Puppy Mill Seizure Illustrates Need for Proactive Law Enforcement

02/12/2016 02:02 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2017

A puppy mill seizure in B.C. is making international headlines and igniting outrage. Sixty-six animals with urgent health issues were removed from filthy, cramped cages in barren buildings, and the owners are now facing criminal charges.

The case rightly has breeders under the microscope. Many municipalities, including Toronto and Richmond BC, have already banned the sale of pets in stores in an effort to cut off the market for animals from breeders when our shelters are already overflowing. After a similar ban was enacted in Albuquerque, NM, animal adoptions grew by 23 percent and shelter euthanasia decreased by 35 percent.

The public outrage also reflects a growing trend away from seeing animals merely as objects or accessories for us to do with as we please. Science and public sentiment are converging in an increased awareness that, like us, non-human animals are complex beings who can suffer and experience pleasure. Quebec recently passed legislation acknowledging animals as "sentient beings"--a move that may have little practical legal consequence, but is an important reflection of changing social expectations regarding animal use.

The dog seizure also illustrates a serious problem with our animal protection regime. Although law enforcement had received complaints about this particular operation as far back as 2009, a raid was not conducted and charges were not pursued until just this month. That means likely hundreds or thousands of animals were suffering in the custody of these unscrupulous breeders whose sole concern appears to have been profit.

Across the country, our provincial law enforcement authorities only act in response to complaints from the public. For this system to work to protect animals, animal abuse and neglect have to be visible. However, the vast majority of suffering to animals in our society is hidden away in windowless buildings on private property. The greatest number of invisible victims are not puppy mill dogs, but the chickens, pigs, and other animals we use for food.

Incredibly, there is no governmental oversight of farms. The only standards are industry-created, and they are not enforced. In the absence of third-party oversight, concerned members of the public have taken it upon themselves to do what law enforcement authorities aren't doing. They pose as employees to enter these facilities, document legal violations, present evidence to authorities, and advocate for prosecutions.

These non-governmental undercover investigations have revealed an epidemic of cruelty. Standard industry practices, like intensive confinement, mutilations without painkillers, and runaway selective breeding, are enough to make anyone wince. On top of the systemic suffering, instances of abuse run rampant. It shouldn't surprise us that workers who use animals as commodities rather than companions eventually become desensitized to their suffering, and frustrated with resistant animals who neither want to die nor cooperate with their captors.

It is not realistic or acceptable to rely on the public as virtually our sole means of proactively investigating abuse and neglect, particularly when we know it's a widespread problem. Public opinion polls consistently show that we overwhelmingly believe animals should not be made to suffer. Our law enforcement authorities must proactively investigate cruelty to animals, the way we do with other serious social concerns.

Ideally, government will strengthen animal welfare laws by requiring anyone who profits off of animals to be subject to regular, unannounced inspections. We already do this with public health inspections of food services facilities like restaurants because we take our own health and safety seriously. Animals deserve the same consideration. Their need to be free of egregious suffering is more important than business owners' need to be free of the minor inconvenience of having their business premises inspected occasionally.

Until we legislate a more effective law enforcement mechanisms, we need provincial law enforcement bodies across the country to stop relying solely on complaints from the public. Undercover sting operations may be costly and complex, but they are currently the only glimmer of hope for the many animals locked out of sight in the machinery of human greed.

Today, 66 dogs are in good hands on the road to recovery, and that is a victory. But we cannot forget that there are many more animals with compromised health in deplorable environments, and until our law enforcement system is fixed, they will continue to suffer.