This is part two in our series detailing an investigation from Animal Wellness Action and Bailing Out Benji. For part one, please read all the way to the end of this article.
Arizona law prohibits pet stores from purchasing puppies from breeders with recent and severe violations of the Federal Animal Welfare Act on their record. Yet, five pet stores in Arizona called “Puppies ‘N Love” and “Animal Kingdom” have done exactly that.
Owner Frank Mineo insisted that his pet stores “continue to scrutinize inspection reports on our breeders and make them available in our stores” in a 2017 news release.
Yet, investigators with Bailing Out Benji and Animal Wellness Action have unearthed evidence to the contrary. The Mineos’ business seems to have purchased more than 220 puppies from two separate breeders cited for direct violations by Animal Care inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In recent years – due to a shift in priorities at the USDA – the agency has handed out relatively few violations of any kind. Direct violations are the most egregious type of violations, where the lives of animals are at immediate risk; and according to this Washington Post article, the trend toward not issuing citations is evident in the numbers. In 2017, inspectors recorded 331 direction violations, and in 2018, that number had dropped more than 60 percent to just 128. So, to find two different breeders with direct violations is especially troubling given how uncommon it is.
Arizona’s state law also requires that pet stores clearly label all puppies with the breeder name, state of origin, and the USDA breeder license as well. Our investigators uncovered dozens of instances where the labeling was incorrect or incomplete, making it that much harder for the unsuspecting public to research the origins of their potential new family member.
Puppies from these dog factories have a higher incidence of illness, genetic health problems, and a lack of socialization, making them higher risk for those planning to add companion animals to their families. And that’s just the tip of this iceberg.
The Federal Animal Welfare Act stipulates that commercial enterprises that house animals be licensed and inspected by the USDA on a regular basis. The AWA requires “intermediate handler” licenses for anyone “taking custody of regulated animals in connection with transporting them on public carriers” and anyone “engaged in any business in which he receives custody of animals in connection with their transportation in commerce.”
Pet stores are exempt from this licensing requirement because pet stores are specifically “a place with the puppy, buyer, and seller all meet.”
However, in the case of this pet store franchise in Arizona, all puppies bought by this organization are shipped to a distribution center and held there, prior to shipment to the stores themselves. The puppies are confined in a truck for days on end as they travel across the country. They may stay in the distribution center for a short period of time before being sent to the stores, or they may stay longer if they are deemed unfit for purchase. Some of the puppies are sick or exhausted from travel and may need veterinary care.
This particular distribution center is not licensed as an intermediate handler, and as such, is not subject to the routine USDA inspections it should have to ensure compliance with the Federal Animal Welfare Act.
In a second act of non-compliance with Federal law, the Mineo family also proudly proclaims that they take their puppies to nursing homes and universities for promotional purposes. There are images and videos of these stores’ activities on Facebook that detail their visits to nursing homes and colleges, allowing residents and students to interact and play with the puppies. In order to be in compliance with the federal law, this business would need an exhibitor’s license, which it currently does not have.
Animal Wellness Action and Bailing Out Benji have submitted a complaint to the USDA, requesting that the business come into compliance with the necessary licenses and be subject to USDA inspection. We will fight tooth and claw to ensure these puppies are defended and that those breaking the law are held accountable.
Stay tuned next week to learn more about the specific enforcement problems with this Arizona law.
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Drafted by Lain Kahlstrom and Tina Meredith of Animal Wellness Action and Nicole Galvan of Bailing Out Benji.
November 11, 2020
For much of the past year, Animal Wellness Action and Bailing Out Benji have been working together to encourage law enforcement to take action against the largest chain of pet stores in the state of Arizona. The newspaper AZ Central highlighted our investigation in September and by October of this year, law enforcement officers entered the pet store’s establishment in order to request and inspect the records that would likely prove the stores are in violation of the state law.
But how did we get to this point? What did it take to get a police investigation started? Over the next four weeks, we will be laying out our investigation and highlighting the work it takes to save the lives of the pet store puppies and the parents who are still trapped back at the puppy mills.
Pet stores around the country have been under increasing amounts of scrutiny and pressure in recent years, due to the fact that the horrors of puppy mills that supply these stores have become more widely publicized and the documentation connecting pet stores across the country to the puppy mills they source from is more readily available. Puppy mills are essentially “dog farms” that churn out as many puppies as possible, and they’re infamous for cruel and inhumane conditions. But, the USDA standards are minimal, and it has been uncommon for breeders to be cited for violations since early 2017.
