OP-ED: Failure of Federal Law Warrants Local Pet Protections

As a leading expert on the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), I am writing to correct a number of patently false assertions in the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s (PIJAC) self-serving May 16 Op-Ed (“What Will Assemblyman O’Donnell’s Bill Really Do for California’s Household Pets?”).

PIJAC contends that “it is already illegal for pet stores to purchase cats, dogs and rabbits from unethical breeders.” Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. To the contrary, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) stated policy is to automatically renew licenses to even the worst violators, allowing them to continue selling to pet stores. This is a serious problem that the agency’s own Office of Inspector General decried more than a quarter of a century ago and that I address in an article that is forthcoming in the Florida Law Review. Consider the case—just one of many—in which the USDA inspected a breeder and documented three animal welfare violations, including totally denying veterinary care to a Yorkie suffering from eye disease and dental disease. The very same day the USDA renewed the breeder’s license.

Compounding this problem is the USDA’s utter failure to meaningfully enforce the AWA. The Office of Inspector General has repeatedly condemned enforcement of this law as “ineffective,” pointing to a host of problems, including discounting penalties so steeply that the industry treats them as just another “cost of doing business.” Inspections under the law are rare: Contrary to PIJAC’s claim that breeders are “inspected at least once per year,” the USDA’s own documents make clear that breeders in fact may be inspected as infrequently as once every two—or even three—years. This is unsurprising, given that the agency has just about 100 inspectors tasked with inspecting more than 15,000 locations and more than 1 million animals.

Even when inspections do occur, meaningful enforcement is exceedingly rare. Most “enforcement” actions—about 80 percent—taken under the AWA are empty warnings, a problem that I detail in an article forthcoming in the Ohio State Law Journal. In the rare case where fines are assessed, they are steeply discounted. According to the most recent Inspector General audit report, in cases involving animal deaths and other egregious violations, violators on average paid just 14 cents for every dollar in penalties they potentially faced. Recently, for example, a commercial dog breeder who faced up to $80,000 in potential penalties for violations that included repeatedly failing to provide veterinary care to numerous dogs paid just $821.

These serious problems are only compounded by the USDA’s recent removal of inspection reports from its website, which previously at least allowed citizens to determine whether a breeder was violating the law.

It’s against this backdrop of devastating enforcement failures that more than 200 jurisdictions across America have adopted laws to protect pets within their borders.

Delcianna J. Winders is the Academic Fellow of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Program, where her scholarship focuses on the Animal Welfare Act. Prior to coming to Harvard she taught Animal Law and practiced animal law in a variety of settings, including as the director of captive animal law enforcement for the PETA Foundation.



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