AUGUSTA, Maine — Operators of animal breeding facilities often called “puppy mills” that do not follow state rules could be charged with a felony under a measure lawmakers will consider in January.
“We need to do whatever we can to prevent these sorts of egregious situations from happening in Maine,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco. “This would allow a felony charge when you have a situation like we have seen in one town in my district and give a judge more flexibility to fashion appropriate probation conditions.”
In 2007, police and animal welfare officers raided a kennel in Buxton and found 250 dogs and puppies, many suffering from serious health problems. The owners were charged with operating an unlicensed kennel, as well as animal cruelty and failure to provide necessary medical treatment to animals.
“While there were many misdemeanor charges, there is not a charge to take into account the magnitude of the offense,” Hobbins said. “This would allow that.”
He said the local district attorney, Mark Lawrence, brought the issue of establishing a new crime for operating a large puppy mill to his attention. A lawyer and member of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, Hobbins convinced legislative leaders to allow the measure into the session.
He said creating the felony offense would allow more flexibility for a judge in fashioning penalties and setting conditions of the probation of a convicted offender. For example under his proposed legislation, a judge could set as a condition that the person be banned from operating a kennel for a period of time or require paying for the cost of caring for the abused or neglected animals.
A misdemeanor carries a maximum of less than a year in the county jail, while a felony could mean up to five years in a state correctional facility.
Norma Worley, director of the State Animal Welfare Program said she has not seen a draft of Hobbins’ bill, but believes any legislation that will allow more flexibility in fashioning penalties would be an improvement. She said enforcement actions against large operations are costly.
“We still have not recovered from that 2007 case,” she said. “There were a lot of seriously sick dogs and puppies that had to be cared for and we just don’t have the budget to handle those large cases.”
Worley said that while large cases are the exception there are a lot of smaller cases every year where her agency, local humane societies and volunteers step in to care for animals that need both treatment and adequate nutrition. She said it can take months before a dog or puppy is ready for adoption.
“When you have a case with five or 10 dogs, that is within the realm of our budget,” she said. “But these large cases, we just don’t have the resources.”
Worley said while there are serious problems with some kennel owners that warrant tougher laws, most follow existing laws and most care about the animals they are raising to be someone’s pet.
Katie Lisnick, Maine director of the Humane Society of the United States agrees and says the state has few problems compared to other states.
“It is not as large a problem as it is say in the Midwest,” she said. “They have some huge, huge, huge facilities.”
But Lisnick added that in a rural state like Maine the problem might be larger than it appears because many cases go unnoticed. She said legislation such as the measure Hobbins has proposed is helpful in providing more tools for law enforcement to use in combating what amounts to animal abuse by some breeders.
“It’s fantastic to have as many options available to prosecutors and to judges as possible because each case is different,” she said. “I think those large cases should be taken very seriously.”
Hobbins said he has been pleased and surprised at the intensity of animal advocates he has spoken with about his proposal and the issues of animal cruelty and abuse. He said many have told him the elevation of serious abuse cases to a felony will act as a deterrent to some puppy mill operators.
Lisnick said anyone planning to buy a puppy, particularly in this holiday season, should take the time to visit the kennel where the puppy was born and check out the treatment of the dogs and the cleanliness of the facility.