The situation is so dire that over 350 cities and 3 states have implemented versions of a humane ordinance that prevents pet stores from getting their “products” from puppy mills, instead requiring that they source their animals strictly from shelters.
Arizona itself is home to a small number of puppy-selling stores, five of which are owned and operated by one family. As the public’s knowledge and distaste for puppy mills increased, the city of Phoenix responded by passing a local ordinance to ban pet stores from selling puppies from puppy mills in 2013. Shortly afterwards, the city of Tempe followed suit and also passed an ordinance. Tucson was on track to do the same when the Arizona State Legislature, at the behest of pet store owners, intervened.
That’s right- the owners of Arizona’s largest puppy-store chain urged the State Legislature to stop the onslaught of local ordinances.. They found a friend in State Representative Don Shooter, who helped them write and introduce legislation that preempted the city ordinances- nullifying the ones that were previously passed and stopping future efforts.
Public outcry was swift and loud. In a largely symbolic effort to appease public opposition and get this bill signed into law, pet store owners and legislators negotiated to include some provisions on the sourcing of pet store puppies. Namely, the law stipulates that pet stores cannot purchase from breeders who have direct USDA violations within the previous two years. Pet store owners are also required to maintain two years’ worth of records, and make them open to inspection by law enforcement on request. Additionally, pet stores must accurately label each puppy with information about the breeder, including their home state and their USDA license number, if applicable. That way, a potential buyer could research the breeder themselves to ensure they were “reputable” before purchase.
That state law became effective in January of 2016 with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey stating that the intent of this law was to “strengthen penalties for pet store owners who do not take measures to ensure that the animals under their care are from a licensed, safe, sanitary, and humane place.”
What could go wrong?
The Federal Animal Welfare Act was signed into law in 1966, mandating minimal standards of care for breeding dogs. Those standards include allowing dogs to remain in their cages 24 hours a day, if the owner provides more space than the allotted “6 inches” surrounding the dog’s body. It is not required that the dogs are ever let outside of their cages if that cage size is met, and there is no limit on the number of years a dog can be confined and bred this way. This is man’s best friend; dogs who crave human interaction and attention, living in cages for the entirety of their lives.
USDA inspectors are required to visit puppy mill facilities every 2-3 years to document any violations they see. Those violations are then published on the USDA website for potential consumers to complete their own research prior to purchasing from a breeder.
However, during the early months of the Trump administration, two things happened that changed the expectations of inspectors and facility operators.
First, USDA inspectors were directed to offer breeders more opportunities to correct deficiencies in their operations prior to being cited. Inspectors were instructed to use these occasions as “teachable moments” and allow breeders to maintain a clean license and record, despite flagrant deviations from the already minimal standards. After this change, it was documented that there were 60% fewer violations listed on reports.
Next, in an unprecedented move, the USDA redacted much of the information on the its website, citing privacy concerns. Starting in early 2017, only a few months after Arizona’s state law went into effect, the public could no longer easily look up a breeder’s license and record.
Even with the records being taken down, Arizona’s pet store owners proudly declared they didn’t need the USDA website, because they personally visit the breeders themselves and have other avenues to ensure they do not have USDA violations on their record.
It didn’t take long for the stores to forget the statement they made.
Puppy-selling stores make their profits by purchasing puppies from puppy mills for a few hundred dollars and then turning around to sell them at an enormous mark-up. Because of this, animal advocates knew better than to expect a turn-around in the business practices of Arizona stores. Indeed, less than 3 years later, sufficient evidence was gathered showing hundreds of puppies had entered Arizona from breeders with violations; as such, violating Arizona’s state law repeatedly.
That brings us back to our investigation and work to encourage law enforcement to protect these dogs from the abuse of some Arizona pet stores and the puppy mills they supply from.
To date, pet store owners have not turned over their complete records to law enforcement as the law stipulates. Thankfully, the cities who are tasked with enforcing this state law, are not giving in.
Once violations are proven, cities are entitled to collect fines at a minimum and, if enough violations are documented, the cities can force the stores to stop selling puppies from breeders altogether, sourcing solely from shelters instead.
We are working on this enforcement issue daily and will continue to keep you update on the news.
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And if you are able, please consider making a donation to help cover the cost of the records we are pulling for this investigation.
If you or someone you know bought a puppy from an Arizona pet store and you would like to know more about where it was born, please fill out the contact form below.