California is planning to save animals in a totally awesome way

California is planning to save animals in a totally awesome way

When you set foot in a pet store, what do you look for (besides the cutest puppy)? Most reasonable people will probably have a quick look around and see how the animals are kept before they decide whether to spend their money there. Do they look comfortable and content? Do they look well fed? Do they have enough space? Basically, is this vendor morally worthy of my money?

However, the fact is that appearances can be deceptive and no matter how great a store may seem, sometimes the animals have suffered before they even arrive. Bred by so-called "puppy mills", commercial breeding facilities which sacrifice animal care in favour of profit, many have already experienced a life of unsanitary conditions, confinement and abuse - and shoppers are none the wiser. 

But now, one US state is working to change this. From January 1, 2019, all dogs, cats and rabbits sold by pet stores in California must originate from animal shelters or not-for-profit rescue organisations, rather than breeders. Anyone found to be flouting this law will face fines of up to $500. 

Two small dogs sit in a rusty cage Credit: Getty

Known as Assembly Bill 485, it is hoped that the bill will save animals from the misery of the puppy and kitten mills by cutting off demand, although individuals will still be able to buy from private breeders. The law is also designed, in part, to usurp what are generally seen as lax federal laws governing the welfare of animals by breeders; under the current Animal Welfare Act, a cage is required to be only six inches larger than the animal it houses and to be cleaned just once a week.

Often characterised by cramped and inhumane living condition, including poor access to water, food and a lack of veterinary support, there are estimated to be as many as 10,000 puppy mills currently operating in the USA. For female dogs, there is often little to no rest time between litters, and puppies are often removed from their mothers at a very young age, causing emotional distress. According to the bill’s official fact sheet, these animals also “often face an array of health problems, including communicable diseases, behavioural issues and genetic disorders”, owing to the fact that little thought is given to their pedigree.  

It is also hoped that the ban will do something to stem the problem of over-breeding caused by puppy mills; according to The Humane Society of the United States, the US’s largest animal protection organisation, over 1.5 million perfectly healthy dogs and cats are euthanised every year in the country, simply because there are more abandoned animals than shelters or homes for them. In California alone, more than $250 million of taxpayers money is spent annually housing those animals that are lucky enough to live.

The move has been widely welcomed by animal rights organisations and advocates, including Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society: “Californians recognize that pet stores enable the work of puppy mills, which cause suffering for dogs and heartbreak for consumers,” he told Business Insider. “We are grateful to Governor Brown for putting his stamp of approval on a state policy to dry up funding for this inhumane industry.”

Despite being a huge step forward for animal rights, the introduction of the bill was not without precedent. Across California, 36 jurisdictions had already introduced similar laws to restrict the sale of farmed animals, but the state now becomes the first to impose a blanket ban on the practice. It passed with overwhelming support.  

Two tiny kittens wrapped in a purple towel Credit: Pexels

Of course, not everyone is quite so happy. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council had urged California Governor Jerry Brown to veto the bill, arguing that it jeopardised jobs in the pet industry and violated consumer protections, including the right to their choice of pet. The American Kennel Club's Vice President of Government Relations Sheila Goffe also criticised the move, commenting that AB 485: “fails to distinguish between professional breeders and pet profiteers.”

But despite the criticism of the failure to distinguish between legitimate sellers and those who abuse the business, the fact remains that, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, over 6.5 million animals enter shelters in the US every year and still less than 25 per cent of dogs and just 31 per cent of cats are currently obtained from a shelter. That's a whole lot of leftover pets - and a whole lot of animals that don't need to be bred in the meantime.

Ultimately, we’ve had it drilled into us a thousand times that a pet is for life, not just for Christmas. But this bill forces us to confront the reality that in addition to thinking about what kind of pet owners we want to be, we need to think just as hard about our new puppy or kitten’s life before we’re ever on the scene - because it's not quite as simple as picking up a new coat or a new pair of shoes.