's condition broke the heart of her new owner, Nila Dutcher of Oklahoma City, who adopted the dog in 2008.

"If I were a violent person, I'd go hunting down whoever did this to her," Dutcher said.
Mugsy came from a typical pet mill " a breeding factory of sorts. In pet mills, dozens, even hundreds, of animals are housed in small, overcrowded and often-filthy spaces. The animals are bred repeatedly and sold to the public and to pet stores.

"There's a difference between good puppy breeders and puppy mills," Dutcher said. "It's the difference between being a married woman and being a prostitute. Puppy mills are literally forcing these dogs into prostitution."

Oklahoma has the second highest number of puppy mills in the nation, behind Missouri, according to The Humane Society of the United States. These operations are unregulated, untaxed businesses, and they have little to no penalty for their treatment of animals.

Christy Counts, president of the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, said she estimates there are between 1,500 and 2,000 black market breeders in Oklahoma. But that is a conservative estimate, she said, because breeders themselves estimate closer to 5,000.

"We field so many complaints by the public, and our response is that there's nothing that can be done," Counts said.

Multiple billsOne bill being considered by the Oklahoma Legislature " being called the "Commercial Pet Breeders Act" " would regulate individuals or entities that own 11 or more adult (at least 6-month-old) female dogs or cats and are breeding or selling them.

The bill, Senate Bill 1712, by Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, would require those breeders to register as commercial breeders and thus possess a sales tax permit and pay a fee to receive a breeding license.

The bill also would create an eight-member board to oversee inspections of all registered breeding facilities and create minimum standards for care of the animals. Currently, no standards exist in the state.

Violations would be considered misdemeanors and punishable with fines or jail time.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 38-8 and will next be considered by the House. It passed through the House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee on March 24 by a vote of 10-2.

In the House, another bill, House Bill 2745, targeting pet mills is being considered, but with some differences. The bill, by Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, would target entities that sell or give away at least 35 dogs or cats a year.

Compliance with the regulations established by the bill would be voluntary. Denney submitted a similar bill last year that did not make it out of a Senate committee. HB 2745 passed the House 56-24.

Citizen billThere is another big difference between the House and Senate bills: The Senate bill was submitted by a citizen.

Sue Hamm, of Enid, was unhappy with the bill submitted by Denney last year because she thought voluntary compliance would not work and would not be enforced.

Hamm also wanted to see more enforcement on breeders from an entity other than the United States Department of Agriculture, which has a set of minimum standards for commercial breeders based on the 1966 Animal Welfare Act.

"There's nobody to enforce those standards," Hamm said. "Dogs are not livestock. The USDA was created to protect our food sources. Cats and dogs are not food."

Hamm spent last fall meeting with Counts and studying bill writing. She knew she had to find an angle to really make the bill work. That angle? Business.

"We knew we could champion bringing what is a huge industry into the fold and getting some regulations in place," Hamm said.

Hamm presented the bill to Anderson, who was intrigued by the idea of focusing on the tax collection aspect. The state is "losing a significant amount of revenue" " up to hundreds of millions a year " by not taxing large, unregulated breeders, Anderson said.

"It's a huge business," he said. "I was surprised to learn how large the business was."

According to Anderson, the bill has three goals: enforcing tax laws, consumer protection and animal welfare.

OppositionSen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, was one of the eight senators who voted against the bill. The regulations set by the bill are too stiff, he said.

"The breeders are already inspected by the USDA, and it makes no sense to waste money on duplication," he said.

Ellis also has a bill up for consideration that deals with breeders. Senate Bill 1340 " being called the "Kennel Definitions Act" " would exempt  "hobby breeders" from inspection requirements.

In his bill, hobby breeders are defined as noncommercial breeders with fewer than 25 females "for the primary purpose of breeding animals for sale either through the Internet or directly to the public." Hobby show breeders are defined as those have up to 10 females and who breed animals with the intention of showing the animals, improving the breed or selling the animals with the goal of the buyer showing the animals.

"I've got a degree in animal science, and I love and want to see animals treated right," Ellis said.

Ellis is "not tied" to his bill, he said, but he does not want to hurt his constituents who breed dogs by over-regulating them through Anderson's bill.

"Times are hard; people are just trying to make a living," Ellis said. "You've got lots of people who are doing this and doing a good job."

Anderson said he is trying to make his bill such that it does not over-regulate those who breed animals in good conditions.

"We don't want to jeopardize their livelihood," he said. "It'll probably perpetuate their business and make sure consumers get quality products."

Divided support
Although three bills address the puppy mill issue, SB 1712 is getting the most support from the Humane Society because of its stricter enforcement.

The Central Oklahoma Humane Society opposes SB 1340. On its Web site, it states: "SB 1340 protects puppy mills. It does not regulate them."

Paul Franson, an Oklahoma City resident who volunteers for the Central Oklahoma Humane Society and United Animal Nations, said he feels very strongly that SB 1712 is the bill that should pass.

Franson said he applauds Denney's efforts to regulate pet mills, but that her bill is too "watered down" because its provisions are voluntary.

"She has made the bill worthless," he stated in a letter submitted to the Oklahoma Gazette. "Whether or not this bill passes really doesn't matter, and I won't ask you to waste your time asking your state senator to support or reject this measure."

Franson is adamantly opposed to Ellis' bill because "there is no enforcement of any of its provisions" and because of the hobby breeder exemptions.

"There is no way to shut them down, fine them, jail them or force them in any way to properly care for their animals," he said. "SB 1340 could serve to gut SB 1712 and any other legislation that comes after it."

Franson has helped rescue teams clean up after puppy mill raids in Texas, and he has seen firsthand "the horrors of puppy mills." At one puppy mill where he volunteered, the land was so contaminated with feces and urine and standing water that mosquito larvae couldn't even thrive.

"It makes me hug my dogs and thank God that I can give them a better life than that," he said. "And it fires me up. I'm very enthusiastic and encouraged by SB 1712."

Consumer protectionWhether or not any of the puppy mill bills pass, pet buyers need to do all they can to make sure they're buying from good breeders and not be fooled by nice-looking Web sites, Counts said. Counts fields hundreds of complaints from people who bought animals from pet mills only to pay thousands of dollars in veterinarian fees and to still have sick pets. They also complain because they paid more than they would have if they had bought from a shelter.

"It's a real problem, and it's a consumer protection problem," she said. "People think they've found nice, sweet breeders who love dogs, but those breeders don't tell them they have 300 dogs on their property."

Pet buyers "absolutely must" go to the home or kennel where the puppy was raised and interact with both of its parents to see how it lived.

"Never meet a breeder in a parking lot or somewhere other than where the dog was bred," Counts said.

Buyers also should not buy animals in pet mills out of sympathy because that only supports those breeders and practically guarantees high medical bills for the animal.

Counts said she wants to see SB 1712 pass for the sake of the buyers and the animals.
"People don't call their legislators because they expect them to do the right thing," she said. "But they need to call their legislators." "Hailey Branson

photo Nila Dutcher of Oklahoma City hugs Mugsy, a Yorkshire terrier rescued from
a puppy mill. photo/Shannon Cornman

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