Imagine receiving a phone call from someone asking to surrender a dog to you who has been producing puppies for years in a crowded shed. Imagine that animal covered in filth, smelling so terribly that after you load her into your car you need to drive with the windows down even in freezing weather just to not feel sick to your stomach. Imagine needing hundreds of dollars to cover veterinary care just for the first vet visit. The rotting teeth, the matted fur, the ear infections, or even visible, cancerous tumors. Imagine if this was legal and licensed.
I don’t imagine this. I have experienced this for the past 12 years as the president of Finding Shelter Animal Rescue, a foster-based nonprofit in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Every week I respond to multiple calls to pick up dogs who are exactly as described above. They have been deemed as “unproductive,” “not worth keeping,” or “unsellable” by those who have been profiting off their misery for years. I could tell you more than 1,000 stories about dogs I have had the honor to rescue from these situations. Never paying a dime for their release, each one of them comes with their own personal story of suffering and most of their puppies end up sold through pet stores or via the internet.
According to lexico.com, puppy mills are best defined as “an establishment that breeds puppies for sale, typically on an intensive basis and in conditions regarded as inhumane.” They are known to supply pet stores across the United States and Pennsylvania ranks only behind Missouri as having the most puppy mills in the country.
Thankfully, there is a way to reduce the suffering of the animals on the production end. If consumers had more options and transparency around the breeding and sale of pets, that would reduce demand and reform such a cruel industry. It’s not so far-fetched and there is a solution on the table in Pennsylvania called “Victoria’s Law.”
Introduced as Senate Bill 234 and House Bill 1299, Victoria’s Law would prohibit the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats, and rabbits in pet stores across the Commonwealth. It would also require that Pennsylvania breeders who qualify for a kennel license post their license numbers on all puppy sale advertisements. This includes internet listings, newspaper ads, roadside signs, etc.
Victoria, after whom the bill was named, was a German Shepherd who produced a confirmed 150+ puppies in 10 years of breeding. She was surrendered only when she “couldn’t stand long enough” to be bred. A fact that the man who owned her for the first 10 years of her life shared when I picked her up from the farm. Victoria had an incurable, genetic, neurological condition called Degenerative Myelopathy. Basically, her spinal cord stopped working from back to front causing hind end lameness at first and then total paralysis. Her genes were passed down to all her puppies so it is unknown how many of them will develop or have developed DM as adults. There is also no way of knowing how many of her puppies were also used for breeding purposes.
Victoria was my dog.
After we rescued her, we gave her a forever home full of love and provided hospice care for the remaining 16 months of her life, checked items off a fun bucket list, and shared her story of survival. Her gentle spirit and resilience were inspiring.
Victoria’s Law is an easy bill to understand, which is why it has gained bipartisan support from more than half of the Pennsylvania State Senate and more than a third of the Pennsylvania House so far. With statewide advocate support, overwhelming legislator support, and high visibility, why hasn’t it progressed in the three sessions when it has been introduced?
In the State House, Victoria’s Law (HB 1299) has been assigned to the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. It seems like an odd fit for a consumer protection and animal welfare bill, but dogs fall under the department of agriculture nationwide for various issues. Nothing has been explained publicly about why there is a refusal to put Victoria’s Law up for a fair vote to the committee.
In the Senate, the bill (SB 234) is making its way for the third time to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it has stalled there, as well. In 2020, there was a hearing on animal welfare and a panel of various groups was invited to testify at the hearing. Out of the eight panelists, the first four testimonies were fervently in opposition to Victoria’s Law, followed by one proponent of the bill from the Humane Society of the United States Puppy Mills Campaign.
The remaining three panelists were there to discuss a separate, proposed bill for a moderate increase in dog license fee, which funds the Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law, the entity that oversees kennel licensing and inspections in the Commonwealth. That bill remains untouched, as well.
Those who oppose Victoria’s Law are trade groups who profit off puppy mills: namely pet stores, the American Kennel Club, and other breeders associations. If Victoria’s Law was to become a reality, it would potentially mean less profit from those animals. The Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA) is also strongly opposed to the bill. However, every veterinarian I have spoken to wholeheartedly supports Victoria’s Law, and no survey of their full membership was taken to justify their stance on behalf of all members.
This is a scenario seen around the United States. These same trade groups continue to oppose bills and other ordinances introduced to stop the pet store sales of dogs, cats, and rabbits. Similar bills in New York and Massachusetts have yet to pass. So far, California, Maryland, Washington, Maine, and most recently Illinois have all put their pet store sales bans into effect along with 400+ local ordinances banning the practice – including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
Those in favor of Victoria’s Law, and those of us fighting for it to move forward, have no financial stake in the game. Personally, my rescue will exist whether there are puppy mills or not. I will always have pets in need of my organization’s help and that is never something that turns a profit. I solely want to see ways to reduce the suffering of animals. There is no financial gain for those of us who wish to see a retail sales ban enacted contrary to the opposition who are solely motivated by profit.
At the end of the day, pet stores do not make a profit by selling dogs, cats, and rabbits. Far and away, the largest share of this 95-billion-dollar market comes from pet products and services, not the sale of animals.
The longer I sat there watching the 2020 hearing on Dog Laws and Animal-Related Issues, the more it made sense to me. Those few people with the power to move Victoria’s Law forward had no intention of doing it. While the proponents of Victoria’s Law are ignored, animals suffer and victims of consumer fraud experience hardship after purchasing sick or behaviorally inappropriate dogs.
Pennsylvanians can voice their support of Victoria’s Law to their legislators by contacting their state senator and state representative. Those who wish to follow the progress of the bill can also go to www.victoriaslaw.org.
Refusing to put these bills up for a vote prohibits a fair, democratic, legislative process from occurring. Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly are prevented from representing their constituents and voting on a popular bill to protect consumers and animals all while thousands of dogs like Victoria continue to suffer for the sake of profit.
Pennsylvania is ready for Victoria’s Law.
Grace Kelly Herbert
Grace has been an active leader in the animal rescue field since 2007 when she was hired as the executive director for a local animal shelter. Her passion and commitment to the animals in her care led her to co-found Finding Shelter in 2010.