Caged: How Ohio Politicians Keep the State's Puppy Mill Business Booming with Little Regulation

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When asked where else an interested party might go for more puppies in the area, she gestures north toward a tourist-ridden open-air market. The puppy, a tiny, tiny Westie now firmly clutched in her hand, jerks forward and backward as the woman rattles off directions up State Route 557.

But scenes like that—homey and quaint— are growing uncommon. These days, a lot of the small operations are shuttered. People in the area point to a combination of economic forces and the inevitable passage of Senate Bill 130 that pushed some of the small-time breeders out of the game. There's money to be made elsewhere. Lots of breeders have converted old kennel structures into rabbit hutches (they're about the same size, anyway). Rabbits tend to make for really efficient raw dog food, which is an increasingly major player in the canine chow market.

Quick money: That's a major disc in the backbones of both the Amish economy and the rural "English" (non-Amish) economy. That's what led to the boom in puppy mills across northern Ohio. And that's what has led to the seeming decline. But kennels are still out there in vast numbers.

Three years ago, dog breeder head honcho Ervin Raber testified that the industry pulled in $9 million annually across Holmes County—and billions across the country. The financial footprint isn't much less imposing these days, and there's still a solid presence among "high-retail" breeders. That's how the ODA classifies operations handling at least nine litters or 60 dogs per year. Retailers selling fewer than 60 dogs in a year find themselves mostly outside the scope of government regulations and standards of care. And with the small mills dropping out over time, the market is consolidating into the profiteering big guns.

What's left is an always-vague market dominated by major puppy traffickers. Via cold, hard cash, breeder representatives found a prominent seat at the negotiating table over the years. As Senate Bill 130 approached a House vote last year, dog breeders like Raber sported broad smiles and optimistic looks toward an unbound future after dumping lobbying cash into the effort.

They're happy; animal protection advocates for the most part are not. That's because the law plays softball with reports of animal cruelty and replaces current regulations with, well, current regulations. 


It is the intent of the ODA, of course, to implement new regulations on most aspects of the breeding business, through the bill's language actually doesn't specify much. Really, the proposed and approved rules thus far don't change the status quo.

Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), dogs' cage sizes are determined by the length from the tip of their head to the base of their tail. Add six inches to that number, then square it. There's the calculated square footage for the cage, which adds up to little more than strict confinement. That's also the current standard, which is more or less upheld across the state.

The new law mandates that kennel operators offer dogs "at least the minimum amount of floor space," as dictated by the current USDA standards. Sweeping reform that is not.

"The regulations they have adopted are not much different that what we see under the USDA. And those regulations are not very stringent. More importantly, the enforcement of those regulations has been very poor," says Mary O'Connor-Shaver, who works with the Coalition to Ban Ohio Dog Auctions.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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