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Caged: How Ohio Politicians Keep the State's Puppy Mill Business Booming with Little Regulation

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"It's kind of hard of believe that it took this long to get this done," Gov. John Kasich quips with his pol-tinged half-charm. "I mean, wh-what was the holdup, right?!"

He is surrounded by animal advocates and more than a few bouncy pups, all of whom seem to cast raised eyebrows as the governor scribbles his name on a dog-breeding bill that largely accomplishes nothing.

The words Kasich personally approved on a cold day in December last winter became effective in March—kind of. Little has changed so far in the land of Ohio's puppy mills, and not much will. Vagaries dot the bill's language like puppy kennels along the rolling Holmes County landscape. And knotty conflicts in the process ravage whatever intent the Statehouse set about with initially.

The charge of kicking the bill's meager provisions into action falls to the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), a monolithic group that oversees state crop production, livestock and many other industries far removed from companion animals like puppies. With the help of stakeholders specifically chosen by the ODA, any sense of puppy mill reform via Senate Bill 130 won't take shape until 2016 or later.

"The only thing I can say now is that you are gonna be protected," Kasich says. He is wrapping up the ceremonial bill-signing back in January and looking deep into the eyes of Sammy, a supremely cute Bichon from Wadsworth. Kasich's gaze, unsurprisingly, is not the comfort Sammy and his kind need.

***

A slanted roof covers a row of tiny cages growing hot in the morning sun. From half a mile across otherwise gentle farmland, what appears to be a lone Yorkie can be seen sitting idly and watching passing cars and buggies.

Puppy kennels—"puppy mills" in the more oppositional colloquy—are easy to spot from the circuitous roads of rural countrysides around Northeast Ohio. The heart of the commercial dog breeding industry in Ohio lies mostly within and around Amish Country—Holmes County, south of Wooster, and neighboring Tuscarawas, Ashland and Guernsey counties. Winding roads weave in and among hills, and gravelly driveways jut off at odd intervals. Now and then, a series of buildings crop upward out of the land. These are homes, barns, silos, storage areas. But often enough, tucked among the other buildings are small kennels built for small animals. In the past decade, in many cases, puppies have lived in them.

There's nothing secretive about the mills. But there's certainly a darkness about them that gets brushed under the regions' handwoven rugs.

"We have Yorkies and we have Westies," a young Amish woman says as a prospective customer sidles up to the house and broaches the subject. She doesn't let the customer wander too far off the rocky driveway; rather, she dispatches four of her children to cull a couple of puppies from the kennel behind the garage. For the most part, buyers don't get a good look at the conditions of these makeshift homes and breeding grounds. "They are...eh, how old now? Four weeks old now," the woman says, squinting into the morning sun.

When asked where else an interested party might go for more puppies in the area, she gestures north toward a tourist-ridden open-air market. The puppy, a tiny, tiny Westie now firmly clutched in her hand, jerks forward and backward as the woman rattles off directions up State Route 557.

But scenes like that—homey and quaint— are growing uncommon. These days, a lot of the small operations are shuttered. People in the area point to a combination of economic forces and the inevitable passage of Senate Bill 130 that pushed some of the small-time breeders out of the game. There's money to be made elsewhere. Lots of breeders have converted old kennel structures into rabbit hutches (they're about the same size, anyway). Rabbits tend to make for really efficient raw dog food, which is an increasingly major player in the canine chow market.

Quick money: That's a major disc in the backbones of both the Amish economy and the rural "English" (non-Amish) economy. That's what led to the boom in puppy mills across northern Ohio. And that's what has led to the seeming decline. But kennels are still out there in vast numbers.

Three years ago, dog breeder head honcho Ervin Raber testified that the industry pulled in $9 million annually across Holmes County—and billions across the country. The financial footprint isn't much less imposing these days, and there's still a solid presence among "high-retail" breeders. That's how the ODA classifies operations handling at least nine litters or 60 dogs per year. Retailers selling fewer than 60 dogs in a year find themselves mostly outside the scope of government regulations and standards of care. And with the small mills dropping out over time, the market is consolidating into the profiteering big guns.

What's left is an always-vague market dominated by major puppy traffickers. Via cold, hard cash, breeder representatives found a prominent seat at the negotiating table over the years. As Senate Bill 130 approached a House vote last year, dog breeders like Raber sported broad smiles and optimistic looks toward an unbound future after dumping lobbying cash into the effort.

They're happy; animal protection advocates for the most part are not. That's because the law plays softball with reports of animal cruelty and replaces current regulations with, well, current regulations. 

***

It is the intent of the ODA, of course, to implement new regulations on most aspects of the breeding business, through the bill's language actually doesn't specify much. Really, the proposed and approved rules thus far don't change the status quo.

Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), dogs' cage sizes are determined by the length from the tip of their head to the base of their tail. Add six inches to that number, then square it. There's the calculated square footage for the cage, which adds up to little more than strict confinement. That's also the current standard, which is more or less upheld across the state.

