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Trump administration’s policy change undercuts county puppy-sales law

A Trump Administration policy change and complaints tied to a pet store in Royal Palm Beach have led to a renewed call for Palm Beach County to reconsider its policy of allowing existing pet stores to sell puppies and kittens.

The County Commission passed a rule last year barring new pet stores from selling puppies and kittens in an effort to kill the profit motive at so-called pet mills, where critics contend animals are kept and bred in inhumane conditions.

After hearing from store owners who feared a broader rule would put them out of business, commissioners allowed existing stores to continue selling puppies and kittens — as long as they didn’t get animals from breeders who are unlicensed or have violated standards monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In early February, however, the USDA under the Trump administration removed thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide from its website, ending the agency’s decades-long policy of making such records public. These are inspection records and annual reports for all commercial animal facilities in the U.S.— including zoos, factory farms, laboratories — and breeders. Federal officials said the change was made to protect the privacy of the businesses.

Animal rights advocates said the change makes it difficult to know which breeders are failing to meet standards meant to stamp out cruelty.

The policy change has eviscerated a central element of the county’s rule on pet stores. Neither the county nor the pet stores know which breeders are failing to meet the standards, which some animal advocates argue were already weak.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” Animal Care and Control Director Dianne Suave said. “I firmly believe that if we had known that the USDA was going to remove their website, which gives information on violators, thereby removing our ability to track these individuals who breed and transport animals in inhumane conditions, that we would have pushed to halt the sale of puppies or to phase out the sale of puppies over a period of years.”

County Mayor Paulette Burdick said the move to take down information about violators “was a devious act.”

Reversing that decision, she said, is “important for the health and safety of these animals. The transparency is important for us to be able to regulate the bad actors out there.”

Various cities in the county have passed their own rules on pet stores.

Brooke Abshire, a former employee at Star Pups in Royal Palm Beach, said getting a job at a pet store was a dream come true given her life-long love of animals. But that dream soured, she said.

The 20-year old contacted Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control after she said she found that puppies often arrived at Star Pups covered in feces and filth, dehydrated and shaking.

An Animal Care and Control report states that Abshire met with agency investigators to detail “numerous complaints and possible animal cruelty concerns that needed to be investigated.”

After taking Abshire’s statement, an investigator “went to view the dumpster where Star Pups was reported to be disposing of their dead puppies,” said the report, which did not indicate that the investigator found any carcasses.

The report said the investigator tried to review surveillance video of the dumpster, but the view of the dumpster was blocked by a cement car port.

Another Animal Care and Control report found fault with how puppies were transported to Star Pups.

Puppies, according to the report, were being transported to Star Pups “in what look like handmade pigeon transport cages.”

The report noted: “Puppies were piled up a top of each other in rear cages shaking. None of the cages had any available water. Each cage had an empty chewed water bottle for human consumption not the kind used to hang on cages for puppies.”

The report also stated that “there was feces in the bottom of the cages floor. Puppies sat directly on cage wire with open squares for the feces to fall through. The puppies legs could also fit through the cages wire spacing. No platforms, solid surfaces or blankets were available for puppies to comfortably sit on.”

In December, after nearly a year at the store, Abshire said she went on a lunch break and never returned, a decision over which she had agonized.

“Leaving was very hard for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave the puppies behind.”

A man who answered the telephone at Star Pups Thursday said animals were not being treated poorly at the store. He refused to identify himself or say if he was a manager or store owner.

The man told The Palm Beach Post to send questions to an email address. An email to that address generated no response as of Friday. The store also did not respond to Friday phone message.

Sauve said her agency has no authority over companies that transport animals to pet stores. She said her investigator forwarded information about the transport conditions to the USDA.

As for Star Pups, Sauve said she has personally visited the store.

“I was very disappointed by the conditions I found,” Sauve said. “I found dirty, filthy conditions at the store.”

Star Pups has been cited multiple times for violations of the county’s rules regarding pet stores, Sauve said, adding that her agency has told the store’s manager that the store will soon be fined on a daily basis if it continues to ignore calls from the agency’s investigator.

The whole thing — the USDA policy change and allegations about Star Pups — demonstrate that the county erred in allowing the continued sale of puppies and kittens, said Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Michele Lazarow.

Lazarow obtained the agency’s report through a public records request, and, in a recent email to county commissioners, said the county’s policy does little to stop the inhumane treatment of puppies and kittens while serving as a template for other governments that want to be seen as acting to stop animal cruelty.

Lazarow said she and others are working to stop Hillsborough County from adopting a rule similar to the one passed in Palm Beach County. That rule has gotten preliminary approval and is scheduled to be discussed again on May 3.

There is a direct line, Lazarow said, from Palm Beach County’s rule and the one being considered in Hillsborough County.

“This is bigger than Palm Beach County,” she said, mocking the line of thinking of local governments that pass such laws — “‘It’ll save us from a lawsuit. It’s an easy way out’” — before concluding, “The self-centeredness of it is maddening.”

The argument store owners make — that they will go out of business if they aren’t allowed to sell puppies and kittens — is not one that moves Lazarow.

“Cry me a river,” she said. “I don’t want them to close. I want them to stay open without selling dogs.”

On Tuesday, when Palm Beach County commissioners meet again, they will consider a resolution calling on the Trump administration to resume posting information about breeders who violate national standards.

Sauve wouldn’t say it was a mistake for the county to allow existing pet stores to continue selling puppies and kittens.

Abshire said she’s still hoping to see something done to give the animals more protection.

“I thought after the new ordinance went into effect, I thought things would change for the puppies,” she said. “Nothing at all really changed, except for paperwork. It didn’t do anything at all.”

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