Goshen News, Goshen, IN

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May 1, 2012

Puppy mills draw attention of Elkhart County commissioners

GOSHEN — Elkhart County Commissioners agreed Monday to take a closer look at regulation of the county’s puppy mill industry after hearing from several members of a local animal rights group.

According to Michiana Pet Shop Puppies member Gina Oliver, the group is concerned with what they say are a growing number of dog farmers emerging in northern Indiana, particularly in the Amish community.

Oliver, along with several other members of the group, has made a point of attending Elkhart County Board of Zoning Appeals meetings whenever what the group considers a puppy mill comes up for review. However, due to the fact that the BZA’s jurisdiction falls mainly on the side of proper land use, and not humane treatment of the animals on that land, the group has hit a roadblock, Oliver said.

Group member David Morgan noted that while the county does have an animal control ordinance in place that could help deal with some of the emerging mills, often the ordinance is not strictly enforced due to a lack of funding and available bodies on the county’s end.

“It’s a hidden problem,” Morgan said, noting that current estimates show there could be at least 30 active puppy and dog mills operating within the county.

According to group member Kim Evans, a big problem when it comes to the proper regulation of dog and puppy mills is that U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements refer to dogs as livestock animals, rather than companion animals — a fact which she says is reflected in the minimal nature of the breeder regulations.

“A beagle-size dog can be kept in a dishwasher-size cage for life,” Evans said. “Their (USDA) requirements are so minimal that we don’t feel they are humane.”

Evans said that many puppy mill operators are able to get around the already minimal USDA restrictions all together by selling their puppies online.

“There’s a commercial breeder in Milford who has over 700 dogs,” Evans said, noting that the woman is not governed by USDA restrictions because her sales operation is strictly Internet-based.

Evans said the MPSP has also encountered stiff resistance from strong lobbying groups, including the Elkhart County Farm Bureau. She said that agency is very much against any kind of puppy mill regulation due to fears that such regulation could eventually spill over into other areas of livestock breeding.

Following the group’s presentation, Commissioner Terry Rodino reiterated that the biggest barrier to proper puppy and dog mill regulation within the county is funding.

“We don’t have money to pave roads,” Rodino said. “You don’t have money to regulate these puppy mills.”

As one way to deal with the money situation, Rodino made the suggestion that the county could eventually pass an ordinance requiring that puppy and dog breeders donate a small fee for every dog produced — maybe $5 to $10 per dog — into a designated fund that would then be used to pay for inspectors to regularly visit area dog breeders to ensure proper operation.

“If a puppy mill has 700 dogs, and pays $5 to $10 a piece, that’s quite a lot of money,” Rodino said.

Going one step further, Commissioner Mike Yoder made the suggestion that such a funding idea could be broadened to include the entire region. As one way to do that, Yoder suggested trying to convince the Indiana Board of Animal Health to agree to dedicate a state veterinarian specifically to inspecting these mills in a three to four county area.

“It’s possible that the Amish, who talk a lot about self-regulation, they may be in favor of this,” Yoder said.

Even with the pay-per-dog option, however, Morgan noted that the county would still be faced with issues such as non-regulated sale of dogs over the internet. Morgan also noted that current county zoning rules allow anyone with three acres or more to have as many dogs on their property as they want and still be in compliance.

“We have some issues to work through,” Yoder admitted.

As a starting point, Yoder suggested that members of the MPSP get together with representatives of the Amish community, the commissioners, the State Board of Animal Health and the United States Department of Agriculture to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to large-scale dog breeding operations and how they should be regulated through use of the county animal control ordinance. Yoder even suggested that the group visit several area dog breeders to get a hands-on look at how they are run and what needs to be changed.

“We need to look at a couple and say ‘This is what we can adopt, and this is what we can’t,’” Yoder said.

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