OLYMPIA – Visiting longtime friends recently, Kettle Falls’ Brandon Hatch was stunned at what he saw.
His friends, who lived in Skagit County, were running a puppy mill, breeding dogs and churning out hundreds of puppies in what Hatch called horrific conditions.
Dogs were stacked in crates three and four high, he said. They lived in their own feces.
“They put dead dogs and live dogs in their freezer to kill them … It was absolutely horrible,” Hatch told state lawmakers in Olympia.
Hatch contacted local officials, who raided the puppy mill and another one nearby, seizing hundreds of dogs.
“Right is right, and wrong is wrong,” Hatch said, “and this was just plain wrong.”
In the wake of those cases, lawmakers in the state House and Senate want to restrict the number of dogs capable of breeding a person can own. A proposed law also would mandate living conditions, including pens, temperatures, annual checks by a veterinarian and other safeguards. The recent case “really tore at my heart,” said bill sponsor Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.
Commercial breeders are urging lawmakers to refrain from overreacting by setting unrealistic standards, which, they warned, would drive some breeders underground. Several licensed breeders urged lawmakers to adopt a broader licensing and registration program for breeders and pets.
Under the 1966 federal Animal Welfare Act, dog breeders who sell pets wholesale must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They’re also subject to inspection by federal regulators.
But people who sell dogs directly to buyers aren’t covered by the law. Some counties regulate kennels and breeders, but the laws vary.
“Right now, law enforcement is powerless to intervene until dogs show obvious signs of abuse and neglect,” said Emily Diaz, animal control officer for the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. Breeders’ neighbors often complain about the dogs’ smell, barking or living conditions, she said, but there’s little she can do.
“Many times these breeders start out as legitimate operations, but they realize that there’s a lot of money involved, and they start to get greedy,” Diaz said.
Brad Evergreen, a veterinarian in nearby Snohomish County, said 2 million puppies a year are born in facilities that are not licensed by the USDA. Families frequently bring him puppy-mill-bred dogs, he said, with congenital defects, parasites and serious diseases.
Senate Bill 5651 would ban anyone from owning more than 25 nonneutered dogs older than 4 months. Federally licensed breeders, animal shelters and other operations would be exempt.
For anyone with 11 or more such dogs, the bill lays out rules for housing, exercise, access to food and water, and veterinary care. Cages could not be stacked. Waste would have to be removed at least daily.
Some breeders say the proposal is too strict. Melani Keel, a kennel owner in Pierce County, said the limit should be higher than 25 dogs. “A person can easily take care of 60 dogs,” she said. “I have no problem doing it.”
Kohl-Welles said her goal is not to impose hardship on legitimate breeders. But she’s trying to ensure humane conditions. “We want to find a balance here,” she said.