Several bills filed in the Senate seek to either repeal the law or amend it so it becomes essentially toothless, said Angel Soriano, chairman of the regulatory board created by the act.
Oklahoma is home to the second-largest number of commercial pet breeders in the country, according to the Central Oklahoma Humane Society. Prior to the passage of Senate Bill 1712 in May 2010, commercial pet breeding was unregulated by the state.
The law sought to crack down on so-called “puppy mills” — facilities where breeders keep animals in inhumane conditions to maximize profit by selling the pets, many times through brokers, to pet stores and over the Internet.
Currently, regulations adopted by the state Board of Commercial Pet Breeders are awaiting Legislative approval; but this session, several measures take aim at the law, including SB 15, which seeks to repeal the act.
Christy Counts, president of the Central Oklahoma Humane Society and a member of the board overseeing the law’s implementation, said her advocacy group supports the Commercial Pet Breeders Act.
“We’re obviously very, very supportive of the puppy mill legislation,” Counts said. “I think we would be adamantly opposed to any legislation to repeal it. It would be taking major steps backward if this were repealed.”
ADDRESSING A PROBLEM
A bite left untreated for at least seven days caused the flesh on the little gray dog’s leg to rot almost completely off, leaving muscle, tendon and bone exposed. The animal, discovered on a USDA-licensed Oklahoma commercial pet breeder’s property by one of the department’s inspectors, was later euthanized.
The breeder, who owned 83 dogs, had 20 violations over the span of about a year-and-a-half by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Animal Care Unit. Almost a year after the injured dog was discovered, the breeder had not been fined and the Animal Care Unit had not forwarded the complaint to the state of Oklahoma for animal cruelty prosecution.
This story is one of several laid out, complete with graphic images of injuries and inhumane conditions, in a May 2010 report from the USDA Inspector General on the inadequacy of inspections of problematic pet dealers.
Another account in the report states an inspector discovered five dead dogs and other dogs so starved they were resorting to cannibalism at one Oklahoma breeder facility that had almost 30 previous citations in less than a year.
“Despite these conditions, (Animal Care) did not immediately confiscate the surviving dogs and, as a result, 22 additional dogs died before the breeder’s license was revoked,” the report reads.
When the state’s Commercial Pet Breeders Act was signed into law, it was intended to address a problem in the state that both the USDA and animal welfare groups have pointed out, said Soriano, state commercial pet breeders board chairman and owner of K-9 University in Oklahoma City.
“There is need in this industry. We are not self-regulating, and it shows it by what’s going on,” he said. “The intent was to put some rules in place to be able to control an industry that needed controlling.”
The Commercial Pet Breeders Act established an eight-person board, which drafted the yet-to-be implemented regulations for the minimum conditions in which breeders could keep their animals, state licensure rules and requirements, as well as regulations governing the sale of the animals. Soriano said the rules were initially tougher than current USDA guidelines, but they were eventually relaxed and now almost identical to the federal guidelines.
Based on generally accepted veterinary standards, the rules provide minimum criteria for feeding, water access, exercise, flooring, shelter size, ventilation, and waste disposal and drainage.
“It deals with proper and normal treatment of animals,” Soriano said. “If you use common sense, you’re not going to have any problems.”
Because the USDA does not always inspect licensed breeders, it falls to states to ensure animals are being kept in humane conditions, Soriano said.
“This not going after someone with one or two violations; this is going after large commercial breeders breaking every one of these rules,” he said. “We almost are leading the country when it comes to delivery of bad pets.”
With rules governing commercial pet breeders nearing implementation, one bill seeks to overturn the entire act.
SB 15, introduced by Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, would repeal the Commercial Pet Breeders Act.
Brecheen did not respond to Oklahoma Gazette; however, in two opinion pieces in the Durant Daily Democrat, he wrote that with the legislation, he aimed to preserve personal property rights and protect against unreasonable search and seizure.
“Individual liberty is at stake, and we must not allow the loss of personal freedoms and constitutional rights, lest we are next,” Brecheen wrote on Jan. 11. “Imagine if your cattle, swine, horses or poultry were being subjected to similar invasive inspections under guidelines established by bureaucrats who think meat comes from a plastic wrapped Styrofoam tray. We wouldn’t be too thrilled, yet the Commercial Pet Breeders Act sets the stage for exactly that kind of legislative transition.”
Brecheen closed his Jan. 18 opinion piece with the famous “First they came” quote about complacency from Pastor Martin Niemöller, a Holocaust survivor: “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Soriano said the USDA does not do a good job inspecting and regulating commercial pet breeders in the state, as evidenced by the May 2010 USDA Inspector General report.
Oklahoma’s inspection agency is self-funded through licensing fees and fines. The law is temporary, and must be re-approved in three years, he said.
“There are an awful lot of breeders giving their opinions to lawmakers right now. No one likes to be regulated, but I would say a good number of the people doing this lobbying are not running good operations,” he said. “The whole gist of the repeal of (SB) 1712 tells you that … the senator doesn’t believe we have a breeding issue in the state. That is just ludicrous. I think (Brecheen) should know better than that, and if he doesn’t, we all can give him an education, because every breeder knows one irresponsible competitor out there.”
Other active legislation would exempt hunting, working and service dogs from regulation (SB 128) and allow breeders already licensed by the USDA to be exempt from the licensing fees (SB 773), reducing funding for state inspections, Soriano said.
He said he hopes the Legislature gives the law a chance to prove itself before it is repealed.
“We’re so close to letting this work, and it’s not forever. You have three years to let this work and if it doesn’t, you can pull the sheet out from under us,” he said. “I really believe we’re going to change the industry.”