What began as a concerning session for pets, consumers and small businesses ended with bipartisan support for two bills that will protect pet choice and uphold high standards for pet retailers and breeders in Virginia.
Legislators and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) deserve thanks for listening to their constituents and for taking the time to understand the role of the responsible pet industry in providing pets to millions of Virginians. Emails, phone calls and meetings were well-received as small-business owners made their case to their elected officials.
In January, state senators voted 40-0 to pass Senate Bill 852. Intended to protect pets and consumers against unethical breeders, SB 852 instead would have allowed substandard pet retailers and breeders to stay in business despite receiving direct citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Furthermore, it treated lower-level violations of USDA code as equal to direct citations from APHIS. This created an environment in which ethical pet breeders could have been barred from doing business in Virginia.
A coalition of small businesses in Virginia immediately went to work, educating members of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee about the real harm of SB 852. The bill was improved by the Agriculture Subcommittee by matching USDA language for breeder requirements and clarifying that businesses can be punished only for purposeful violations of state law. Finally, the bill clarified an exemption for hobby breeders who would have been harmed by the original version of SB 852.
The modified bill passed the subcommittee 5-1, the committee 22-0 and the House 99-0. It then went to the Senate, where it passed 40-0. On March 15, McAuliffe signed SB 852 into law.
The responsible pet industry is also grateful that McAuliffe signed House Bill (HB) 2381. This bill brings common sense to the process of identifying a dog as dangerous by requiring animal-welfare officers to thoroughly investigate dog-bite incidents. The bill also requires animal-control officers to gather evidence against a dog and its owner, whereas current law gives too much leeway for officers to assume guilt.
Finally, small businesses in Virginia that were critical to fixing SB 852 also managed to stop a bill that would have created a devastating Catch-22 statewide. SB 1204 would have encouraged localities to pass pet-sale restrictions, including retail bans on the sales of dogs from all breeders – even while making it virtually impossible for pet stores to source dogs from shelters.
While well-intentioned, SB 1204 offered no additional protections for pets at the expense of small businesses and consumers statewide. Virginia pets, pet owners and pet businesses are better off without SB 1204.
We are grateful that citizens and legislators worked together to improve the human-animal bond in the state. Everyone benefits from SB 852 – from pets who end up in loving homes to the nearly 29,000 people a recent study found work in the responsible pet industry and put more than $1.8 billion into the state’s economy.
As other issues face partisan vitriol, it is encouraging to see both parties support common-sense legislation.
Chris Foschini own a pet store in Virginia. Robert Likins is the vice president of government affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.