HARRISON, Ark. — Linda Daniel is accustomed to the interruption of her cellphone and calls for help on the other end of the line.
“This is a constant,” Daniel said Thursday, glancing at her phone’s caller ID inside her Harrison home. “It’s Ohio. Hold on.”
Daniel is one of four co-founders of Ozark Homeward Bound, a volunteer pet-placement agency that began in 2010 after she left the Ozark Humane Society in Harrison. Over the past three years, Daniel and her team have placed more than 530 dogs in adoptive homes, arranging transportation for the animals from the Midwest to states around the nation, mostly in the Northeast. Daniel said she gets about 10 phone calls a day, sometimes from adopters, but more often from people who need to find a new home for an animal.
Asked where most of the animals seem to come from, Daniel sighed and closed her eyes.
“Everywhere,” Daniel said. “They come from everywhere.”
Ozark Homeward Bound is part of a network of shelters throughout the state that is tackling the stream of stray and abandoned animals, mostly dogs. The dogs often make their way to Daniel by way of law enforcement officers who find the animals with no identifying tags abandoned along roadsides or in parking lots. Some are believed to have been abandoned by owners who failed to spay an older dog and ended up with unwanted puppies. Others are thought to come from unscrupulous breeders in situations sometimes described as “puppy mills.”
Shawn McCormick, shelter manager for the Ozark Humane Society, also in Harrison, said about 90 percent of the dogs in his shelter are strays or have been abandoned, and “easily 80 percent” of the dogs showed signs of neglect or abuse when they arrived.
“They’ve got no vaccinations, they’re thin, they have parasites,” McCormick said.
Boone County is one of dozens of rural Arkansas counties dealing with a continual influx of abandoned animals. Because Arkansas has no laws specifically regulating dog breeders, there are no limits on the number of dogs individuals can have on their property. While breeders who sell animals to pet retailers such as PetSmart or Petco must be licensed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no regulations for Arkansas breeders who sell directly to consumers.
Additionally, Boone County borders Missouri, which is making aggressive changes in legislation and enforcement aimed at Missouri dog breeders. That could be playing a role in the increase in abandoned dogs on the Arkansas side of the border.
Ann Church, vice president of state affairs for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said Arkansas is likely to be inundated with dogs bred in poor conditions in Missouri and neighboring states as those states continue strengthening their regulations.
“Arkansas is in a bad situation,” Church said. “As other states enact laws regulating breeding conditions, breeders who choose not to comply will move to Arkansas.”
Oklahoma and Tennessee are both in ongoing, years long legislative battles to enact dog-breeding laws similar to those in Missouri, Church said. Throughout the region, Missouri’s recent regulatory changes have been the most striking in the world of dog breeding.
In 2010, a majority of Missouri voters passed Proposition B, a bill that required all breeders to be licensed by the state, have annual inspections, provide adequate rest for breeding dogs between breeding cycles and improve other aspects of welfare for animals involved in breeding operations.
In early 2011, however, a simple majority of legislators in the Missouri House and Senate voted to repeal the law. Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, said the Missouri Legislature has a history of occasionally repealing voter ballot initiatives. Many of the state’s legislators vowed to do so leading up to the 2010 vote.
Rather than veto or sign the repeal, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stepped in to negotiate a compromise. Nixon did eventually sign Proposition B’s repeal on the same day the Legislature approved a compromise bill, which Baker said contained “about half” of the proposition’s original provisions. Church described the compromise bill as “still a very good law.”
Many conservative lawmakers in Missouri argued in 2010 that Proposition B would simply price many legitimate breeders out of the business by requiring expensive overhauls of the breeding facilities. There has been an exodus of registered breeders from the business. There are now about 550 dog breeders with active USDA licenses in Missouri, about 630 fewer than in 2010. By comparison, there are about 130 active, USDA-licensed dog breeders in Arkansas.
Numbers of breeders licensed by Missouri have also dropped significantly, according to the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, a major proponent of the 2010 law. In 2009, the state had nearly 2,000 registered breeders. Today, there are about 960.
Baker maintains that the increase in regulation, enforcement and penalties helped purge some of the most egregious breeders.
“We got rid of the ones who were in it for a quick buck,” Baker said. “A lot of the breeders, when they realized there are actually penalties for keeping animals in these conditions, they just got out of the business.”
According to Tanya Espinoza, a spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the department currently has 11 inspectors in Missouri and four in Arkansas.