The new law mandates that kennel operators offer dogs "at least the minimum amount of floor space," as dictated by the current USDA standards. Sweeping reform that is not.

"The regulations they have adopted are not much different that what we see under the USDA. And those regulations are not very stringent. More importantly, the enforcement of those regulations has been very poor," says Mary O'Connor-Shaver, who works with the Coalition to Ban Ohio Dog Auctions.

Living conditions – cage sizes, food and water quality, opportunity for physical activity—are the elements closest to the minds of animal protection advocates. Most acknowledge that the business isn't going away anytime soon, but the decade-long push for regulations on some things has kept those concerns pretty static. An independently filed business-impact analysis reports that the cage sizes were based on USDA measurements, which were treated as a "starting point for development of the standards in the rules."

And none of these rules even have to go into effect until Dec. 31, 2016, according to a current draft proposal, leaving more than three years of stasis. In that interim, there's no method to really push breeders on the bill's specs. An ad-hoc committee has been meeting (at least once, to be clear) this spring to hammer out the details of the law.

Despite the six months since passage—and the years of work prior—there hasn't been an opportunity for the public to digest the law. The ODA has been promoting a roomier lifestyle for dogs bred in these Ohio kennels. A widely distributed Associated Press article takes no cues from the actual bill as it was passed; rather, the supposed intent of the ODA is championed as real change.

Here's the nut 'graph of that particular story: "The rules bolster the standards for treatment of animals housed in puppy mills and force the facilities to obtain state licenses. They were drafted by the state Department of Agriculture, but their implementation is being delayed for at least two weeks." Approximately none of that is true. But its circulation in newspapers across the state paves the way for a broad misunderstanding of the new law.

It's a plain case of bowling over the opposition, though the ODA is even more brazen and opaque than typically.

***

Dog breeding has been a booming business in rural Ohio for more than a decade, though its peak years have come and gone. In 2004, a contingent of businessmen from across Amish Country organized and opened the Buckeye Dog Auction, signaling a high-productivity turn to puppy trafficking. Much like the hemming and hawing of a livestock auction in various corners of the country, northern Ohio staked a massive foothold in the burgeoning business of puppies.

Springing from the auctions and the kennels and the general culture of the trade has been a grisly showdown between the proprietors and oppositional activists. Even with what seems to be a monumental and relevant law on the books, that confrontation is far from over.

The Puppy Mill Project, based outside Chicago, knows Ohio's breeding operations very well. Cari Meyers, the Project's founder, explains that a nearly unimaginable number of puppies are trafficked out of Ohio and into, for instance, pet shops in suburban Chicago.

Last month, the Puppy Mill Project helped bring about a class action lawsuit in LaSalle County Circuit Court against Chicago pet store chain Furry Babies, Inc. The lawsuit cites consumer fraud, per Illinois law, since it wasn't made clear to purchasers what the source of the puppies was. One of the central figures named in the suit is Abe Miller, a puppy mill magnate based in Fresno, Ohio, who was funneling puppies toward Chicago and many other cities.

Miller held major influence in Senate Bill 130's refinement and passage. He runs House of Pets, which brokers deals directly with in-state and out-of-state buyers and sellers. He's also the president of the Ohio Dog Breeders Association, a major contributor to politicians handling the bill. He spoke to a Senate committee in 2011, decrying "arbitrary standards written by people not experienced in animal husbandry." The meeting was, yet again, a public consolidation of puppies with farm-bound livestock more traditionally overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

"What really concerns us is that the majority of the commercial dog breeders in Ohio—they were very much in support of SB 130 as it passed," O'Connor-Shaver says.

For the benefit of the Ohio Dog Breeders Association, Miller was heavily involved with the watering down process over the past two years. By the time the bill passed the House, he offered a ringing endorsement.

On Nov. 13, Miller publicly thanked members of the committee for the bill. The legislation was, in a word, a gift.

***

Rep. Dave Hall, a Millersburg Republican, is the chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. That's the main conduit for all puppy mill talk down at the Statehouse. He's the power broker in the conversations that led to the bill's passage. He's also well funded by groups that favor few regulations and loose enforcement, like the Ohio Professional Dog Breeders Association. That's, of course, one of the groups standing to benefit most from relaxed regulations.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is the most powerful body in the state when it comes to puppy mill legislation. After getting chewed up in committee for months—and being rewritten at least eight times—it's actually a miracle the bill even came out alive.

Along the way, there were calls from animal protection advocates for Kasich to veto the bill. Even as the committee hearings were under way, supporters of regulations began requesting to restart the process. Some backed away from the bill entirely. Everything meaningful was being derailed, they say. And what appeared to be an open process—a shot at making life a little more pleasant for thousands of dogs across the state—slowly wilted into a dull circus.

Even with passage of the bill, nothing's really set in stone. That would appear to be a good thing for advocates hoping for stronger regulations, but optimism has waned considerably since meetings began at the Statehouse and with the ODA. A large chunk of the bill merely urges the director of the ODA to adopt rules relating to all sorts of things: housing, nutrition, exercise, grooming and more. Well into the bill's life as a law, that hasn't happened. It was a mere suggestion, after all.

