A Washington Post investigation showing that buyers ­affiliated with 86 rescue and dog-advocacy groups and shelters nationwide have spent $2.68 million buying dogs at auctions has ignited fierce debate — and late Tuesday, the U.S. Agriculture Department issued a bulletin stating that such individuals and nonprofits may need to be licensed under the federal Animal Welfare Act.

“Our job is to ensure the humane treatment of the animals we regulate,” Deputy Administrator Bernadette Juarez, who leads the department’s animal-care program, said in the bulletin, which cited “dog acquisitions from an auction for resale (including adoption) as pets” as a reason that individuals or groups may require federal regulation.

Response to the USDA announcement was swift. The Humane Society of the United States — which in March sued the USDA, claiming it has failed to release breeding-kennel inspection reports in violation of open-records law — said the agency should instead do a better job of regulating breeders.

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“BREAKING: the USDA is planning to scrutinize pet rescue groups and require many of them to become licensed — even as it fails to crack down on puppy mills and covers up their inspection reports,” the Humane Society posted on the Facebook page of its Puppy Mills Campaign.

Commenters on the post said the federal government should leave rescuers alone and instead focus on what they call “puppy mills.”

“Unbelievable,” one wrote. “We’re not the bad guys!!!”

Other voices, including those in the breeding community, cheered the USDA’s bulletin and said regulations for rescuers by the USDA and others are long overdue.

On the Facebook page of Real Animal Welfare, a commenter wrote, “It’s about time!” Another posted: “Great! We need to make them and the IRS 100% aware of these rescue businesses paying out tens of thousands of dollars for dogs, bypassing their local shelters to drive 800 miles away, keeping purchased dogs as personal pets — definitely a violation of IRS rules on converting assets for personal gain. And the public needs to see all this too.”

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All across the Internet, comments were fiery about the little-known business practice that The Post’s investigation detailed, of rescuers buying dogs from breeders at auctions. Some said buying auction dogs is necessary to remove them from the commercial breeding industry, while others said the practice funds the very breeders that rescuers decry as puppy mills.

National animal nonprofits and lobbying groups — which often are at odds with one another on issues and legislation — struck a similar chord in saying the purchase of auction dogs at high prices was something other than a form of rescue.

“This is not rescue; this is enabling abuse,” wrote Julie Castle, chief executive of the Best Friends Animal Society. “. . . Buying puppies from puppy mill breeders and selling them to the public is not rescue. It’s the pet trade and it needs to be exposed.”

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Mike Bober, president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, wrote an opinion piece for the Hill calling on Congress to urge a USDA investigation: “Federal regulators should require all organizations that operate as pet dealers under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) be licensed as such.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said some rescuers The Post profiled are “propping up the dog-breeding industry. Handing thousands of dollars to the very people who are exacerbating the animal-homelessness crisis allows them to keep profiting from animals’ suffering.”

Supporters of numerous rescue groups that The Post named as auction buyers rushed to their defense on social media, saying the article should instead have focused on the commercial breeders they call puppy mills and the medical and psychological problems they say they have seen in some auction-bought dogs.

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“My heart breaks for each one of these babies,” a commenter wrote on the Facebook page of Cavalier Rescue of Alabama. “Thankful there are rescues out there like you that go the extra mile.”

Another Cavalier Rescue of Alabama follower criticized The Post’s motives: “Why you would go out of your way to bash people for trying to help innocent animals is disgusting and idiotic!”

On that same thread, however, another commenter argued the opposite, writing: “I will never donate to a rescue that buys dogs from an auction. That article was an eye opener. I have never heard of such a thing, but will definitely check out the rescue I support to see if they do this. The rescues who do this should be closed down. The money spent to buy the dogs was astronomical and insane.”

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People who said they were involved with rescue efforts, commenting directly on The Post’s article, also were at odds.

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“Though my rescue doesn’t buy or save animals from auction, I can sympathize with the rescuers who do,” one person wrote. “They’re trying to save dogs in the here and now, who are in horrific shape (physically and emotionally).”

Another posted: “This is exactly why I stopped holding fundraisers for rescue about five years ago. I could see where things were headed. Rescue can be noble but there are many bad actors in it for money and/or attention, and it’s very difficult from street level to tell the difference.”

Yet another wrote: “I’m an executive director of a fairly large humane society in the South. . . . The premise of this story is that people are buying dogs at auction from breeders in an effort to ‘rescue’ them. This highlights the emotional problems you see in the rescue community, that blinds them to rational thought, or good judgment. If you think you are ‘rescuing’ dogs by buying them, in any way shape or form, you are in complete denial.”

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Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center, which pushes for shelter overhauls, urged all sides to step out of what he called their ideological straitjackets and instead take a reasoned approach to considering the facts that The Post reported.

Many others urged everyone commenting, all across the Internet, to understand that The Post’s article was about 86 rescue and dog-advocacy groups and shelters, not about all rescuers across the United States.

“There are still a lot of dogs that need help,” one person commented directly on the article, “and a lot of good organizations trying to help them.”

Kim Kavin is a member of The Washington Post Freelance Network. She is also the author of “The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers,” a book of investigative journalism.

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