AUGUSTA, Maine — Breeders and dog aficionados across the state are saying their voices are not being heard by state Animal Welfare Division Director Norma Worley, whom they describe as being too aggressive and failing to work with local dog rescue groups and private shelters.
They point to a budget overdrawn by $660,000 as proof that she is too heavy-handed, seizing hundreds of animals that need to be medically treated and supported by taxpayers, rather than working with the affected kennels.
Worley’s solution to the financial crisis in her department is to raise dramatically the cost of dog licenses, kennel permit fees and breeding licenses.
“We are howling mad,”’ Jay Kitchener of the Maine Federation of Dog Clubs said this week. “We have tried and tried to be part of the solution. For over a year we have battled to be part of the process, but there hasn’t been trust, cooperation or transparency.”
Worley, reached at her Augusta office Tuesday, denied that she has been uncooperative and said that the dog groups working with her on a breeders’ task force refuse to work together, each seeking to benefit their own interests.
“We have had three meetings and we have only been able to agree on one thing — that the department needs more humane agents,’” she said. “No one will agree on anything. It got so bad that I had to bring in a facilitator, and, frankly, I don’t think we will ever agree on anything.”
The task force is charged with assessing Maine’s existing breeding kennel laws and bringing a report to the Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry by January.
Worley tossed the blame for the gridlocked task force back onto the breeders. “There has been lots of negativity from some factions,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the past 12 months, the Animal Welfare Division has seized more than 500 animals and overrun its budget by more than $500,000. On one August night alone, Worley spent $12,000 in emergency veterinarian care for a group of animals seized from a kennel in Buxton.
“The dogs were dying right in front of us,” she said. “I don’t think most people realize how bad their conditions were.”
Worley said she does work with private breeders and shelters but she must pay them out of her budget, a budget nearly completely funded through dog licenses, kennel licenses and breeding permits.
She said she is submitting legislation this winter that would raise the fees for licenses and permits to help repay operating funds that her division has borrowed from the state Department of Agriculture pesticides division. It must be paid back by next summer.
Her proposal includes raising pet licenses from $11 to $20 for fertile dogs, and from $6 to $10 for spayed and neutered dogs. Although she also has proposed doubling the fee for boarding kennel licenses from $75 to $150, she called that “a place holder.”
“In the end, the Agriculture Committee will decide,” she said. “I’m aiming high and hoping to come somewhere in the middle.”
The draft bill also redefines pet shops and doubles their license fees and grants sweeping powers of seizure to animal welfare agents, including not requiring them to get warrants before entering private property to take animals.
Members of the dog breeding community said Worley has blown the puppy mill problem in Maine out of proportion. They say she has categorized many breeders unfairly as operating puppy mills and that she seizes animals without first attempting to work with breeders.
Kitchener said her philosophy is “to swoop in and seize animals all at once, then turn around and bill the taxpayers of Maine. This not the only, nor the best, solution.”
“The Animal Welfare Division seems to feel every breeder is a puppy mill,” Amy Davis of Gouldsboro said in an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News this weekend. “In a state with relatively few unethical breeders, one would think that there was a bad breeder under every rock. Wrong! We have the laws — more than we need — right now. We need to simplify what we have, and it can be done, but not by using backdoor politics in Augusta.”
John and Ann Short, who have raised Brittany spaniels in Acton for more than 20 years, wrote in another e-mail to the BDN, “Times are changing in that strict laws, ordinances and higher licensing fees are being written and passed at lightning speed, and with little input to those who should be considered ‘experts’ in the field.”
The Shorts said Maine has adequate laws on the books to deal with true puppy mills, which they said are few and far between in Maine.
“The [Animal Welfare Division] used to work with people, develop a plan to improve, educate and provide relief for those with problems,” the Shorts said. “Not anymore. Now Maine spies, and then moves in for the seizure.”
Davis said both the division and the task force need to look for common ground and broader solutions for funding animal welfare.
“We dog breeders and owners have simply had it,” she said. “Why is there no plan to tax cats, horses, goats, cattle, alpacas? Our dog taxes are paying for these seizures too. Why is the brunt of this bill being forced upon the law-abiding few when more than 60 percent of Maine dog owners do not license their dogs?”
Worley said the next meeting of the breeding task force would be Oct. 22.