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Government Capacity to Regulate Inhumane Pet Retailers Questioned

by Lara McCaffrey, published
Credit: Wikimedia

regulation of inhumane pet retailers

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently conducting internal reviews of proposed changes to the Animal Welfare Act, but some animal organizations are critical of the USDA’s ability to enforce the current AWA and any future revisions.

A proposal to revise the definition of “retail pet store” was issued by APHIS on May 10, 2012. The proposal promises to close this loophole and ensure that animals sold via phone, mail, or internet are better monitored.

Owners of sight unseen retail pet stores have escaped federal and public inspection of their facilities due to a loophole in the AWA. As a result, many animals have been raised in abysmal facilities and have multiple health problems unbeknownst to buyers.

The proposal states that pet animal retailers have two choices for monitoring: either they allow all buyers to enter the facility where animals are housed or they allow federal inspectors to monitor their business or residence where animals are available for purchase.

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) applauds APHIS’s attempt to better protect animals, but doubts their abilities to enforce the AWA and any new revisions.

“We encourage and support any oversight of puppy mills and backyard breeders but we have to say that the USDA has been notorious for not enforcing the laws that are on the books,” says PETA spokeswoman Teresa Schagrin.

PETA is skeptical of the USDA’s capacity to inspect all sight unseen retailers and the inspection system itself; the number of pet retail facilities outnumber inspectors. Its current complaint-based system -- a citizen sends in a complaint and a USDA employee will come inspect the facility -- needs to be revised to be effective.

One of the biggest animal organizations to publicly reject AWA revisions was the American Kennel Club (AKC). Like PETA, one of their concerns regarding the proposed changes is whether or not APHIS is able to enforce them.

“It is unclear how USDA/APHIS could enforce the proposed rule change.” AKC stated in its public comments submitted to APHIS.

“The vastly expanded number of potential licensees would require expanded USDA services, further weakening APHIS’s ability to respond to true commercial facilities needing inspection. The May 2010 Inspector General’s audit of USDA/APHIS demonstrated that the resources for the existing inspections program are insufficient to carry out existing responsibilities, even before adding extensive additional responsibilities.”

The AKC’s public remarks go on to completely reject all proposed changes for a number of reasons, but PETA believes that revisions to the AWA are better than allowing this loophole to exist. The revisions address the way the Internet affects the welfare of animals. The AWA was written 40 years ago and predates the internet.

APHIS spokesman David Sacks addressed the fact that the USDA’s authority is limited because of a lack of necessary changes that need to happen from Congress, but reaffirms the department’s commitment to protecting animals.

“The truth is not every animal under the sun is covered by the Animal Welfare Act,” said Sacks. “For whatever animal is protected under that act those are the ones we want to insure are being treated humanely and that license holders are adhering to regulations and providing humane treatment to animals but you know our authority is certainly limited. It’s limited to the animals and activity covered by the Animal Welfare Act.”

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