Animal rights issues raise questions from advocacy groups

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published May 14, 2018

 Princess Ava, a puppy mill survivor, was on the scene in Lansing with protesters of House Bill 5917.

Princess Ava, a puppy mill survivor, was on the scene in Lansing with protesters of House Bill 5917.

Photo provided by Ann Griffin, of the Michigan Humane Society

LANSING — Legislators at the state and federal levels are dedicating their time to efforts they say will protect their four-legged constituency.

But some advocates question whether the outcome will help or hurt cats, dogs and other animals.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, announced an inquiry that he made to Michigan Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue to get more information about what he’s called “secretive and problematic experiments on cats and kittens” allegedly being performed at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

Bishop claims the USDA has been conducting tests — on the taxpayers’ dime — for nearly half a century on kittens, which are bred specifically to be fed parasite-infected raw meat and are then killed, despite being reported by the organization as healthy at the study’s completion.

“I’m shocked and disturbed that for decades the USDA — the very organization charged with enforcing animal welfare laws — has been unnecessarily killing hundreds of kittens in expensive and inefficient lab experiments,” said Bishop in a prepared statement. “Any government research program like this one that’s been funded since the Nixon administration needs to be put under the microscope, especially when it involves using kittens as disposable test tubes in harmful tests that most taxpayers oppose.”

Damon Thompson, communications director for the USDA Research, Education and Economics Mission Area, provided a prepared comment on Bishop’s letter in an email to be attributed  to a spokesperson from the Agricultural Research Service-USDA.

“The ARS makes every effort to minimize the number of cats used to produce eggs required to research one of the most widespread parasites in the world. The cats are essential to the success of this critical research: Only cats are found to excrete the environmentally resistant stage of the parasite, the oocyst,” the statement reads, referring to T. gondii, a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis and is said by the USDA to be the leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the United States.

The statement accuses Bishop of a “serious overestimation” to say 100 cats were used in research at the USDA ARS lab, and adds that the agency doesn’t seek adoptions for testing cats because they could potentially pose a risk to their adoptive families, particularly those with unborn children or those with immunodeficiencies.

The assertion is that the USDA is woefully failing to uphold its responsibilities in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. Under that law, the federal government, via the USDA, is to regulate the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport and sale.

That’s a concern for animal rights advocates like Ann Griffin, director of advocacy for the Michigan Humane Society, who is closely watching another legislative effort at the state level unrelated to Bishop’s inquiry.

Griffin said newly proposed legislation in the Michigan House of Representatives would require municipalities to rely solely on the USDA to monitor dog breeding and dealing practices, and would strip local governments of any oversight or ability to enact restrictions of their own on pet shop practices.

“If a community is concerned about a pet shop in (a municipality’s) jurisdiction selling puppies from a puppy mill, they can put regulations in their ordnance to prevent that. A lot of places have already done that, and those would be revoked under House Bill 5917, and other cities would be prevented from enacting their own,” Griffin explained.

Tie-barred to HB 5917 is HB 5916, which directs pet stores to sell animals only from breeders licensed and monitored by the USDA. But if the agency isn’t holding up its end of the bargain, local governments are out of luck to keep puppy-mill pet sellers out of their area.

“The definition of a qualified breeder would be reliant on USDA licensure of kennels, and while there is some regulation of wholesale breeders and that might make people think, ‘Great, the feds are watching this,’ but it’s just not true,” Griffin said.

Unfortunately, she said, puppy mills with abhorrent conditions have time and time again been licensed by the USDA.

“The USDA has come under fire from the inspector general for failing to enforce the Animal Welfare Act. If you have the stomach, Google some pictures of USDA-licensed kennels. It would break most people’s hearts,” she said.

The problem could be even worse now, Griffin said, as the USDA website for years had listings and photographs for licensed operations. But in the new presidential administration, all information on individual kennels has been scrubbed from the site, she said.

State Rep. Hank Vaupel, R-Fowlerville, a veterinarian for more than 40 years, proposed the legislation.

“Ensuring animal health and welfare is of paramount importance to me as a veterinarian,” he said in a press release. “This legislation adds important protections for all dogs sold to and in these establishments while also providing consistency for small business owners in the form of a statewide standard.”

In the release, Vaupel outlines standards for pet stores included in his bills, including that stores not deal with breeders that have any direct violations from the USDA in the past two years — and no more than three indirect violations within a year — and that they keep records for every animal, including a certified health certificate from a state-licensed vet that includes a full regimen of shots and microchipping.

What the MHS views as passing the buck on to a larger agency with lax practices Vaupel said is a way to keep stores in business without compromising animal care and breeding quality.

“It’s important to recognize the impact of brick-and-mortar retail locations in a community. Not only do they provide a valuable service, many of these family-owned businesses have been staples in the community for years,” Dan Papineau, director of tax policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said in a prepared statement. “Giving families a choice when they are looking for a pet is (as) important as ensuring these entities are well-regulated and reputable.”

Vaupel couldn’t be reached for further comment on the MHS’ allegations before press time.

Griffin said the bills, which were introduced last week to the Michigan House Agriculture Committee, are being “rushed” to a vote, and she believes they could come up for discussion as soon as this week.

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment on the House bills before press time.