2010 Legislation A Year of Hope

posted January 15th, 2010 by
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By Ruth Steinberger

As animal welfare advocates across Oklahoma enter the New Year, the upcoming legislative session presents opportunities and challenges that we have never faced before. If we do not want to come out of the session disappointed, our voice must be strong, organized and unified. Puny or wavering will not suffice. Being the final frontier for those who profit from a lack of regulations and safety nets for the unwanted, we are up against financial interests that are not going to go quietly into the night.

The, ‘Pet Quality Assurance Act,’ commonly referred to as the, “puppy mill bill,” passed the Oklahoma house and senate last year, as did a very important house bill which would have eliminated the archaic restriction that prevents Oklahoma counties with populations under 200,000 from building shelters or operating animal control services. And despite passage and good popular support, both bills died quietly, never making it to the governor’s desk. We must seize the grass roots momentum that started last year, and like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the grass roots organization that placed the wrongfulness of drunk driving into the minds of everyone, we must let legislators and other elected officials know that we do not want lip service and a mysterious end to animal welfare legislation;we want meaningful change for companion animals in Oklahoma.

Last year was the first time many legislators heard from animal friendly constituents; only by expanding this movement will we get the results that the animals so desperately need. Call your representatives! Whether it is the American Kennel Club, the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma or a host of out-of-state dog dealing interests that oppose our efforts, our opponents work hard to keep public awareness, common sense and compassion out of the equation.
This year the ‘puppy mill bill’ promises to bring many Oklahomans together again to fight for the welfare of puppy producing dogs that remain behind closed doors in remote locations across the state. Oklahoma Representative Lee Denney, DVM (R-Cushing) is a no-nonsense, rural legislator who has championed this issue since 2008. Denney has again submitted legislation aimed at regulating a clandestine industry that gives our state a black eye. Other legislators report that similar legislation has been requested by their constituents as well.

Lee Denney told Tulsa Pets Magazine, “There is no reason that Oklahoma, as the second largest puppy producing state in the nation, fails to meet even the same basic standards that are in place in USDA kennels. The lack of regulations leaves us with substandard kennels in which female dogs languish in filth and suffering horribly.

I am doing this for the dogs that no one sees and that most Americans don’t even know exist.” The puppy mill issue surfaces across Oklahoma due to a loophole which allows high volume dog producers that are not federally licensed to operate without any licensing at all here. Federal licensing is required only for breeders that sell dogs to a broker to be resold to a third party consumer, usually at a pet store. Breeders that sell puppies directly to the consumer such as over the internet, through newspapers or other sources are not required to apply for any license unless it is required by the state they live in.

Oklahoma is the only state with a large number of high volume breeders to have state licensing for breeders that are not eligible for USDA licensing. Denney’s bill would mandate that breeders meet the same standards as USDA kennels comply with. Those who support the bill emphasize there would be no legitimate reason to oppose the bill because these standards prevent only the worst cruelty.

Written over three decades ago, USDA regulations mandate that a breeding female dog have a cage at least six inches longer than the dog herself and that she be able to stand up and lie down in it. This means that an average size beagle can spend its life in a 32 by 32 inch cage. An effort to mandate time out of the tiny cages was defeated by breeding interests including the American Kennel Club. Additionally, the USDA lacks enforcement ability other than to levy administrative fines. License holders cannot be charged criminally by a USDA inspector.

Lee Denney said, “There is nothing overreaching about the standards that are called for under this legislation.” Claudette Selph is a community organizer who has worked in child welfare for over two decades. Selph now also trains Oklahoma Humane Federation members how to lobby for effective legislation on behalf of animals, and was the winner of the 2009 Oklahoma Alliance for Animals, ‘Advocate for Animals’ award. Selph said, “Meaningful change does not come about without serious effort.” Selph urges people to go to the capitol to meet with their legislators, but she said there are other ways people can generate awareness of issues affecting animals in Oklahoma. She said, “For example, if you do not want to go to the capitol, arrange a speaker to educate local civic groups about animal cruelty, the need for local spay/neuter ordinances and puppy mills. You can write letters to the editor and let others know about the ways they can step forth as individuals. Animal welfare is an important quality of life issue in our state and it should not be overlooked.” In addition to the humane issues, clandestine dog breeders earn an estimated thirty to forty million dollars in unreported cash each year, with the state losing millions through the tax evasion by breeders that sell puppies on street corners and in newspapers.

There is a lot of money stacked against the dogs, and those with interests in puppy mills and those who want to perpetuate the ban on county wide sheltering are prepared to fight.

Their voice is louder than the debarked puppy mill dog or the dog begging on the side of the road. Puppy mills, no matter how bad, generate money for those who traffic in puppies. That includes breeders, dealers, pet stores and even the airlines that transport tens of thousands of puppies out of Oklahoma airports. Tulsa is the second largest puppy shipping point in the US, following Kansas City, MO. And animal shelters, no matter how modest, cost money for counties with leadership that is content with unwanted animals being abandoned instead of sheltered.

Opponents to the Pet Quality Assurance Act last year were overwhelmingly out-of-state interests which included the American Kennel Club, which now holds events in partnership with Hunte, Inc., the largest dog broker in the US, and with the American Canine Association, a Pennsylvania based organization which registers puppies for high volume and mixed breed producers. Ultimately opposition to stopping puppy mills even came from the desk of a legislative office of the National Rifle Association. A bill to allow low-population counties to erect animal shelters was defeated by one-day lobbying strategies by the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma two years in a row.

Those who oppose animal welfare legislation do not intend to come to the table to address the issues that result in neglect and cruelty; they intend to continue to stonewall. It is up to us to create a tidal wave of compassion and common sense that overcomes their strategy of greed and shortsightedness. Only a grass roots strategy, with every legislator hearing from those who care, will move animal welfare legislation forward in the upcoming legislative session.

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