Rescue groups and animal welfare advocates alike are at the forefront of speaking out against the puppy mill and commercial breeding industries. They are often natural enemies yet recently have found themselves in the same room doing business together. This room is the mostly unknown world of dog auctions.
Dog auctions are where breeders and millers can go to get rid of their unwanted stock, meaning the less desirable dogs, for quick cash. Rescuers have always had a presence at these auctions, but their presence has been in the back of the room waiting until the end of the auction to take the breeders unsellable dogs for nominal sums. Now, mostly because of the trend of breed specific rescue groups and the bans on pet stores there has been an influx of rescue groups raising money online to fund a trip to the dog auction to save dogs from the auction.
Through crowd funding, rescues come to auction and pay exorbitant amounts for specific breeds of a dog or puppy and bring it back to their rescue to adopt out, sometimes at a pet store price tag of between $500-$1,500. Many advocates see this as counter to the spirit of the animal welfare cause because the money goes into the pockets of millers and breeders who now can buy new breeding stock to continue the breeding cycle. Thus, eradication of puppy mills through limiting the demand is no longer feasible. Breeders know that rescuers are part of the system now and have even been reported as saying that they hold puppies at their kennels for longer so they can bring them to auctions and receive a higher profit off of the dog.
Currently, there is no federal or state legislation directly focused on the actual operation or funding of these dog auctions.
The only federal legislation that deals in any way with dog auctions is the licensing, inspections, and recordkeeping requirements under the Animal Welfare Act, which the auctions easily pass. Compliance under the AWA is handled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is a department with limited resources. There is also an issue surrounding the inspection of auctions. These inspections do not usually take place while the auction is occurring, which is arguably the only relevant time the inspections matter. Moreover, the transparency of the recordkeeping of inspections recently came under fire, so it is unclear how often inspections are done at these auctions.
States have few, if any, laws dealing with auctions. Some include auction under the definition of “kennel” and this is usually relevant for obtaining a license to run one. Violating this law is typically categorized as a misdemeanor and does nothing to impact the supply of dogs. Missouri is the dog auction capital, housing the two biggest dog auctions in the country. The state only requires an individual running a dog auction be 18 years old, subject to an initial and yearly inspections, and pay annual fees.
States and localities have taken a variety of measures to curb the puppy mill industry. There has been a recent trend in banning sales of dogs that are obtained from anywhere but humane societies, animal shelters, and animal rescue organizations. The bans also require strict recordkeeping on each pet sold be a pet store so that it can be tracked where they were obtained from. These bans had a noble goal of curbing the practice of retailers selling dogs obtained from the puppy mill industry. An unintended result has been accounts of some breeders registering themselves as “rescues” in order to exploit the loophole and sell in the localities which had these bans because rescues for the most part are unregulated. The bans also resulted in adopters turning to rescue groups to “rescue” specific breed puppies from auction in order to fulfill their desired breed requests. These bans are currently in place in over 250 municipalities and a couple of states.
Animal advocates argue the real concern surrounding dog auctions is the amount of money rescues are funneling into breeders pockets by bidding on dogs at auction. Any type of solution should control the financial aspect of this practice because many donors and adopters may be misled as to what their money is being put towards and where their dog is coming from. Raising large sums of money through “Go Fund Me” type campaigns to send rescues to auction leads donors to believe tons of dogs will be rescued for minimal amounts of money. Investigative reporting reveals that the practice has evolved into rescuers paying thousands of dollars for highly coveted breeds that are adopted out for large sums. Many see this as no different than other breeders going to auction to buy dogs and sell them for a profit.
To curb this practice, some suggest looking at the structure and validity of rescue groups. It is relatively easy to become a rescue and there is not a lot of oversight assuming your taxes are done appropriately. No state addresses the issue of rescues spending large sums on individual dogs and they do not separately define animal rescue groups in terms of corporate structure. This is argued by some to be an attack on the wrong parties, as they see the real wrongful parties as the commercial breeders and puppy millers.
There has been an attempt at a partial solution on the federal level. The Puppy Protection Act of 2017, which was recently introduced, but has yet to pass, would require that breeders make reasonable arrangements to find humane placements for breeding dogs that are past their age of use. There is also a general suggestion by animal advocates that there be more federal oversight of rescue groups, and a recategorization of those who buy at auction to be labeled as “pet dealers.” This still comes with the issue with the amount of available inspectors and the argument of who is actually the real wrongful party here.
On the state and local level, the main proposal is a reworking of the pet shop bans. This would include language that a certain percentage of the dogs should be mixed and non-designer breeds and also over a certain age. This would ensure dogs being sold as rescues actually embody the dogs in need of rescue.
Lastly, there is a proposed model act to finish off this discussion. It would be implemented at the federal level with significant transparency so that both adopters and those overseeing these rescues would know the price paid per dog. Once a rescue starts overspending at auction, they would get flagged and their charitable status may be affected by this. The issues and laws surrounding puppy mills, dog auctions, and rescue oversight are complex and there is no simple solution to protect the interests of animals and animal advocates while weighing the interests of those who profit from raising dogs to sell at auction or to pet stores.