In 2008, one of the most infamous high-volume dog breeders in Virginia was convicted on 25 counts of animal neglect and 14 counts of animal cruelty. In 2009, the state passed a law restricting his illicit business practices. But a short time later, he moved his so-called “puppy mill” to a state with some of the industry’s laxest laws: Ohio.
“When other states have said ‘You’re bad news, you can’t breed in our state,’ What have they done?” says Kelly Difrischia, director of the Columbus Dog Connection. “They have packed their bags and moved to Ohio.”
Indeed, until Jan. 1, 2014, Ohio was battling Missouri for the dubious distinction as the most unregulated state for puppy mills.
However, with the new year, that is expected to change after Senate Bill 130 of the 130th General Assembly went into effect. The Puppy Mill Bill mandates improved living conditions for the dogs, setting standards for cage size, requiring regular grooming, veterinary examinations and socialization. These standards may seem obvious, yet before this law, some Ohio puppy mills were an unregulated hub for neglect and abuse.
“Breeding dogs that languish in puppy mills suffer from abhorrent neglect,” says Karen Minton, Ohio state director for the Humane Society. “Their nails grow into the pads of their feet, their teeth aren’t ever taken care of, resulting in rotten teeth and infected jaws.”
As for the breeders themselves, they must also meet new standards. All will have to apply for a breeding permit and undergo a background check during the application process. Past indiscretions will disqualify them, thereby preventing Ohio from being the destination for other states’ irresponsible breeders.
“Regarding licensure, those that have been convicted of animal cruelty are no longer eligible for a breeder license,” Minton says, “thus removing the welcome mat that laid at our state’s border for so long.”
One of the most important pieces of the law, Difrischia says, is that it gives the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the agency in charge of enforcement, the ability to do annual inspections.
“Because the state now has the ability to knock on your door, it has put a lot of the really egregious high-volume dog breeders on notice,” Difrischia says.
“Just by the fact that we passed this bill, we put a lot of the bad apples out of business, and that is amazing.”
To do this door knocking, the Department of Agriculture hired four inspectors and a team of staff that includes several veterinarians.
“They are going to be tasked with doing inspections of the breeders,” says Department of Agriculture spokesperson Erica Hawkins. “They are going to be making sure that our care standards are being followed by the breeders.”
One thing they will not be checking, as it is not included in the law, is for a specific temperature in the dog’s housing facilities. Much to the chagrin of activists, the language of the law was reworded to require a more qualitative kind of standard. This is because, Hawkins says, lawmakers did not want to trap breeders into a certain reading on the thermostat, but rather allow inspectors to check if breeders are doing an adequate job of controlling temperatures for their animals.
Difrischia points to the recent cold front that swept through Ohio as reason why there needs to be a specific temperature standard in the law and says the omission of one is among her biggest disappointments.
“If a dog is going to be an employee and make a lot of money for you, you should compensate that dog very well by giving it very decent housing,” Difrischia says. “We aren’t even asking for the Taj Mahal. We’re asking for adequate daily living conditions, and we feel that those temperatures should have been set. It’s very disappointing.”
On the other hand, State Sen. Jim Hughes, the bill’s sponsor, is quick to point out that this is a vast improvement from the past.
“Before this bill, it was unregulated,” Hughes says. “So all this cold weather we have had, they could keep those dogs outside, they could stack them in crates and they didn’t have to have any food or water.”
The law went into effect on the first of the year, but the changes did not come overnight; they were seven years in the making.
“It’s been my most difficult bill,” Hughes says.
There were several parties involved in the bill’s writing, from the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance to the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association, the breeders and the rescuers, says Difrischia.
“I guess the best analogy to use is herding cats,” she says. “You have to get all of these people who have different interests in what this language is to agree.”
Minton attributes the trouble to Ohio’s history as a difficult state in which to pass animal welfare legislation.
“Whether it is the influence of big agriculture or concern about enacting new regulations on small businesses, we faced our share of powerful opposition,” she says. “An entire industry had gone unchecked for decades, and as you can imagine, there were may high-volume breeders that preferred to keep it that way.”
Despite the roadblocks, Ohio managed to pass the law and in doing so transitioned from one of the most lenient and tolerant states for puppy mills to one that will no longer put up with neglectful and irresponsible breeding habits.
“Ohio has definitely moved from being one of the worst — with no laws on the books — to having some of the strongest laws in the nation,” Minton says.
Difrischia and other activists believe the bill to be a great first step but acknowledge there is more to be done.
“I want to be positive and hopeful and say that it is making a very big difference — and it absolutely is,” she says. “But there are also parts of the bill that are very disappointing and we definitely need better standards.” ©