I was recently interviewed about the remnants of Pennsylvania’s puppy mill industry. In 2008, Governor Rendell signed into law the Puppy Mill bills and their meager regulatory improvements and mandates for commercial dog breeders. But meager proved to be enough for the majority of puppy millers, who were barely scraping by on the profits drained from the miserable lives of their breeding stock, profits which were only possible if they allowed them to live in squalor.
Giving them the most basic “lifestyle improvements”- such as heat and enough ventilation they didn’t suffer ammonia burns to their eyes- put many, perhaps even most, commercial kennels out of business and removed Pennsylvania from the top tier of dog torturing puppy mill states. It wasn’t all, but we’ll take what we can get.
The article was about the possible resurgence of the back yard breeder in an effort to fill the vacuum of puppies left by the exit of so many commercial kennels from the market. I say possible resurgence because it’s hard to tell if this is actually happening. Small and backyard breeders, only subject to licensing if they have 26 or more dogs in a year, are about as well regulated as a Colorado militia in a movie theater. Which is to say they are not. But the issue of the lack of dogs people actually want- specific breeds and puppies- is the topic of past and future posts.
The reporter wrapped up by asking me why I thought Pennsylvania had such a clinging- dogged?- attachment to its dog breeding industry. I think it’s because Pennsylvania still worships at the altar of Agriculture.
Ask any State Rep or Senator what the biggest industry in Pennsylvania is and they will probably instinctively answer “Agriculture!” They’d be wrong, but this is the most repeated semi-truth in Harrisburg. OK, maybe it’s second/third to “The budget impasse is his/their fault!” right now. But it’s high on the list.
In reality, only by the most convoluted of measures is agriculture number one. By employment, the top sectors are administration and sales, with agriculture in as 22 out of 22. By GDP, agriculture is 19 out 19, with manufacturing number one. By other measures, government and non-profits- such as Humane Pennsylvania- are by far the leading “industries” in Pennsylvania. Only by trying to utilize the old “from farm to fork” impact model, where you count everything that is touched by agricultural products along the way, including the fork you eat the salad with, do you get anything close to agriculture dominating.
Don’t get me wrong. I love food. And farms and farmers. My family has agriculture in its veins going way back. Although, to be fair, odds are so does everyone who has been in America more than a few generations. But I also love dogs and they pay the price for Pennsylvania’s blind obsession with the idea of agriculture without recognizing the reality of its impact on our companion animals.
The Department of Agriculture in PA exists to promote and grow the business of agriculture. They pay lip service to food and consumer safety, but that is not their primary function. The economic growth of the Ag sector and the protection of farmers from pesky rules which might hold them back economically, like animal protection laws, is their primary function. Most people are stunned to learn that dogs are viewed as agricultural production animals in Pennsylvania. The Office of Dog Law Enforcement is under the Department of Agriculture. As are Dog Wardens, kennel licensing, and the control of Human Society Police Officers (HSPO’s). Dog Wardens oversee kennel inspections for licensed kennels but are prohibited by law from enforcing the cruelty code.
Take a moment to think about that. Puppy mills are inspected by the same agency which is supposed to promote the very industry it is supervising. Imagine if restaurant safety inspections were done by a political entity or economic development agency which was supposed to have as many restaurants as possible open and whose success was determined by how many restaurants were open. Could you count on that inspector to give a failing grade to a dirty restaurant? Of course not. That’s why we solve that conflict by having public health and safety agencies determine if restaurants are up to code, not economic agencies.
But in Pennsylvania dog are considered farm animals and the Department of Agriculture exists to grow farms, not protect animals. If you want to know why we have a reputation for leading as a puppy mill state, it’s because we place the supposed primacy of agriculture and farming above the wellbeing of our companion animals and we leave the enforcement in the hands of those who have a mission conflict- the Department of Agriculture- or those without the resources to fully enforce existing laws but are the only ones stuck doing the job- the charitable animal shelters.
We can have it both ways, though. By removing the responsibility of inspection of commercial kennels from the Department of Agriculture and placing the job under a health and safety department or under state law enforcement, we can have our cake and eat it, too. The Department of Ag can support farmers and promote farming, like they should. And when that promotion results in puppy farmers abusing animals in the name of “standard agricultural practice” the Heath Department or the State Police can prosecute and shut them down, like they should.
Agriculture is important in Pennsylvania but it’s not the only or the most important thing. It certainly shouldn’t be granted some nearly religious place in our government and be provided indulgences that come at the expense our companion animals.