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March 14, 2017

by Mike Bober

We at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) appreciate Pet Age allowing us to represent the responsible pet industry in its pages on this and other companion animal issues. Our position is simple: pet sale bans are a proxy attack on the commercial breeding of all animals, aimed at the most vulnerable sector of the industry: retailers.

Pet sale bans in localities and states often begin with lofty preambles that cite ambiguous statistics while accusing licensed and inspected breeders of malicious mistreatment in pursuit of profit. Activists also create an impression of local opposition to responsible and irresponsible breeders alike; it’s no wonder that lawmakers and the public rush to support them.

This impression is just that, however—the fact is that pet sale ban language is often repeated from one local ordinance to another, making it very clear that these seemingly organic efforts are part of an orchestrated campaign. Its underlying intent is to put licensed, regulated commercial breeders—beginning with dogs and cats, then expanding to cover all species of companion animals—out of business. The national activist organizations behind these efforts aim to so demonize legal and ethical practices that public opinion forces lawmakers to do their dirty work for them by outlawing the best-regulated source for pets.

For many in the responsible pet industry, these bans have been easy to disregard or, in some cases, to actively support. Food and product manufacturers, service providers and product-only retailers are not directly affected by them. Even breeders can shrug off more than 2/3 of the bans that have passed, as they have no impact since they were adopted by municipalities with no active pet stores.

But this is short-sighted, and by treating pet sale bans as an issue unto themselves, the entire pet industry—which depends on a reliable supply of healthy, responsibly raised companion animals—has failed to prepare for the next stage of the activists’ agenda. While dogs sold in pet stores account for less than 5 percent of the dogs acquired in this country each year, the supply of dogs available through shelters is far less than national demand. A recently-released study by Mississippi State University makes it clear: if these bans achieve their goal—a complete cessation of breeding at U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-regulated facilities—the pet industry will see a double-digit decline in dog ownership within a few years. Can any of us weather the impact that will have?

It’s not about puppies and kittens anymore. Localities, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, are now extending the arguments that have succeeded against commercially bred dogs and cats to small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. With relatively few of these animals available through shelters and rescues, the impact will be seen much more quickly and in a far more drastic fashion.

Activists’ complaints are not entirely baseless. There are bad actors out there, and we as an industry have not done enough to confront and eliminate them. This, coupled with our failure to spend the time and resources necessary to tell our shared story of animal care, has allowed those who oppose companion animal breeding to paint our industry as greedy, callous and heartless. Others have stepped up to claim the mantle of companion animals’ champion, with the result being an inherent trust of anything they say and an inherent suspicion of “Big Pet.”

And if there’s anyone Americans love to distrust more than corporations, it’s the government. Critics argue that the USDA holds licensed breeders (of which there are currently fewer than 1,800 nationwide) to inadequate standards, and then fails to enforce even those. They decry the Animal Welfare Act as outdated and insufficient. Citing an absence of federal leadership, they advocate for local action to prohibit commercial breeders and promote shelters and rescues.

But that’s not the whole story. Most USDA-licensed breeders exceed the federal standards. They are either required to by state laws governing their operations or they voluntarily do so to improve the health and well-being of the animals they raise and sell. USDA inspections are designed to be instructive rather than punitive, with comprehensive animal welfare the goal. Inspections are rigorous, but inspectors are encouraged to work with breeders to achieve compliance, rather than trying to “get” them for non-compliance.

Animal health and well-being is always our first priority, so last year we at PIJAC took the steps of contacting and meeting with the USDA to urge the agency to thoroughly review its care standards to ensure that they reflect the best science and data currently available.

With shelters and rescues enjoying the “halo effect” of their effective branding, it comes as no surprise that more and more pet owners are choosing adoption. This viable option has many limitations that are often overlooked.

First and foremost, there’s the simple fact that rescues and shelters cannot keep up with the demand from U.S. homeowners and families who want a four-legged friend, let alone one with scales or feathers. In many parts of the country, shelters import far more dogs from out-of-state than they acquire locally.

Furthermore, the lack of reporting requirements for rescues and shelters in most states makes it difficult to understand exactly where dogs and cats come from and where they go. Poor governmental oversight allows hoarding situations and outbreaks of communicable diseases, while a lack of knowledge of an animal’s origins and history can lead to issues with temperament and health.

Shelters and rescues play an important role in helping prospective pet owners and prospective pets connect, but part of this bigger discussion we need to have is an honest look at ways in which we can work to make sure they complement, rather than compete with, retail. No one benefits when rescues that can’t fill their kennels with dogs that are actually lost or abandoned are actively participating in auctions, bidding up asking prices in the name of “saving” animals. It’s difficult to ensure optimal conditions and care standards when relying on networks of volunteers driving vans and trucks packed floor to ceiling with crates from areas of high concentration to areas of high demand.

Yet for many activists, this is somehow preferable to transportation using state-of-the-art equipment designed for exactly this purpose, solely because the animals are being “rescued.” Animal welfare expectations should be the same regardless of the name of the operation providing it. Surely, we can all find a way to complement one another’s efforts in the name of protecting animals and those who care for them.

We in the responsible pet industry do need to have a conversation about the breeding and sale of companion animals. Actually, we need to have several—among ourselves, with lawmakers and the public, and with those in the shelter and rescue community who are truly focused on animal care (rather than pursuing their own agendas). But arguing about whether bans are “good” or “bad” misses the bigger picture that affects all of us in a very real way.

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