|Action||Promulgate regulation required by Chapter 1284 of the 2020 Acts of Assembly|
|Comment Period||Ends 12/23/2022|
Dear Board Members and VDACS Leadership,
I am reaching out to you on behalf of the Virginia Animal Owners Alliance regarding the Proposed Regulations for 2 VAC 5 - 105 (Regulations for the Inspection of Pet Shops Selling Dogs or Cats). We attended the December 9th Board meeting to learn further about what is being proposed, but came away with more questions than answers.
First of all, please consider the pet store owners who attended the meeting. They have shown their support of the regulatory process and thanked Senator Marsden for his efforts with his 2020 legislation. These small businesses pay taxes and contribute to the State in a positive way. They provide multiple services to their communities including the option to add a purebred pet to the family.
There are already laws in place in regards to how Virginia pet stores can acquire their puppies. Some stores are USDA licensed and are only able to purchase puppies from another USDA licensee. It is currently popular to jump on the "puppy mill" bandwagon, but we must remember that this is a label that has no legal definition. It is a negative stereotype that is being used to ultimately achieve a political end.
If there are currently no regulations in regards to pet stores and everyone is worried about the type of care the animals are receiving, why didn't we hear more at the December 9th Board meeting about establishing the needed criteria? Could it be that the shops are already providing proper standards of care?
Animal rights groups were well represented at the public hearing. Molly Armus works for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Daphna Nachminovitch represents People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Both of these groups work against the animal industry at every level. How much weight would their opinions carry if the public hearing was about a farmer's way of life? What weight should they carry now?
Both Molly and Daphna, as well as Kara Moran of Virginia Pawsitivaty Initiative, all had a common theme to their presentations. There was a lot of talk about cracking down on pet store operators and one of the speakers stated that the biggest punishment at this time is a $500.00 penalty. Dr. Bissett gave the assurance that you all would make sure this section of the regulation had "teeth" and do some "wordsmithing." There are calls for fines up to $1,000.00 per day for violations. Why are we seeing so much emphasis on punishment?
A thousand dollars a day seems more than a bit harsh to put on a mom-and-pop business, but it would be in line with the current hostility already in the State. The truth of the matter is that the Commonwealth has become very inhospitable towards all types of animal owners. Citizens are moving out of State or choosing NOT to move here for fear of what could happen to them and their animals. We're so far down the track it leaves one to wonder what bearing a set of regulations can have at this point.
The proposed regulations were certified by Senior Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch of the Attorney General's Office. She wrote her letter of assurance on November 23, 2021. Michelle directs the State's Animal Law Unit (the first one in the nation) and prosecutes citizens throughout the Commonwealth for animal crimes. She has deemed inspectors and inspection reports irrelevant from both USDA and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. What proof do we have that she would treat VDACS regulations any differently?
It is worth noting that what might result as a CITATION with a normal inspector/business relationship is a CRIMINAL OFFENSE to Michelle and her team. We have learned a lot by watching her in the courtroom and know first-hand some of what is now considered abuse and neglect:
Signs of stress
Dirty water bowls
Fly strips with flies
Kara spoke of animal cases involving pet stores and the cost to Virginia taxpayers. It was odd, however, that she did not mention the name Najeh Abedeljalil or his Halifax pet store. More and more details of his case are coming to light in spite of certain efforts to hide or minimize them.
Najeh's store was raided in October 2020. Amy Taylor of the Animal Law Unit testified it was an inspection instead of a raid, but under 3.2-6564 investigators must do their investigations during business hours or have a warrant. Najeh's pet store was raided WITHOUT a warrant when the store was NOT open for business. He was prosecuted over imperfect water bowls, fly strips that had caught flies, puppies that developed parasites, and other commonplace things. He is having to serve JAIL TIME for a puppy that experienced digestive issues, allergies, and corneal scarring. It you know anything about dogs, you know these are simply signs of having a puppy--not signs of abuse.
Everyone is claiming that shelters are held to the highest standards, but is this really true?
Catherine Martinette is Chief Animal Warden of Halifax Animal Control. She testified against Najeh and told the jury about some of the puppies that had giardia. Under cross-examination, Najeh's attorney asked if there was giardia in her shelter. She stated, "Only recently." Will State prosecutors care about the level of parasites in the dogs at the Halifax shelter? We doubt it.
Najeh is proof that pet store owners are being scrutinized in an unprecedented and arbitrary way.
After authorities seized some of Najeh's animals, Animal Control Officer Laura Midkiff took one of Najeh's puppies to her home. While under her care, the puppy chewed an electrical cord in the bathroom and died of electrocution. THIS WAS THE ONLY ANIMAL THAT DIED IN THIS ENITRE SITUATION. Michelle had these facts suppressed from the jury, Laura was not charged for the death of the puppy, and she was awarded Animal Control Officer of the year in October 2022. How does this look to the citizens of Virginia?
There is no doubt that there is a double standard in the Commonwealth when it comes to the way animal care laws are enforced. Are regulations going to help level the playing field or will they simply exacerbate current conflicts?
The transformation of Senate Bill 891 from the time it was introduced to the time it was enacted reveals a lot about prevailing biases. Originally, there was a $25.00 annual registration fee for every regulated person or facility. Later, the fee was determined based on whether an entity was a non-profit ($25.00) or a for-profit ($250.00). In the end, it appears the $25.00 fee was scrapped altogether for the non-profits and the $250.00 fee was preserved for the small business owners.
The language of the proposed regulations is very telling in regards in who will fall under regulation and who will not. If a store sells a dog or cat they will be regulated. If they keep or display a dog or cat for adoption from a shelter, they will not be regulated. In other words, it is the supposed PROFIT of selling the pet that is driving these regulations instead of the concern about the care of individual animals. If abuse and neglect are as prevalent as the State would have us believe, an animal's welfare cannot be decided based on the amount of its price tag. It is only fair that ALL pet stores housing dogs and cats be regulated in the same manner.
Does the State want to build a better relationship with Virginia's pet store owners? If so, regulations instead of raids could be a positive first step. However, the Commonwealth must ensure inspectors are objective and value the animal industry. This should not be another avenue to simply put good people out of business.
In her December 9th comments, Kara compared pet store owners to pesticide applicators. Though it can be a stretch, we recognize certain similarities that could prove valuable. As you recall, Liza Fleeson Trossbach of the Office of Pesticide Services gave her remarks about pesticide operations later in the meeting. She stated that more EDUCATION is needed and that penalties are CIVIL in nature. Liza explained that the money collected goes to the administrative fund for educations and outreach. We have since learned that the VDACS website offers information for those interested in becoming pesticide applicators. There is also an administrative appeal process available. Will VDACS provide similar options for pet store owners? Will you encourage those who want to start their own pet stores?
There is a big problem in Virginia when it comes to the issue of enforcement and who is regulating the regulators. The chaos that has resulted after the establishment of the Animal Law Unit has left many in the animal industry feeling they are unwanted here. Who is the actual authority when it comes to animal care? What assurances can you give that inspectors/investigators will be fair and law abiding? Will standards of care be enforced equally across the board regardless of whether the animals in question are housed in a pet store or a shelter?
Senator Marsden correctly stated, "That which is measured can be judged fairly." We agree with him. It is our hope that fairness and objectivity can be restored in the Commonwealth.
Virginia Animal Owners Alliance