Clean Up the Puppy Trade

EVER wonder what makes that cute, sad-eyed puppy in the window so sad?

Canadian animal authorities think they know. Agriculture Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the United States Department of Agriculture, has drafted a set of strict regulations to keep US dog brokers from trucking large numbers of puppies north to be sold at auction and later in Canadian pet stores. Under the proposed rules, USDA-approved breeders would sell direct. No middlemen.

The reason for the rules goes beyond the high price of puppies. Canadians are finding added emotional and financial costs because their US-bred dogs are often sick or injured from early maltreatment. About 20,000 young dogs, worth about $4 million, are shipped each year from the US to Canada. That's a tiny financial stake compared to the multi-billion-dollar softwood-lumber trade battle with Canada earlier this year and other spats over steel and cars.

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Yet the US pet industry is urging sanctions under the 1989 US-Canada Free Trade Agreement if the new regulations are implemented.

That's ridiculous. Before lobbyists or the administration in Washington begin to chatter about sanctions or "harmonization" of US and Canadian laws, the US should put its own house in order. Industry representatives have recently asserted that US dogs sold in Canada are "96 percent healthy." But the growing problems in US dog breeding and brokering are becoming too well known for that poorly supported claim to stick.

Canadian officials and animal-rights activists have traced the problem to a process that permits a US broker to purchase puppies from scores of individuals and breeders at "buying stations" scattered across several states, mostly in the Midwest. Not infrequently, hundreds of dogs are warehoused together for days before being trucked north. Behind such practices lies lax USDA enforcement of existing regulations.

Before the US trade representative goes to bat for the pet industry, the USDA should be coaxed to put some muscle into Animal Welfare Act enforcement. It should make sure that USDA-certified breeding facilities really merit that qualification and that veterinary health certificates represent substantial inspections.

Flagrant violations of the Animal Welfare Act are cited in a March internal audit of USDA practices by the agency's own inspector general. The little-publicized report says "our audit concluded that [the USDA] cannot insure the humane care and treatment of animals at all dealer facilities as required by the act." Little wonder. The USDA has only a few score inspectors to check research labs, zoos, and breeders.

Granted, the Clinton administration will have its hands full trying to fix the economy. But let's hope the new chief - who has made it clear he cares how his daughter's cat is treated by press photographers - also will see fit to give the USDA a mandate to fix this longstanding problem and the teeth to do the job.

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