Pet owners, commercial breeders and animal rights activists packed a Missouri House hearing on Tuesday as lawmakers considered whether to repeal or roll back a voter-approved law that toughens oversight of dog breeders.
A bill by state Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, would overturn Proposition B, which was endorsed by 52 percent of Missouri voters last November. Two other legislative proposals would scale back changes in the law by exempting already licensed breeders or raise the limit on the number of animals a breeder can own.
The law limits dog breeders to 50 animals and requires daily feeding, annual veterinary care, increased living spaces and greater access to outdoor exercise. It's scheduled to take effect later this year. Animal owners with fewer than 10 female breeding dogs are exempt.
The initiative was backed by national animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States. Agricultural groups and other opponents contend the changes will punish law-abiding breeders and could lead to other efforts to restrict livestock production - and even meat consumption - in Missouri.
A bill filed by Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, takes aim at the new law's very title - the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act. Cox instead wants the law to be renamed the Dog Breeders Cruelty Prevention Act.
House Majority Whip Jason Smith, R-Salem, said that voters were influenced by loaded language designed to invoke images of soft and cuddly baby dogs. He also wants the law to cover animal shelters and rescue operations.
"Who's in favor of puppy mills?" he asked. "If you want to win a debate, you define the terms."
Neosho veterinarian Kenton Beard said that 75 percent of his clients work in southwest Missouri's pet industry. The vast majority of those animal owners face significant financial hurdles in complying with the new law that could threaten their livelihood, he said.
"We should not punish our professional, law-abiding kennel owners with undue regulation that ultimately will put them out of business," Beard told the House Agriculture Policy Committee.
Proposition B supporters countered that the new law is necessary in a state with a reputation as the nation's "puppy mill capital." They also urged lawmakers to not contradict the will of Missouri voters.
The state has more than 1,400 licensed commercial dog breeders and hundreds of unlicensed dealers. Animal rights groups estimate that 30 percent to 40 percent of dogs found in pet stores across the country come from a state that is home to an estimated one-fifth of all for-profit breeders.
"Had this been an election for any of your positions, this would not be contested," said Tim Rickey, a field investigator for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "The voters spoke."
Smith suggested that the law only be applied in the 11 of 114 Missouri counties where a majority of voters supported Proposition B. Eighty percent of voters in his rural legislative district opposed the initiative, he said.
Audience members packed the basement hearing room in the Capitol, standing in aisles, against walls and spilling out into the hallway. After two hours, committee chairman Tom Loehner, R-Koeltztown, adjourned the hearing but said he planned to reconvene later this week, perhaps as soon as Thursday.