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Senators Work to Narrow "Puppy Mill" Bill

A controversial bill meant to shut down puppy mills has drawn another opponent in state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. "I'm a barking 'no,'" Patrick said during a recent public hearing.

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A controversial bill meant to shut down puppy mills has drawn another outspoken opponent in state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

"I'm a barking 'no,'" Patrick said during a public hearing on the bill that turned into a raucous affair last week. 

The so-called puppy mill bill, HB 1451, was approved in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Friday and now awaits approval from the full Senate. But before that happens, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he is working to narrow the scope of the measure to ensure that it targets animal abusers and not hobby breeders or others who humanely raise dogs. "We want to make certain we don't have any unintended consequences," said Whitmire, the Senate sponsor of the House bill authored by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

The bill would impose new licensing requirements and regulations on dog breeders. Anyone with 11 or more unspayed female dogs would be considered a commercial breeder subject to licensing and regulations. The bill would require breeders to pay licensing fees and to abide by strict rules governing the animals’ living conditions and health care. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation would develop and enforce the regulations.

Patrick and others who oppose the bill agree that puppy mills ought to be shuttered. Those are facilities where owners keep dogs in squalid conditions and force them to breed repeatedly. But the current bill, they say, wouldn't stop bad breeders. Instead, the strict regulations and expensive requirements for veterinary care, Patrick and others argue, would drive out of business good breeders who follow the guidelines. "The bill as written would have a very negative impact on dog breeders who are the good guys," he said. One measure that Patrick took particular umbrage with was a requirement for dog breeders to conduct criminal background checks on their employees. "That’s a crock in my view," he said during the committee hearing. "That’s beyond reasonable licensing. That’s just ridiculous."

Van Zandt County Sheriff R.P. "Pat" Burnett told the Senate committee that he has used existing anti-cruelty laws to shut down puppy mills and confiscate more than 3,000 animals. What's needed, Burnett said, are tougher penalties for existing cruelty laws. "This bill will not stop them, period," he said.

Opponents of the bill argue that puppy mill operators would simply avoid becoming licensed, thereby evading the increased costs that come with the regulations. And under the legislation, the only penalty for failing to get licensed would be a fine. Meanwhile, breeders who comply with the rules would shell out thousands for licensing fees and veterinary care.

Whitmire and supporters of the measure say it won't affect breeders who raise animals humanely. "We're there to find the dogs that are locked up in crates, small cages, feces everywhere, distemper, parvo puppies, dying," Sgt. Joseph Guerra, an investigator at the Houston Humane Society, told the committee.

Whitmire said his version of the bill would exempt breeders who raise hunting dogs, and it might also exempt show dog breeders. He is also considering a change to the bill that would base licensing requirements on the number of animals a breeder sells rather than on the number of dogs owned. While he is willing to address "legitimate concerns" about the bill, Whitmire said he is unimpressed by those who object to the bill simply because they oppose government involvement.

Puppy mills are a real problem, Whitmire said, and Texas needs to put them out of business. He said he is "guardedly optimistic" that the measure will be approved by the full Senate when it comes up for a vote. "We've got more work to do." he said.

Patrick said he thinks the bill could be changed enough to gain his support. "I think we can easily fix it," he said.

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