USDA chief promises tougher enforcement of federal kennel law

The chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for inspecting more than 5,000 commercial dog breeding kennels, said the agency has fallen short on its animal welfare obligations and promised more vigorous enforcement.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking after a news conference in Harrisburg, said he was aware of the criticism by humane advocates about the agency's lax enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

"We are interested in being stronger in terms of enforcement. If there are violations - I think in the past, in the past administration, violations were not necessarily dealt with as aggressively as they could have been. And our intention is to make sure that the law is enforced," Vilsack told the Inquirer Friday in what are likely his first public comments on the subject since taking office last year. "And by sending the message that the law will be enforced, that we do care about that law, that we think it's an important law. This is an area that has really been not under the microscope as it needs to be. So I think you're going to see stricter enforcement."

Animal welfare advocates say they are pleased to hear about Vilsack's commitment to step up enforcement, but remain concerned about whether the agency will follow through.

"We welcome his remarks and sincerely hope the message travels down to the inspectors in the field," said Bob Baker, an investigator with the ASPCA, who helped win passage of Pennsylvania's dog law in 1981 when there was evidence the USDA was not adequately enforcing the Animal Welfare Act here. "The biggest problem is apathy among inspectors and failure to inspect the dogs themselves. They've become building inspectors, so there is no incentive for breeders to care for the animals and no follow up."

The Animal Welfare Act, signed into law in 1966, sets minimal standards of care for animals in research facilities, exhibition, transport and those sold commercially by dealers. The USDA has moved toward greater transparency under Vilsack, posting kennel inspection reports on its website and most recently announcing it would be making public notice of its enforcement actions.

Baker said the most compelling evidence the USDA has for decades failed to do its job is the fact that major dog breeding states like Pennsylvania, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and, just last week Oklahoma, have passed legislation on their own allowing state officials to conduct inspections.

The USDA conducts annual inspections of kennels that wholesale their dogs - primarily to pet stores - and which have more than three breeding females. In Pennsylvania that means dog kennels with a federal license and a state license should be inspected at least three times a year. There have been cases here however, where the USDA inspector and the state dog warden inspected a kennel on the same day and found very different conditions. In one case, the USDA inspector cleared a kennel without comment, while on the same day, a state dog warden found numerous violations. At one time there were 255 USDA kennels in Pennsylvania but that number has fallen since the more stringent dog law took effect last year.