Because the act of selling a dog requires a license in Missouri, animal-welfare activists believe that breeders operating “below the radar” in the state often drive into Arkansas to either sell the dogs for cash or simply abandon them with a minimum of hassle or consequence.
Sam Martin, the assistant chief of police in Harrison, said the city passed an ordinance in 2012 to outlaw the sale of animals along the city’s main street after residents reported that many of the animals being sold there were found to be in poor health.
“People were buying dogs that were dying of distemper,” Martin said. “You could tell the dogs weren’t properly kept — no shade, no water. Most of them seemed to be coming from unincorporated areas in the county, or from Missouri.”
The city ordinance also limits to five the number of dogs that can be kept on a single property within the city limits, although the law is intended to discourage unscrupulous animal sales rather than pet ownership, Martin said.
“If it’s a momma and her kids with a litter of puppies, no problem,” Martin said. “But we had people coming in every day selling dogs.”
Desiree Bender,a public policy consultant and director of the Arkansas Humane Society from 2006-11, said “It’s a free-for-all,” referring to the likelihood of puppy mills operating in Arkansas. “We don’t have any idea how many there are, but there are quite a few.”
Bender said that during her tenure with the Humane Society she participated in numerous investigations of breeders in Arkansas and often helped coordinate the rescue, treatment and placement of dogs taken from breeders. Bender said animal-welfare activists throughout the state typically cannot keep up with the volume of suspected abuse complaints.
“There’s so many calls coming in, there’s no way for us to actively investigate them all,” Bender said. “The truth is, we have to prioritize. Sometimes I get 10 complaints before I can make something happen.”
“Honestly, it’s the state’s responsibility, but they just don’t have the infrastructure,” Bender said.
Several counties over the years have had to grapple with large numbers of animals found to suffer from mistreatment. Law enforcement officials confiscated more than 300 dogs and about 60 other animals from an elderly couple in Paris after Bender lodged multiple complaints over two years. Also, multiple misdemeanor and felony animal-cruelty charges have been filed against residents in Garland and Saline counties over the past five years for neglect resulting from cramped breeding situations, dogfighting and simple hoarding.
County Judge Lanny Fite in Saline County said many of his county’s problems stem from a lack of ordinances regulating the treatment of animals, which in turn stems from a lack of funding to enforce such laws.
“We have no ordinances that pertain to animal breeders at all,” Fite said. “No animal control, no leash law; so it pretty well goes unchecked. A lot of it has to do with the cost. Saline County doesn’t have a sales tax to help with revenue, and none of the cities help us fund the jail, so money is very limited with which to address these issues.”
Kay Simpson, executive director of the Humane Society of Pulaski County, said Saline County is “no worse than any other county in Arkansas” in terms of dealing with breeders. The animal-welfare situation is simply overwhelming in much of the state, she said.
“It’s a hard thing, I’m telling you,” Simpson said. “I ask myself every day, ‘what are you doing?’”
Simpson said her shelter receives 400-500 complaints of animal abuse each week, most of which can never be substantiated.
“Maybe one or two of those turn out to be something, and that’s all right,” Simpson said. “If they didn’t come forward, you’d have no idea what to prosecute.”
According to its 2012 state rankings, the Humane Society of the United States ranks Arkansas as the ninth-worst in the country in terms of legal protections against animal cruelty. The organization ranks the 50 states and the District of Columbia based on whether each state has laws addressing 75 separate concerns, ranging from animal fighting to trapping and the harvesting of animal fur.
Arkansas ranks below all of its neighboring states except Mississippi, which is ranked 49th out of 51. The other seven worst-ranked states, according to the Humane Society are, in descending order are Wyoming, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Dakota, Idaho and South Dakota.
Of the seven legal categories that the Humane Society identifies related to puppy mills, Arkansas meets only one of the criteria — it has a “puppy lemon law.” Arkansas Code Annotated Section 4-97-104 requires pet retailers to reimburse customers for veterinary fees if a cat or dog purchased from the retailer is found to be in ill health within 10 days of purchase.
Bender said she is working with other animal-welfare activists to introduce dog-breeding regulations into the 2015 Arkansas legislative session. Bender has met with Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Butch Calhoun to discuss possible action, although Calhoun said Friday that he had not yet been presented with any definitive policy points and declined to comment.
Originally published July 21, 2013 in the Northwest Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette