In some parts of South Carolina, hundreds of dogs are kept at one site — often in unsanitary conditions — to breed puppies sold to pet stores across the state and beyond.
How those breeders do business gets little or no oversight from the state, allowing the operation of “puppy mills” that critics say are bad for dogs and people alike.
But that could change if legislators adopt South Carolina’s first-ever requirements for a commercial dog-breeding license.
A proposal in the S.C. House would set standards for how dogs can be kept, and require inspections to breed and sell dogs — empowering the state to crack down on puppy mill operations.
Advocates say it is an authority the state needs.
Bobby Arthur, animal shelter manager for Aiken County, told legislators Tuesday that he has seen hundreds of dogs removed from a puppy mill operator. But that happened only after the conditions amounted to animal cruelty — the point at which animal control officers now can get involved.
“It’s got to be complaint-driven,” Arthur said of the system now. “We’re not welcome, have to go get a warrant.”
Dana Long has a little more leeway.
Long is an animal control officer in Orangeburg County, where a local ordinance requires inspections of any dog breeder who has more than one breeding female.
“We had two little old ladies who between them had 172 dogs in horrible conditions,” Long told legislators, adding her county’s ordinance allowed inspectors to require the conditions be improved.
“We went back, and conditions had greatly improved,” she said.
Unsanitary conditions are not only bad for the dogs, but they can become a problem for new pet owners.
Long says her department dealt with a mange outbreak that it traced to puppies sold on Facebook. Dogs from puppy mills also can spread disease to their humans.
“They bought a puppy because it was cute and fluffy, but they soon found out they were duped because of the poor shape they were in,” said Marli Drum, the superintendent of Columbia Animal Services.
Drum and others told lawmakers Tuesday they would like to see even tighter restrictions on breeders than legislators have proposed. The proposal currently before a House panel would define a commercial breeder as someone with 20 or more breeding females.
That number should be reduced to five to seven, said Barbara Nelson, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Albrecht Center in Aiken.
However, some state representatives worried the proposal gives inspectors too much leeway to inspect private homes, where many breeders operate.
“I have Fourth Amendment concerns,” said state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-Charleston. “If this bill passes, they open themselves up to warrantless searches of their home.”
But Kelsey Gilmore-Futeral, state director of the Humane Society of the U.S., compared the bill to home day-care centers inspected by the state Department of Social Services, where she formerly worked.
“One of the problems we had inspecting day cares is that people did not want DSS coming in, going through bedrooms, pulling back shower curtains,” she said. “If you run a business out of your home that requires regulation, you’re subjecting yourselves to an overview of your private residence.”
Gilmore-Futeral added South Carolina is one of the few states that doesn’t now require a breeder’s license.
“That makes us a magnet for people who can’t breed in other states,” she said, “because we don’t look at them at all.”