Animal welfare advocates have long argued the U.S. Department of Agriculture was lax in its oversight of the nation's puppy mills. In a landmark report released today, federal inspectors agreed.
Weak government enforcement has led to the deaths and suffering of dogs living in terrible conditions in commercial breeding facilities licensed by the federal government, the report found.
Investigators with the Office of Inspector General said the USDA which is in charge of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act often ignores repeat violations, waives penalties and doesn't adequately document inhumane treatment of dogs.
In one case cited by the department's inspector general, 27 dogs died at an Oklahoma breeding facility after inspectors had visited the facility several times and cited it for violations, the wire service reported.
The Office of Inspector General found that breeders were given repeated warnings despite evidence of animals that were suffering, while USDA inspectors emphasized education over enforcement. Indeed, there were reports of cases involving Pennsylvania breeders where fines - one totaling in excess of $80,000 issued by the USDA - were apparently ignored.
The report notes 11 breeders in Pennsylvania were audited by investigators as part of the investigation - including six in Lancaster County. Other kennels were located in Huntingdon, Centre, Juniata, Franklin and Cumberland counties.
The education-over-enforcement charge was one animal welfare advocates made against the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement until the overhaul of the bureau by Gov. Rendell in 2006 and the passage of the new dog law.
The report recommends that the animal care unit at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service immediately confiscate animals that are dying or seriously suffering, and better train its inspectors to document, report and penalize wrongdoing.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the report "very troubling" and said in a statement Tuesday that the department will take immediate action to improve enforcement, penalties and inspector training.
Read the full report here. A warning: the report contains graphic photos of animals with gaping wounds, covered in ticks and living in piles of feces.
The report was released the same day that legislation combating puppy mills was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The legislation will close a loophole in the Animal Welfare Act that currently allows commercial breeders who sell puppies online and directly to the public to escape licensing and regulation, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
The legislation — known as the PUPS Act, for "Puppy Uniform Protection Statute"— is co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin, (D-Ill.)., and David Vitter, (R-La.) A companion bill is expected to be introduced shortly in the U.S. House. Among the sponsors is Rep. Jim Gerlach, (R-Pa). The bills also require that dogs used for breeding be provided daily exercise. Breeding dogs in puppy mills are typically forced to spend their entire lives in small cages with no opportunity for exercise, little or no socialization, and minimal human interaction.