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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2011

Bill to regulate Ohio puppy mills makes gains

Sponsor reports progress after years of delays

BY JIM SIEGEL
COLUMBUS DISPATCH

COLUMBUS -- After years of close calls and stalled efforts, including resistance this year from skeptical Republican senators, a bill to crack down on Ohio's puppy-mills might be ready to move.

"We've gotten everybody to budge toward something," said Sen. Cliff Hite (R., Findlay), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee.

Critics say lax enforcement and some of the weakest dog-breeding laws in the nation have made Ohio a haven for disreputable large breeders who house dogs in abusive conditions and sell puppies that can have a multitude of diseases or genetic disorders.

But since 2006, legislation to toughen the law through new licensing requirements, inspections, and standards of care -- while bringing enforcement to the state level rather than inconsistent local action -- repeatedly has fallen short of passage.

Some dog-breeding groups have argued that the bill would hurt legitimate breeders and drive the industry to the black market.

Mr. Hite, whose committee has been holding hearings on Senate Bill 130, agrees that "there are some people not doing it right and enforcement has been abysmal."

But he said he doubted the bill, without changes, had enough support to make it out of his committee, much less the full Senate and House.

In early December, Mr. Hite convened a panel of bill supporters and opponents. Although they found little agreement in the public debate, Mr. Hite and Sen. Jim Hughes (R., Columbus), the bill sponsor, continued to work privately on a compromise.

Mr. Hite said both sides were forced to realize they had to give.

"I jokingly said it was my Teddy Roosevelt moment," Mr. Hite said. "We got people in the room and said we've got to have something better than what we have."

The plan is to roll out a reworked bill in January.

The changes will "help us not punish those who are doing it right, not forcing the innocent to prove their innocence," Mr. Hite said. "I don't think anybody will be thrilled with all parts of the [new] bill, but I feel we're headed in the right direction."

The redesigned bill, Mr. Hughes said, no longer would create a state Kennel Control Authority, but instead places enforcement under the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

This eliminates a key concern among GOP lawmakers who did not like the creation of a new bureaucracy and questioned its funding.

Neither Mr. Hite nor Mr. Hughes wanted to give too many specifics about the changes, saying some groups had not fully signed off on the tentative agreements.

"Everybody agrees we shouldn't have puppy mills, so we're looking at the bare minimums of what each of these kennels would have to have," Mr. Hughes said, adding that the bill still would accomplish the goal of having state, rather than local control.

"It's going to be a very big step toward getting rid of the problem we have. I'm not going to say it's a perfect bill. But it's a really good start."

Kellie DeFrischia, director of Columbus Dog Connection, praised Mr. Hite's work and said she is optimistic.

"Our goal has always been about creating reasonable licensing with minimum standards of care that have uniform statewide enforcement," she said. "Many people have said all these years, 'Just enforce laws already on the books.' But we don't have any laws to enforce."



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