Izzie’s days start at a gallop. She’s an 8-year old Wheaten Terrier with a very busy to-do list. When the toddler in the household wakes up, she bounds down the hall to guard him while he gets dressed. Then she steals blueberries from his breakfast before commuting to her owner’s dog-friendly office to sniff the back ends of her colleagues by the water cooler. In 2010, she was born in a puppy mill and was shipped off to be purchased by a naive consumer, thousands of miles away.
Victoria’s days were much different. The German Shepherd was paralyzed from the neck down. She wore a diaper and was pulled around on a large wagon, the kind you might see in a big-box store to move pallets. And yet, that was the best she’d ever had it: Until recently, Victoria was used to breed puppies at a Pennsylvania dog farm. Over the better part of a decade, she lived in a cage where she likely churned out upward of 200 puppies, sold off to unsuspecting consumers for thousands of dollars each. And yet, every one of them carries the gene for the same crippling neurological disorder as their mother. Some will get sick like Victoria. Some won’t. But there’s no way for the consumer to know what they’re getting. Mind you, all of this is perfectly legal under the Animal Welfare Act as enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency tasked with regulating commercial dog breeding — oddly enough. Strange as it seems, the breeding of our nation’s pets is overseen by an agency that regulates livestock and farming.
But Izzie and Victoria are not livestock. They demonstrate a critical distinction between the supply and demand side of dog breeding. Dogs like Izzie go to unwitting homes while others like Victoria pay the price of consumer blindness with their lives.
As for me, I’m the foolish consumer who purchased Izzie from a pet shop thinking she was not a puppy mill dog if she came from a USDA-licensed facility. As a journalist, I later went on to investigate this government agency’s work. I learned that a USDA license is meaningless if you’re looking for a humanely bred animal. As for consumer protection, forget it: Dogs like Victoria are forced to breed at every heat, and the USDA never mandates a single genetic test be done to prevent breeders from passing along life-threatening ailments.
In late February this year, Victoria’s owners made the heartbreaking decision to let her pass. But she lives on as the face of SB 44 — better known as Victoria’s Law. It goes to a vote this spring in the state legislature and would prohibit pet stores across the state from selling commercially bred dogs like her puppies. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have both already passed ordinances that ban retailers from selling commercially produced dogs, but, sad to say, that’s not enough. We need full state buy-in. Right now, the Humane Society of the United States is making the passage of this bill a top national priority and has Pennsylvania advocates lining up for training on how to better communicate the necessity of statewide action.
Pennsylvania is still home to dozens of pet shops that sell puppies, with a few just outside the Philadelphia city line. And the Keystone State is also home to several locations of global chain Petland. The mega pet shop recently came under fire after the CDC linked it to a nationwide outbreak of drug-resistant campylobacter that sickened six people in Pennsylvania alone between 2016 and 2018. This is not just an animal-welfare issue or a consumer protection concern: It’s a danger to human health and safety.
To stop bad breeders from churning out dogs, it’s essential to decrease demand. A line on a map won’t stop anyone from driving another few minutes to purchase a puppy. But pet shop retail bans work. During my investigation of the commercial dog breeding industry, I compared the numbers year-by-year as an increasing number of cities and municipalities banned the sale of puppy mill dogs. For the breeders and the brokers who transport these puppies from the wholesaler to the pet shop window, these laws meant millions of dollars lost. Bad breeders folded. The cycle of industrial-scale animal cruelty slowed as the money dried up. Having full state cooperation would only strengthen these city ordinances and communicate that Pennsylvania stands together on this issue.
As for Izzie and consumers like me, passing Victoria’s Law would mean that pet shops can’t hide behind a cute doggie in the window. While I wouldn’t trade Izzie for anything, it’s too easy for consumers to stay blind to the truth. I hope our state lawmakers will take urgent action for Pennsylvania to make better choices for our consumers and our canine friends.