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Missouri was the nation’s ‘puppy mill capital’ — but advocates fought back

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Humane Society of Missouri
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A Humane Society of Missouri Animal Cruelty Task Force investigator holds a puppy in October that was rescued from a former breeder in Hickory County, where 97 dogs were rescued.

Ten years ago, an industry that had earned Missouri infamy as the “puppy mill capital of the U.S.,” found itself facing a vastly changed landscape.

New regulations pushed by animal advocates, approved by voters and ultimately modified by the legislature limited the number of dogs a breeder could have at any given time. It also banned the stacked cages with wire floors that proved so damaging to paws, required breeders to offer sufficient space for dogs to move in their enclosures and mandated dogs get adequate rest between breeding cycles.

The law had a huge impact on the state’s dog breeders.

“I’ve been investigating and trying to shut down cruel puppy mills since 1980,” Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation Executive Director Bob Baker told St. Louis on the Air. “I never thought in my lifetime I would see such a drastic change in the environment of commercial dog breeding as has happened in Missouri since the passage of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.”

More than half of the state’s roughly 2,000 commercial breeders closed their doors within two years of the law’s passing. About 900 licensed dog breeders operate in Missouri today.

Baker said the decline in breeders was due not only to the new regulations, but also to stepped-up enforcement . Before the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, only local prosecutors could bring cases against breeders who had violations; they rarely did so. Now, Missouri's attorney general can step in.

In the first few years after the law went into effect, Baker said the attorney general shut down about 30 facilities.

“It put the fear of God in the rest of the breeders and literally hundreds of breeders just surrendered their licenses because they knew there would now be consequences for not complying with the law,” he said. “[Attorney General] Eric Schmitt has been absolutely fantastic. He has been going after these breeders aggressively that are not complying with the law. And on top of this … he's actually going after them for civil and criminal contempt.”

How Missouri’s crackdown on puppy mills shook up its dog breeding industry

While then-Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill in April 2011, many of its provisions didn’t immediately become law.

“Parts of it were phased in to allow those breeders who wish to stay time to make the capital improvements to their facility, to make the enclosures larger, to get the unfettered access to the outdoors that was required,” said Debbie Hill, the Humane Society of Missouri’s chief operating officer. “So really, the final product has really been enforced now for about five years.”

While Missouri still has its problem breeders, Hill told St. Louis on the Air that she feels the law has been a tremendous success. She is hopeful that advocates, lawmakers and their constituents will build on the effort.

For one, she would like to see Missouri follow states like California and Illinois in prohibiting the sale of purchased dogs in pet stores — and encourage stores to sell rescued pets instead.

“I get to the point where you never say never because 10 years ago, I didn't think we'd be here. Missouri has come a long way, and I have faith that we can move further,” Hill said. “The pet-acquiring public … they're much more socially conscious now about where that animal comes from.

“The good people do outweigh the bad and that's what's really going to turn the tide,” she added.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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