Along with those standards for living and care, the law puts into place an inspection process. Again, it's little more than a show. Overseen by an appointee, five inspectors will be expected to branch out across the state to dig deep into Ohio's thousands of kennels. Terry Kline, a veterinarian based out of Orrville, was appointed by ODA to serve as a supervisor of the state's five inspectors. He began meeting with stakeholders, including the Holmes County Commissioners, earlier this year.

Word on the street is Kline's seeming heavy-handedness wasn't going to fly in puppy mill country. Nick Sabo, a writer based outside Wooster, published an article late last month that revealed Kline's intentions to hone in on Holmes County. Kline's quotes were pretty much softball material. "Our inspectors will be bracketed in this area," Kline was quoted as saying, referring to Holmes County and the surrounding areas.

But Kline was abruptly released from duty shortly after the story appeared. He could not be reached for comment by Scene.

Beyond the state's inspectors, the new law urges dog breeders to reel in their local veterinarians to work out the bulk of the kennel inspections. By and large, the theory in action goes, the local vets would be essentially the same ones who have been working alongside the puppy mill industry for years. The idea here is that they'd be tapped to follow through on the state's new formalities.

Given all of those half thoughts on the law's implementation, the public actually did have a month to offer input on the direction throughout June. The ODA filed those comments and passed them along to the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, comprised of five state senators and five state representatives. A fine time, it seems, to foster some modicum of debate—a full six months after the law was approved.

"The only thing I can say now is that you are gonna be protected."

Kasich's words probably weren't on Olivia Pavone's mind as she and her fiance trucked down I-77 from Richfield to Victoria Savage's puppy kennel in Cambridge. She confesses to not having done much research in advance of the visit. Upon arrival at Savage's place, it became clear that things were not quite right.

"I was shocked she let me in," Pavone says of the general tone of her visit. "The second I pulled into the driveway, I knew it was a puppy mill." She saw rows of homemade cages assembled with wire and tarp. Five dogs, on average, huddled in each cage. There was a chicken coop-style structure where the dogs were physically breeding. Inside the tight building, Pavone describes a scene of horror.

Throughout the transaction, which had been set in motion once Pavone fell in love with a particular puppy on the Internet, Savage was describing how her operation is essentially a non-stop breeding frenzy. It's a narrative that echoes all over Ohio and the Midwest: Dogs are forced to breed until they physically can't. At that point, they're cast off to rescue organizations or, all too often, a much worse fate.

Pavone purchased the dog and left quickly, though she did cancel the check the next day, explaining her disgust at supporting the mill in any fashion. On the way home, the puppy began incessantly throwing up in the car. The little pup was visibly ill, and Pavone suspected the puppy may have parvo—a wildly contagious virus that runs rampant among poorly kept mills.

Sure enough, an emergency visit to a veterinarian that day confirmed as much. The puppy was euthanized shortly, out of necessity.

Guernsey County's dog warden now has a situation to hang a case on. Pavone has been working with other advocates to raise awareness of mills in general and her experience in Cambridge specifically.

Interactions like that are often the sources of puppy mill investigations. True to form, though, once a breeder learns that officials are looking into his or her operation, the dirt gets cleaned up and inspectors are shown only the spic-and-span aspects of the mill.

Under the new law, complaints like Pavone's are the main triggers of state inspections. For day-to-day inspections, mill operators can wrangle their go-to vets for a quick once-over. But a complaint against a particular mill signals a need for the state to get involved. Mill operators and owners will get advance notice of an impending inspection, with one of the five representative inspectors visiting the kennels prior to the first inspection and informing operators what parts of the business may need tightening up.

Pavone's story, taking place more than six months after the law was approved, tosses the sort of painful light on the industry that the law was meant to.

***

Along similar lines, Kasich signed "Nitro's Law" on June 30 of this year. It's a set of animal abuse policies that actually provide teeth to prosecution. Ohio's animal abuse laws are notoriously among the lightest in the country. Even with this bill passed into law, however, legislators ensured that it didn't tackle all problems.

So on paper, it's been a damn good year for Ohio's animal advocates. Nitro's Law, a long-in-the-works bill that addresses animal cruelty at kennels, was finally approved in June. It's being brought into the puppy mill argument mostly because it actually does nothing to address conditions at puppy mills.

The bill was never meant to confront the conditions in puppy mills at its essence, though. Nitro was a Rottweiler that was found dead of starvation at a Youngstown dog training facility. The law was written to ensure that similar neglect and abuse can't happen. Ohio's puppy mill law was meant to confront those very conditions. From the current vantage point, it couldn't be more tepid.

But that's the reality faced by men and women fighting on behalf of animals: piecemeal progress. The puppy mill law has been lauded by various arenas as "a good first step" toward improved living conditions. And who knows? Maybe after another decade passes, "a good second step" will make its way from the Statehouse to the rolling hills of Puppy Mill Country, Ohio.

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