#SaveThePuppies Part One: Arizona’s failure to keep puppy mills out

For much of the past year, Animal Wellness Action and Bailing Out Benji have been working together to encourage law enforcement to take action against the largest chain of pet stores in the state. In October of this year, law enforcement officers entered the pet store’s establishment to request and inspect the records.  

But how did we finally get to this point? Over the next four weeks, we’ll be laying out our investigation and work to save the lives of these puppies.

Pet stores around the country have been under increasing scrutiny and pressure in recent years, as the horrors of puppy mills that supply these stores have become more widely publicized.  Puppy mills are essentially “dog farms” that churn out as many puppies as possible, and they’re infamous for cruel and inhumane conditions.  But, the USDA standards are minimal, and it’s been uncommon for breeders to be cited for violations since the Trump administration began in early 2017.  

The situation is so dire that over 350 cities and 3 states have implemented some sort of retail pet sales ban – which prevents pet stores from getting their “products” from puppy mills, instead sourcing their animals strictly from shelters.

Arizona is home to a small number of pet stores, five of which are owned and operated by one family. A smattering of other pet stores selling puppy mill dogs are scattered across the state.  As the public’s increasing knowledge and distaste for puppy mills grew, the city of Phoenix responded by passing a local ordinance to ban pet stores from selling puppies from puppy mills in 2013. Shortly afterwards, the city of Tempe also banned pet stores from selling puppy mill puppies. Tucson was on track to do the same when the state legislature, at the behest of pet store owners, intervened.

The owners of Arizona’s largest pet store chain urged the state legislature to stop the onslaught of local ordinances preventing them from selling puppies from puppy mills. They found a friend in Rep. Don Shooter, who helped them write and introduce state legislation that preempted the city ordinances. The city ordinances banning the retail sales of puppy mill puppies were all nullified. 

Public outcry was swift and loud.  In a largely symbolic effort to appease public opposition and get this bill signed into law, pet store owners and legislators negotiated to include some provisions on the sourcing of pet store puppies. Namely, the law stipulates that pet stores cannot purchase from breeders who have USDA violations within the previous two years. Pet store owners are also required to maintain two years’ worth of records, and make them open to inspection by law enforcement on request.  

Additionally, pet stores must accurately label each puppy with information about the breeder, including their home state and their USDA license number, if applicable. That way, a potential buyer could research the breeder themselves to ensure they were “reputable” before purchase.

That state law became effective in January of 2016 with Gov. Doug Ducey stating that the intent of this law was to, “strengthen penalties for pet store owners who do not take measures to ensure that the animals under their care are from a licensed, safe, sanitary, and humane place.”

What could go wrong?

The federal Animal Welfare Act was signed into law in 1966, mandating minimal standards of care for breeding dogs. Those standards include allowing dogs to remain in their cages 24 hours a day, with some spaces as small as only 6 inches longer than the dog’s body.  It is not required that the dogs are ever let outside of their cages, and there is no limit on the number of years a dog can be confined and bred this way.These are dogs who crave human interaction and attention, living exactly the same as any other factory-farmed animal!

USDA inspectors are required to visit puppy mill facilities periodically to document any violations.  Those violations are documented on the USDA website for potential consumers to complete their own research prior to purchasing from a breeder.

However, during the early months of the Trump administration, two things happened.

The first: USDA inspectors were directed to offer breeders more opportunities to correct deficiencies in their operations prior to being cited. Inspectors were instructed to use these occasions as “teachable moments” and allow breeders to maintain a clean license and record, despite flagrant deviations from the already minimal standards.

The second: USDA redacted much of the information on the its website, ostensibly to protect the privacy of breeders’ operations. Starting in early 2017, only a few months after Arizona’s state law went into effect, the public could no longer easily look up a breeder’s license and record.

Even so, Arizona’s pet store owners gamely and proudly declared they didn’t need the USDA website, because they personally visit the breeders themselves and have other avenues to ensure they do not have USDA violations on their record.  

It didn’t take long

Pet stores make money by buying puppies from puppy mills and selling them for an enormous mark-up, so animal advocates knew better than to expect a turn-around in their business practices. Indeed, less than 3 years later, sufficient evidence was gathered showing hundreds of puppies had entered Arizona from embargoed breeders; Arizona’s state law has been violated repeatedly. Pet store owners had been buying puppies from out-of-state breeders with direct violations given to them during USDA inspections — even though there are very few violations cited in recent years. 

That brings us back to our investigation and work to encourage law enforcement to protect these dogs from the abuse of some Arizona pet stores.

To date, pet store owners have not turned over their complete records to law enforcement as the law stipulates. However, the cities, who are tasked with enforcing this state law, are not giving in. The city councils of both Tempe and Tucson are committed to ensuring their law enforcement officers follow through with obtaining the necessary records to corroborate the evidence of violations provided by our investigators.

Once proven, cities are entitled to collect fines at a minimum, or, if enough violations are documented, force the stores to stop selling puppies from breeders altogether, sourcing solely from shelters instead.  

The language of the state law makes it difficult to enforce, but the cities aren’t giving up.

Stay tuned as this story unfolds.

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