The owners say they use responsible breeders that lawmakers and advocates have inaccurately characterized as “puppy mills.” By 2020, when the law will fully take effect, the owners say Marylanders will have fewer options for finding purebred puppies and could turn to the Internet, where sales are difficult to regulate and fake websites abound.
“We couldn’t have been in this business for 20 years if the breeders weren’t caring for the dogs,” said Jeanea Thomson, who with her husband owns Just Puppies, a pet-store business with locations in Rockville and Towson.
Although Thomson acknowledged there are “bad players out there,” she said her business is not among them. She said she and her husband regularly visit their approximately 50 breeders — most of them in Missouri and Iowa — so they can personally vouch for their conditions.
“We don’t want puppy-mill puppies,” she said, sitting at the cash register in her Rockville location, which sold more than 1,000 young dogs last year. “Most of these puppies are being bred on farms.”
But Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), the legislation’s sponsor and a longtime owner of adopted Doberman pinschers, called the commercial breeders that supply the stores “abominations” that lack “room for puppies to roam and for breeding dogs to play.”
In all, Hogan signed 207 bills on Tuesday, including legislation that aims to reduce gun violence in Baltimore and keep guns out of the hands of people who pose a danger to themselves and others.
The governor, whose 16-year-old Shih Tzu died last year, appeared outside the statehouse Tuesday morning with several rescues that are available for adoption. He brushed off questions about whether the legislation would harm small business owners in Maryland, saying the law is really about “the puppy mills.”
“There are about seven pet stores in Maryland that might be affected, but there are thousands of puppies,” he said, cradling one of the rescue dogs and asking it, “What do you think?”
Maryland already has strict regulations in place that require stores to disclose information about breeders and bar them from using any that have received citations from the U.S. Agriculture Department within the past two years. But Kramer said that is not enough to protect the young animals. The abrupt removal of inspection reports from the USDA’s website last year made ensuring that breeders are being honest about their history especially difficult, he said.
Nearly 260 localities nationwide, including Montgomery County, have banned the sale of puppies and kittens, according to the Humane Society. (Rockville is a separate municipality within Montgomery, so the Just Puppies store there was exempted.) The California law, which passed last year, takes effect in 2019.
No retail pet stores sell puppies in the District, although they are legal, said Amy Jesse, a public policy director for the Humane Society. There are some in Virginia, which has passed a law requiring stores to reveal their breeders. Jesse said she hopes Virginia’s legislature will “revisit this issue next year,” especially since Maryland stores that would otherwise have to change their business model may look to move there.
A search for ethical options
Among the witnesses who testified in favor of the Maryland bill was Billie Castro, who says she thought she had gotten her “dream job” when she was hired at Just Puppies at 18.
Conditions she witnessed over the next six years changed her mind, said Castro, who now operates her own dog-grooming business and, according to Thomson, clashed with Just Puppies over efforts to recruit customers.
Puppies sometimes arrived at the store undernourished and infested with fleas and parasites, Castro said. At least once a month, she said, a puppy died at the store or in the care of an employee.
Thomson said Castro is a disgruntled employee who is exaggerating. She said she and employees “do everything in our power” to avoid puppy deaths.
Lawmakers pointed out that one breeder used by Just Puppies, Ann Miller, had several USDA violations in 2013 — including a dachshund with dental disease, a pug with discharge coming from her eyes, and an accumulation of “dirt and grime” on the doors of dog enclosures.
Thomson, who asked Miller to testify on their behalf in the state senate hearing, said all violations had been addressed and Miller is compliant with state and federal laws. At the hearing, Miller said lawmakers “don’t understand” the rigor of USDA inspections.
Melchus Davis Jr., a veterinarian with the VCA Centre Park Veterinary Hospital in Columbia, Md., said he has treated dogs purchased at Just Puppies for 12 years and has never seen “stark differences” between them and dogs obtained from shelters or bought from breeders who would not be affected by the law. He said Castro’s statement that at least one puppy a month died did not reflect what he had seen.
“The puppies coming from Just Puppies are routinely healthy and in good condition,” he said. “We take animals wherever they may come from. It would be wrong for us to pick sides and draw a line.”
Emily McCobb, a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said a ban on all retail sales could lead to a shortage of pet dogs and leave people trying to be responsible pet owners unsure of where to get their animals.
“There’s a lot of messaging around ‘adopt, don’t shop,’ ” McCobb said. “But we haven’t done a good job of messaging about how to find responsible breeders.”
As the number of commercial kennels in the United States has decreased in recent years, so has the number of animals being killed in shelters. A Washington Post investigation found that even some rescue groups that run shelters are sourcing from the “puppy mills” they aim to shut down, spending $2.68 million to buy 5,761 dogs and puppies from breeders since 2009.
“We don’t really have a sustainable, ethical solution right now,” McCobb said. She and advocates from the Humane Society said people purchasing pets should ask to see the conditions in which puppies’ parents are living and judge from there.
Maryland’s ban sailed through the General Assembly with the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Thompson said store owners were told by some lawmakers that they could not afford to upset animal rights advocates in an election year.
Busch, who received a liver transplant last year from his sister, a longtime opponent of puppy mills, has quipped that he had promised her action on the issue to thank her.
Becky Schmidt, the manager of Charm City Puppies in Columbia, suggested the bill’s name — “Business Regulation — Retail Pet Stores (No More Puppy — and Kitten — Mills Act of 2018)” — was part of why it was overwhelmingly supported in both chambers.
“No one wants to vote against a puppy mill bill in an election year,” she said. “But the title is deceptive.”
She said advocates have “loud voices” and influence in Annapolis, but they do not necessarily represent Maryland residents.
“The store is legal and regulated,” she said. “Advocates shouldn’t be able to shut it down just because they don’t like it.”