More than 240 dogs were rescued from a puppy mill in Bradley County by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals last week - mostly beagles and small-breed dogs. It was the largest rescue the SPCA has participated in since being formed in 2013. Most puppy mill seizures over the past few years number 100 to 125 animals.
But if the Tennessee General Assembly listens to animal breeder organizations like the Sportsman's & Animal Owners' Voting Alliance and the American Kennel Club, such rescues might have to become more common for more dogs.
The 5-year-old Tennessee law that regulates puppy mills -- the Commercial Breeder Act -- is set to "sunset" or expire on June 30. And those so-called pillars of animal breeding want the law to go away. Why? That's a very good question.
The law requires a license for any person who possesses 20 or more unspayed adult female dogs or cats for the purpose of selling the offspring as companion animals. Think about it: "20 or more breeding females for the purpose of selling the offspring."
Not four. Not 10. Not a dozen. We're not talking about interfering with a hobby breeder or a serious hunter or even just a dog lover with more heart and money than sense.
Twenty breeding females is a pet factory.
Imagine that kind of operation without some form of licensing and oversight.
Clearly the law does need tweaking. Clearly it's not well enforced. It if were, a 911 domestic police call would not have triggered this rescue because an inspector would already have been there. And frankly 20 breeding dogs or cats is far too high a number for triggering any kind of licensing requirement.
Animals suffer without laws to protect them, says Beth Foster, media director for Bradley County's branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She is right. She also says animal lovers across the state should push for laws to be adopted to regulate puppy mills in 2015.
Earlier this year, Tennessee lawmakers rejected a stop-gap measure that would have extended the law's provisions, but stakeholders have pledged to work on a new bill to improve oversight of breeding operations.
In Bradley County, the dogs' owner and breeder, Rebecca Vanmeter, has been charged with one count of cruelty to animals. She has been freed on a $500 bail. That's probably the price of one puppy.
Meanwhile, care for 240-plus dogs taken from deplorable, unsanitary conditions at Candies Creek Road in McDonald, Tenn., is going to run into the thousands of dollars. Besides exams, all the dogs require vaccinations, many require medication for mange or staph infections. And all will be spayed or neutered before being put up for adoption. True animal lovers willing to make donations and the occasional county or municipal allocation (yes, that may mean taxpayer money) ultimately will foot the bill.
The SPCA started removing dogs June 11. It took seven puppies Saturday and finished the job with the remaining 94 on Sunday, Foster said.
Fortunately no dead animals were found and no animals have had to be euthanized, said Foster.
So what about the law that's about to sunset?
Here's what the Sportsman's & Animal Owners' Voting Alliance says on its website: "Dog and cat owners have an opportunity to end state licensing of breeders by opposing SB 2468 and allowing the commercial breeder act to expire."
Under "talking points," the group, like the AKC, wants to stress fiscal responsibility.
In 2009 officials estimated 500 of the 1,504 commercial breeders in Tennessee would be signed up for licensure in five years, but "according to the Office of Animal Welfare, this program currently has 20 licensed commercial breeders," according to the Sportsman's group.
Legislators were promised more than $1 million a year from licensing and sales tax revenue from the estimated 500 licensed breeders, but the licensure and tax fee revenue collected is not adequate to fund the program. According to the office, the program had "a closing reserve deficit of $965,750 on June 30, 2013."
As we mentioned earlier, clearly the law has been poorly enforced, and dog and cat breeders apparently don't want to collect or pay sales tax on the widgets their factories make and sell. A license requirement is that an applicant have a valid sales tax registration number and be in good standing with the Tennessee Department of Revenue. The license does "not certify that the animal being sold has been examined by or is under the care of a licensed veterinarian."
Clearly, too, the breeders know where their bread is buttered: They offer phone numbers and email addresses for lawmakers. And at the bottom of their talking points is a link to support the sportsman group's "pro-active advocacy" complete with a PayPal donate button and links to the group's 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 endorsements.
Trying to sunset this law is not about "responsible" dog and cat breeding. It's about profit.