West Virginia legislation aims to crack down on puppy mill abuses

On May 3, West Virginia governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed off on Senate Bill 437, which will force commercial dog breeders to provide more humane living conditions, along with veterinary care, for their animals. The bill was sponsored by state senators John Unger, Robert Beach and Jack Yost and received unanimous support in the state senate.

“In essence, what we’re trying to do is make sure we protect what we have,” says Senator Unger. “Other states are cracking down on the puppy mills that are operating illegally. We want to make sure we strengthen our laws so that they’re not just finding this as a haven for that type of operation. That’s why this bill is critical. We need to step up and provide stronger laws to protect our animals as well.”

Here’s some background to Senator Unger’s remarks:

In 2007, a tragic fire in a junk pile operation in neighboring Virginia claimed the lives of almost 200 dogs. Sparks from a wood fire in a steel drum that was being used to heat the place set off the blaze. It was a high-profile story that resulted in a revocation of the operation’s permit. Later that year, Best Friends partnered with local activists in Virginia to rescue over 180 mill dogs from the same county. You may remember the story of Mabel, the blind, nearly toothless beagle who had lived in a cage the size of a dishwasher, 24/7, for her entire 10 years of life, cranking out litter after litter without her feet ever touching the ground. Mabel’s plight, and her joyous, first romp in a patch of green grass really put a face on the horrors of the puppy supply business for me. I will never forget her.

Springboarding off the public awareness and outrage generated by these and other Virginia puppy mill exposés, the following year we worked closely with Teresa Dockery, who at the time was the chief operating officer of the Margaret B. Mitchell Spay/Neuter Clinic in Bristol, Virginia, to help pass a state law that tightened up commercial breeding operations and empowered local animal control officers to enforce the new codes.

Rather than comply with more humane standards, many Virginia puppy millers decided to move their operations to states with weaker laws and lax enforcement. Neighboring West Virginia, which had its own puppy mill problems, was a prime destination. In fact, in August of 2008, Best Friends joined in a multi-organizational support of the Wood County, West Virginia, Sheriff's Department raid on Whispering Oaks Kennel in Parkersburg, a deplorable operation with about 1,000 dogs. The puppy mill was shut down and the dogs placed with rescues around the country.

It was only a matter of time before West Virginia lawmakers tired of their state being a magnet for animal-abusing puppy millers from across the region as highlighted in Senator Unger’s remarks above.

Hats off to Governor Tomblin and the bill’s sponsors. SB 437 is a step in the right direction. The new law will require anyone keeping more than 10 intact dogs for the purpose of breeding to provide each dog with solid flooring, protection from the elements, adequate lighting, food, water, veterinary care and sanitary conditions.

It will also ban crates from being stacked on top of each other and will mandate euthanasia be performed only by a veterinarian. All facilities will be required to provide adequate means of fire suppression and will force breeders to have their veterinarian certify that their animal is healthy before breeding.

Because many puppy mills observe such poor management conditions, even the modest and common sense standards set by SB 437 will push some of the worst operators out of business – or out of state – and will raise the cost of puppies to distributors, retailers and buyers.

While I am pleased that the animals trapped in forced breeding kennels in West Virginia will have better lives, in my view, there is no such thing as a “good” commercial breeding operation because no good comes from exploiting animals and flooding the market with factory-farmed pets while millions are dying in our shelters.

Learn more about Best Friends puppy mill initiatives.

Julie Castle with Sunny the dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society