The puppies at a pet store are almost irresistible. When they scratch at their glass enclosure or peer out through their kennel’s caged door, they are begging for a safe and loving home. Fortunately, they usually get one, and their stay in the pet store enclosure is a short one.

It’s a different fate for the adult dogs that bred them. They may have started life just like the puppies in the pet store, but instead of a loving home, they got a lifetime in a small box. They are unwilling participants in the large-scale breeding industry, and the victims of loose laws and lax oversight.

Maine residents can’t do much to police these out-of-state facilities, nor do they have much say in the amount of resources given to federal regulators. But they can keep these “puppy mill” puppies from being sold here – and with all the small, reputable, responsible breeders out there, and all the dogs available for adoption, there’s no reason not to.

LOW STANDARDS

It’s necessary for the state to step in on this issue because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not. The standards governing breeding facilities are pitifully low, designed to keep the animals alive but no more. What is allowed should make dog lovers cringe.

Under federal law, breeding dogs can be kept in cages with as little as 6 inches of room on each side. These cages can have wire bottoms. They can be stacked, so that waste from one cage can fall into another.

Many breeders exceed these standards, but they don’t have to, and many don’t.

In those cases, the dogs get only minimal exercise, or none at all. They get no rest between breeding cycles. They don’t get groomed or regular veterinary care. They don’t play.

These animals bred for human interaction, who are creating other dogs for the purpose of human companionship, get none themselves.

And virtually no one is watching.

LAX OVERSIGHT

A report released late last year found that the USDA’s inspection service has only 120 inspectors to oversee roughly 7,300 licensed animal breeding facilities, including 1,764 dog breeders.

In addition, the department’s own audit found that inspectors had a too-cozy relationship with breeders, relying on “education and cooperation” rather than penalties while dealing with even the worst violators, leading to repeated and escalating violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

According to the same audit, inspectors failed to report all repeat or direct violations. Mandatory follow-up inspections, then, were not conducted, and the breeders were allowed to continue to operate in violation of even the USDA’s minimal standards.

State regulators are similarly understaffed, and state laws are similarly toothless.

Twenty-two states have no laws regulating large-scale dog breeders, meaning they are governed solely by the USDA’s standards. Others have laws on the books that only mimic the USDA’s regulations.

The Better Business Bureau, investigating the large number of unresolved complaints against dog breeders in Missouri, found that “lack of funding hinders efforts to properly regulate and inspect kennels” at the state level.

REPEAT OFFENDERS

In one case, the bureau found, a Missouri dog breeder was cited for 13 violations, “including excessive excreta and feces, weeds and trash, unclean facilities, and no shade for some dogs.” A follow-up inspection the next month found eight violations, including six repeated violations. Yet it took two years, and 103 violations over seven inspections, for the state to finally shut down the breeder, in which time he had sold 23 more puppies.

And that’s only one case of many where violators were allowed to keep operating and to keep sending puppies – some in poor health – to pet stores, while the breeding animals live in squalor.

Unfortunately, customers only see the puppy in the store, the end product of all this misery. And many pet shop owners are content to work with breeders as long as they are USDA-certified, even though that is virtually meaningless.

Banning the sale of dogs at pet stores, as proposed in a bill now before the Legislature, would end Maine’s role in the puppy racket. Consumers could still obtain the animals they want, either from shelters that have a much bigger selection than is typically assumed, or from legitimate, reputable breeders who are happy to have customers come directly to them.

That way, prospective dog owners can see just what they are supporting.