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Allegations of Animal Abuse Breed Proposed Legislation in Vermont

Local Matters


Published March 23, 2011 at 9:45 a.m.

Last November, Vermont State Police raided the East Montpelier home of Victor Duprey on the suspicion that he was operating an unregistered, commercial dog-breeding facility. Acting on an anonymous tip, police and animal-welfare agents found 20 severely malnourished dogs and cats in cramped and filthy conditions. All the animals were surrendered to the Central Vermont Humane Society. Many required significant, and costly, veterinary care.

Earlier this month, Duprey, 55, was arrested and charged with animal cruelty.

According to animal advocates, Vermont has yet to see any large-scale “puppy mills,” in which hundreds of female dogs are forced to churn out litter after litter; the puppies are then sold to pet shops, over the Internet or directly to the public.

More common are so-called “mini-mills,” like the one in East Montpelier, in which several dozen breeder animals are housed in ill-equipped basements, garages, sheds and barns. Unwitting consumers then buy these pets, only to discover later that many have diseases, parasites, behavioral problems or genetic disorders.

Animal-welfare advocates are pushing lawmakers to address the problem through a pair of bills aimed at improving the circumstances under which pets are bred and sold in Vermont. One has the added benefit of recouping up to $1 million a year in lost sales-tax revenues.

H.340, also known as the “puppy mill cruelty prevention act,” spells out the conditions under which breeder animals may be kept and caps at 50 the number of sexually “intact” dogs that may be kept for the breeding and selling of offspring.

The second bill, H.303, would require anyone who sells more than one litter of puppies per year, or two or more dogs older than six months, to be licensed as a pet merchant and inspected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. A copy of that license would also be sent to the Vermont Department of Taxes; the merchant’s license number would be required in any animals-for-sale advertisements.

Under current law, legitimate pet stores and commercial breeders are already regulated and subject to inspection. But a loophole in the law allows for a personal-use exemption for the breeding of “personal pets.”

“Someone can say, ‘These 30 chocolate Labs living in my basement are for my own personal use,’” says Joanne Bourbeau, senior state director of the Humane Society of the United States in Vermont and New Hampshire. “There’s a lot of question as to what this exemption means and who it applies to.”

Bourbeau says she receives reports about sketchy and unscrupulous breeders about once every two weeks. But local animal-control officers and designated animal-welfare agents don’t have the resources to check out every tip. As a result, only the most egregious cases get investigated.

The HSUS isn’t opposed to responsible dog breeding, Bourbeau emphasizes. Small-scale and hobby breeders who keep 10 or fewer intact females would not be affected by either bill, nor would existing pet stores or animal retail outlets. Moreover, neither bill places restrictions on the public’s right to keep personal pets.

The ag agency currently lacks the authority to enter and inspect a breeding operation if the facility is not already licensed. H.340 would make it easier for state inspectors to access unregulated breeding facilities, as well as for prosecutors to bring charges and judges to level fines. “These are people who are just looking to make a quick buck on these animals without providing veterinary care, screening or all the other things that responsible breeders do,” Bourbeau adds.

H.303, which would license and regulate pet merchants, may be especially attractive to lawmakers at a time when the state is scrambling to find revenues to close the budget gap. In 2009, the Vermont Volunteer Services for Animals Humane Society conducted a four-month survey of five Vermont newspapers that frequently run advertisements for the sale of animals. Based on the number of ads surveyed (460), the size of the typical litter (five) and the average selling price of the animals advertised ($500), the group estimated that Vermont lost out on more than $200,000 in uncollected sales-tax revenues during that four-month period.

“We see the same phone numbers again and again, year after year,” notes Deborah Loring, who serves on the advisory board of Green Mountain Animal Defenders, a nonprofit group that, among other things, monitors animals-for-sale ads in local newspapers. “Here’s a bill that both protects animals and makes money for the state.”

How do consumers know if they’re dealing with someone who may be operating a puppy mill? One “huge red flag,” according to Bourbeau, is when the pet seller adds a surcharge for providing pedigree papers — a violation of American Kennel Club rules, she says — or offers to conduct the transaction off site, such as in a parking lot or shopping center.

“A responsible breeder will be more than happy to show you their facilities and let you meet the sire and dame,” she adds. “These dogs are often living as their family pets.”

Many unregulated breeders “came out of the woodwork” after Maine passed legislation that require animal vendors to include a permit number in pet advertisements. Bourbeau notes. Some of the resulting revenues are now being used to bolster inspection and enforcement efforts.

Scalpel? Not unless you’re a vet.

Animal-advocacy groups are urging lawmakers to act on a bill that would eliminate the practice of allowing untrained and unlicensed people to perform surgical procedures on dogs.

H.229 would make it illegal for anyone who is not a licensed veterinarian to cut a dog’s vocal cords (“debark”), cut off a dog’s tail (“tail dock”) or perform a surgical birth, such as a Cesarean section, on a dog without anesthesia.

Karen Bradley, a companion-animal veterinarian at the Onion River Animal Hospital in Middlesex, serves on the board of directors of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association. She says tail docking, in particular, can be especially painful without anesthesia, even when it’s done on very young puppies — the preferred practice of breeders. The VVMA officially opposes ear cropping and tail docking for cosmetic purposes and encourages groups such as the American Kennel Club to prohibit the practices.

“There can be some nasty infections with those procedures, as well as nerve damage,” Bradley adds. She calls breeders performing C-sections or debarking dogs “the most egregious cases of animal cruelty.” Only a licensed veterinarian should be entrusted with either procedure, Bradley says.

A pet lover’s law

Can the courts put a price tag on the family pet? That was the question the Vermont Supreme Court considered in May 2010. In Scheele v. Dustin, Vermont’s highest court ruled that pet owners cannot collect for damages from the lost love and companionship of their animal even if it’s killed with malicious intent.

In July 2003, Sarah and Denis Scheele of Annapolis, Md., were traveling through Vermont when they stopped in a church parking lot in Northfield and their unleashed mutt, Shadow, wandered onto a nearby property. The property owner, Lewis Dustin, 76, was sitting on his porch when Shadow wandered onto his lawn. According to court records, the dog didn’t act aggressively or pose a threat to Dustin. Although the homeowner claimed he just wanted to scare the dog off, Dustin shot it with an air pellet that punctured the dog’s aorta, causing a fatal hemorrhage.

Dustin later pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty, but the Scheeles were only able to recover $155 in economic damages for the “destruction of their property.” They subsequently sued Dustin for noneconomic damages, including the pain, suffering and emotional distress from watching their family pet bleed to death.

The high court acknowledged, “We are not blind to the special place they hold in our lives. Indeed, pets occupy a legal realm somewhere between chattel and children.” But the court refrained from granting the Scheeles noneconomic damages due to their loss of “solace, affection, friendship and love.” The judges determined that the issue would be best debated in the legislature.

In response, Rep. John Moran (D-Wardsboro) introduced H.256, also known as the “pet-lovers’ bill.” If passed, it would hold anyone who intentionally kills a pet liable for the noneconomic damages “resulting from the loss of the reasonable expected companionship, love and affection of the pet.”

It’s no coincidence that the bill’s language directly mirrors that of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling.

“When I saw this ruling, I thought, This just cannot be. There has to be some kind of recourse here,” Moran says. “To me, it’s unconscionable that we cannot consider animals, these sentient creatures, as having more value to us than a TV set.”

Moran admits his bill is unlikely to pass this session due to more pressing matters —such as the budget. Still, he hopes constituents contact him and other lawmakers to urge its passage.