Missouri voters on Tuesday narrowly approved a ballot measure aimed at ridding the state of its reputation as the nation's "puppy mill capital."
Proposition B, which would take effect in a year, will beef up Missouri's existing laws by restricting commercial breeders to no more than 50 female dogs for breeding, increasing the size of dogs' living spaces and by requiring commercial breeders to have their dogs examined yearly by a veterinarian.
The measure, which applies to operators with more than 10 breeding dogs, also requires the animals to be fed daily and not be bred more than twice every 18 months. Breeders also must house animals indoors with unfettered access to an outdoor exercise yard.
Violations will be misdemeanor carrying up to 15 days in jail and a $300 fine.
The Humane Society of the United States said the measure - drafted partly by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - is needed to better regulate Missouri's 1,400 licensed commercial dog breeders and the hundreds of suspected breeders who operate under the radar.
"This is truly a watershed moment in Missouri history," Kathy Warnick, the Humane Society of Missouri's president, said early Wednesday. "All of us in animal welfare are elated by the outcome, and we give our heartfelt thanks to Missourians for doing the right thing and providing a voice for Missouri's defenseless animals."
Animal rights groups estimate that about 30 percent to 40 percent of dogs found in pet stores come from Missouri, which they say is home to more than one-fifth of U.S. commercial dog-breeding sites.
Proposition B's opponents, including breeder groups and the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association, claimed the measure could force some breeders out of business with extra costs and the threat of prosecution. Some also claim the measure could lead to restrictions on other animal agriculture.
Critics also argued that existing Missouri laws already required adequate food, water, shelter, care and exercise.
Dr. Scott Fray, the Missouri veterinary group's board chairman, called the ballot measure's passing expected - "Who's going to vote against puppy mill cruelty?" - but disappointing. Yet he considered the initiative's narrow approval proof that Missouri voters did their homework on the issue and appeared skeptical about the measure he says "adds more layers of regulation on top of current regulation that's just not getting enforced."
"We think there are better methods" to address puppy mills, said Fray, a Cooper County veterinarian. "I think if the amount of money spent (on Proposition B) could have been put toward enforcement of current law, I don't think this initiative would have been necessary in the first place."
Missouri's efforts to quell substandard, large-scale dog breeding last year produced the oversight-minded Operation Bark Alert, a Missouri Department of Agriculture hot line to target unlicensed breeders. The department also added two new inspectors.
Since then, Missouri issued about 366 more breeder violations than the previous year, and the state has rescued about 3,700 dogs.