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California governor saves pets, helps businesses and slams the door on puppy mills with Bella’s Act

Friends, I’ve got some good news for you. This past Saturday was National Puppy Mill Awareness Day. And just the evening before, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that added some much-needed blue sky to the lives of pets and people in California. Assembly Bill 2152, known as Bella’s Act and introduced by animal-championing assembly member Todd Gloria, finally puts an end to the retail sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in California, cracking down on the puppy mill industry once and for all.

But wait, didn’t we do that already? Yes and no. In 2017, Assembly Bill 485 made California the first state in the country to prohibit the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits in retail stores, allowing for certain exceptions. It was a monumental undertaking and a huge victory for animal lovers and advocates. Sadly, as the law went into effect in January 2019, unethical breeders and retail pet store operators began exploiting a loophole in the law. This loophole made it possible for them to establish sham 501(c)(3) rescue organizations, hiding the real source of their animals, lying about partnerships with animal shelters and deceiving people who thought they were adopting a rescued pet. Pretty gross, right?

Well, despite these bad actors operating in a wildly unethical fashion, what they were doing was technically legal. So, a new bill was authored and introduced into the assembly in early 2020 to address the problem. Then the pandemic arrived, and pretty much every bill that wasn’t essential or related to safeguarding the people and infrastructure of California in the wake of COVID-19 was put on hold. This is where the story gets interesting.

This new bill was relevant to the health and wellness of the people, essential businesses and services, and animals in the state. The individuals and businesses operating as fake rescue groups were bringing in puppies from puppy mills over the state line from Missouri. Because most mill-bred animals come with a range of health problems and can carry transmittable viruses, bringing sick animals into California (in the middle of a pandemic) in this manner not only put people and other animals at increased risk, it threatened to add an additional burden to veterinary offices, animal shelters and animal protection officers already stretched thin and operating under emergency restrictions.

Then, of course, there’s the sobering reality that California is the state that accounts for the highest number of dogs and cats being killed in animal shelters. With more than 710,000 pets entering the state’s shelters last year and more than 100,000 of them dying unnecessarily, a loophole that allows for unethical businesses to import and sell sick pets (for as much as $5,000) seems unreal and unacceptable.

However, the most mind-blowing part of this story is the Herculean effort and brilliant combination of commitment, cooperation and creative problem-solving that went into the drafting and eventual signing of this bill. Together, San Diego Humane Society, Best Friends, the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and other supporting animal welfare partners, along with Jennifer Fearing of Fearless Advocacy, Inc., and assembly member Todd Gloria, led a whirlwind of research, strategic planning and collaborative conversations to shut down unethical retailers, protect legitimate businesses and ultimately save the lives of thousands of at-risk pets at a time when the entire state itself feels a little at risk.

Best Friends’ advocacy team got to work, calling every single pet store in the state, having conversations about adoption fees and approaches, and researching every business model related to pet sales imaginable. The goal was to ensure that the bill only targeted bad actors while protecting legitimate businesses that showcase and find homes for adoptable pets. The resulting key piece of Bella’s Act is the removal of any profit incentive when selling pets. In addition to only making pets obtainable through legitimate animal shelters or rescue organizations, any retail store interested in “selling” pets can only do so if every pet is spayed or neutered prior and adoption fee amounts are capped.

Despite unexpected opposition and countless starts and stops related to COVID-19, the new bill passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support and, on the eve of National Puppy Mill Awareness Day, Governor Newsom signed it into law. It was a glorious moment for pets and people in the Golden State and we are so grateful to all of the various contributors, collaborators and constituents who helped pass this critical legislation. But there’s one more key player in this important work who I’ve yet to mention and to whom we owe a tremendous amount of gratitude.

Elizabeth Oreck, Best Friends’ national manager of puppy mill initiatives, expertly led Bella’s Act through countless setbacks — diving into months of painstaking research and working to bring key stakeholders to the table — and she was instrumental in the collaborative effort that led to its eventual signing. It’s also worth noting that Elizabeth is not one for personal fanfare, preferring to suit up in a lifesaving team jersey with a number but no name.

So, let me just say this: Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you, assembly member Todd Gloria and Governor Newsom. Thank you to our incredible animal welfare partners who were happy to go the distance and come to the table with us for this essential bill. Thank you to all of you who signed up for action alerts and supported this work, and who continue each and every day to stand up and speak out on behalf of pets in need and the people who love them.

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Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society