Published by The Dallas Morning News / By Sommer Ingram, Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Animal rights advocates counting on the state to finally crack down on shady animal breeders say regulators bungled an opportunity to fix subpar living conditions, instead leaving the status quo largely intact as they crafted rules to implement a new state law.
The state’s new “puppy mill” law, enacted last year, was intended to curb inhumane living conditions for hundreds of animals that have been mistreated, malnourished and forced to live in cramped and unsanitary cages. Commissioners at the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation were given the task of drafting rules for commercial animal breeders.
But when commissioners met recently, they voted 5-1 to reject recommendations from a special committee and defer to minimal federal standards. Advocates say those rules don’t address any of their concerns.
“We were hopeful that the commission would have taken this opportunity to improve the lives of our animals in this state,” said Nicole Paquette, Texas director of the Humane Society. “Essentially, the rules allow what one would traditionally see as the epitome of a puppy mill.”
Representatives of the licensing department did not respond to requests for comment.
Groups such as Paquette’s and the Texas Humane Legislation Network had wanted the state to require that animal cages be increased to twice their current size and that at least 50 percent of the flooring in primary enclosures be solid, because wire flooring can hurt the animals.
The Texas Humane Legislation Network had also wanted the state to adopt the advisory committee’s recommendation that veterinarians perform all surgeries on the animals. Instead, the department chose to adopt standards of the U.S. Agriculture Department under the Animal Welfare Act.
Advocates also had pushed to forbid stacking of cages. Paquette described diseased and malnourished animals crowded in small cages that are stacked on top of one another in many Texas breeding facilities.
“These rules are essentially the bare minimum of what [the commissioners] had to do,” she said.
Puppy mills are typically facilities where dogs live in filthy conditions, get little to no medical care and are forced to breed repeatedly.
Texas is the 10th-largest puppy mill state in the country, according to the Humane Society.
Skip Trimble, the group’s legislative chairman, said he couldn’t understand why the commissioners would ignore the committee’s recommendations and the thousands of public comments in support of them.
“When you spend all this time and effort and have more than 8,000 to 10,000 public comments in support of these things, and then the commissioners ignore them, that’s very disappointing,” he said.
“I don’t think the commission’s action was in line with the intent of the spirit of the bill.”
The bill had faced fierce opposition in the Legislature, with opponents arguing that regulating large-scale breeders would be costly and that existing laws were ample to address concerns.
Some lawmakers said that passing the bill would force good breeders out of the business while letting bad ones escape under the radar.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat who wrote the bill, said she was satisfied with the way her measure was implemented.
“My hope was that the people who would come under these regulations would have the opportunity to provide input as to what kinds of regulations would be effective,” she said. “And we won’t know that until the requirements get put into place.
“I didn’t want to put something into place so strict that there was no room to move.”
Trimble said advocates agree that the underlying law sound.
“The truth of the matter is the statute was a good statute,” Trimble said. “Our disappointment was the way it has been interpreted by the department. I don’t know that we can necessarily improve on the statute that much.”
Instead, he said, advocates
“will try to seek reconsideration and hope that our pleas don’t fall on deaf ears. But those are the same ears we were pleading to before, so I don’t look for any relief from these rules anytime soon.”
AT A GLANCE: The new rules
Animal advocates say state regulators could have done much more under a new Texas “puppy mill” law to protect animals. Here’s what they sought in the state’s rule-making process, compared with what the rules regulators drafted:
Sought: A requirement for partial solid flooring in enclosures, because animals’ paws get caught in wire flooring.
Approved: Primary enclosures must have no sharp points or edges, and floors must not allow the animals’ feet to pass through any openings.
Sought: Doubling of current minimum cage sizes.
Approved: The interior height of a primary closure must be at least 6 inches higher than the head of the tallest dog in the enclosure when it is in a normal standing position. Enclosures must provide sufficient space to allow each dog and cat to turn about freely, to stand, sit and lie in a comfortable, normal position and to walk in a normal manner.
STACKING OF CAGES
Sought: A ban on stacking.
Approved: Stacking is permitted as long as a solid barrier prevents the transfer of fluid or animal waste between enclosures.