A federal law was passed in 2010 making it illegal to create or distribute “animal crushing” videos, an area of online interest that is grotesque even by Internet standards. The new legislation would expand that law by banning “actual conduct in which one or more living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians is purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.”
That’s a significant protection for animals but, like most state-level animal cruelty laws, the new legislation carries exemptions, including for hunting, medical research and euthanizing. Then there’s the exception for “agricultural husbandry” — or livestock on farms. What does that have to do with dogs? Sometimes, dogs are livestock.
I became curious about government regulation of dog breeders a few years ago when I learned that my wheaten terrier, Izzie, came from a facility that had been licensed by the Agriculture Department. I wondered: In what world would Izzie — who requires hypoallergenic kibble, salmon sashimi and a memory foam dog bed — be considered an agricultural product?
Millions of dogs are born every year in factory-farm conditions in the heartland and are shipped to eager buyers nationwide. Until the dog leaves that facility, it is an agricultural commodity, or livestock. Once it arrives in your home after purchase, it becomes a companion animal, or pet.
The dog hasn’t changed, but its legal designation has. Subject your pet dog to the same conditions it would face in a licensed and up-to-code, USDA-regulated breeder and you could face animal cruelty charges in most states. I witnessed this disconnect when I tracked down the Missouri farm where Izzie was born: Dogs were kept in rows of wire cages stacked outside a barn in stifling summer heat. This was not the world of a companion animal.
Those words — livestock and companion animal — have legal ramifications. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that two dogs on the same property could be classified differently even if owned by the same person. A dog kept for breeding is livestock; a dog kept as a pet is a companion animal. A harmless semantic distinction? Unfortunately, no: In Minnesota, a large-scale breeder successfully argued in 2009 that even torturing her dogs was a misdemeanor because the animals are livestock. Same animal, same pain tolerance — the dog doesn’t know it’s livestock.
Now, with the PACT Act, the courts could revisit this contradiction.
“There’s a lot that’s done to animals or dogs that is cruel [but] legal,” John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ “Stop Puppy Mills” campaign, tells me. If the PACT Act becomes law, he says, “Will we see more common-sense rulings that allow it to be used in ways that are more consistent with what people would expect?”
But animal welfare groups would have to fight the legislation’s livestock exemption.
Even with that exemption, Big Ag is troubled. Farmers rights group Protect the Harvest warns in a statement that “the passing of this bill seems to set a [precedent] that will eventually criminalize animal breeding and ownership.” Legally compelling dog breeders to run facilities with the level of care expected for a pet instead of livestock would, of course, cut into the profits of an industry that last year had sales of about $1 billion, the Humane Society of the United States tells me — that’s their estimate of dog sales contained in the American Pet Products Association’s $2.01 billion figure for all U.S. live-animal sales in 2018.
While investigating the industry producing the dogs that grace our Instagram feeds and Christmas cards, I’ve grappled with our inability to deal with this issue in a sensible, coherent way. The contradictions are apparent even within the industry. Choking through the foul stench of legal puppy mills, I’ve seen wide variations in how owners treat their breeding stock. In the worst cases, these animals barely seem to be dogs anymore — they cower from my outstretched fingertips, unaware that a human hand can be an instrument of kindness. In the best case, with smaller breeders, the dogs might sleep in the owner’s bed.
The unanimous passage of the PACT Act in a divided Congress is a sign that we can agree on something: Mistreatment of animals is wrong. Our interspecies bond with dogs predates any legal system, but maybe it’s time for a court case to determine whether all dogs should be treated as companion animals, never as livestock.