The best Christmas present my wife Lori ever gave arrived small, furry, four-legged, and with the cutest face you can imagine. Years before I came into their lives, my wife and her daughter had a beagle-lhasa apso mix named Mabel. For seventeen years, she was my wife’s best friend and loving confidante. If you’re a dog person reading this, you understand implicitly.
However, in the first few years of Mabel’s life, she had to share the house with George. A sweet and happy basset hound, George’s playful hijinks were almost as innumerable as his health problems. George came with several genetic defects common among dogs bred too closely within family lines or housed in unsafe conditions. George was the product of a puppy mill.
I started thinking about Mabel and George and how we treat animals as a society when I saw two recent stories in the news. In mid-November, the City of Denver passed an ordinance banning the practice of declawing cats except when medically necessary. The procedure causes severe pain due to toe-amputation and is usually performed for owner convenience only. Denver became the first city outside of California to adopt such a law. And the city council did so in a unanimous vote.
A month before Denver’s ban on declawing, California became the first state in the nation to effectively bar “puppy mills” and “kitten factories” — large commercial breeders that mass produce animals for sale. Animals in these mills become widgets systematically made, stored, and sold. Consequently, to improve the bottom line, commercial breeders go to great lengths to cut costs. In the worst cases, animals may be starved, left in the cold to freeze, denied veterinary care and kept in cramped, dirty cages.
Hardly the warm fuzzy feeling most people associate with puppies.
All of that comes before the lifetime of problems that a dog like George may present to unsuspecting consumers. When Lori bought George, he came from a pet store. Only after she took him home, fell in love with him, and made him a member of her family did she find out he had inherited a xiphoid defect. It made his ribs too narrow, crushing his internal organs as he grew and making him gasp for air. Only after hearing the diagnosis from her veterinarian did she confront the pet store. It turns out they had been buying their dogs from a puppy mill because they were cheaper and could provide specific dog breeds. Needless to say, Lori decided never to buy a dog from a pet store again — Mabel eventually came from a family friend.
California’s law bars pet stores from selling dogs, cats, or rabbits unless it obtained the animals from an animal control agency, shelter, humane society, or rescue group. By denying commercial breeders their largest and most profitable revenue source, pet stores, California took away much of the incentive to continue such operations. This is the same step hundreds of municipalities have taken across the country. Others like Colorado Springs have recently considered similar laws. In cases like Lori and George, these laws are as much about consumer protection as animal protection. Beyond the monetary cost to care for mistreated and maligned animals is the incalculable heartbreak.
Even given these new protections, puppy mills and kitten factories are unlikely to disappear entirely. I would expect to see a surge in online and private sales. The laws affect only pet stores, not direct sales from breeders. Potential buyers should remain vigilant in their due diligence. Research your breeder, visit the location where the animals are kept, insist on seeing the both the animal you buy and the animals being bred. Ask lots of questions and make sure to get thorough, verifiable answers.
In the wake of California’s law, I’m sure other states will consider similar legislation. Maybe Colorado will be among them. I know my wife and family hope so.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and Denver Post columnist who writes columns on law enforcement, the legal system, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq