The recommendation in the EFRA Committee Report (Animal Welfare in England: Domestic Pets, November 2016) for an outright ban on the third party selling of dogs was a game changing moment for those of us who are relentlessly campaigning for this outcome. For decades, animal welfare organisations have been recommending that people see a puppy with its mother, because the connection between selling puppies away from their place of birth and the devastating cruelty of puppy farming has long been recognised. You will not find any animal charities in the UK advising potential purchasers that they should get their puppy from a pet shop, and raising awareness about puppy farming has been a theme in many high profile campaigns.
You would therefore expect that all animal welfare organisations would have welcomed this clear and uncontroversial recommendation with elation, as a big step forward in ending a practice which they so evidently disagree with. However, disturbingly this has not been the case and in fact some are even going as far as to suggest that allowing the trade to continue might be preferable!
These organisations have all stated in the last few years that puppies should not be sold in pet shops, but now that the prospect of a ban is becoming more of a reality, some appear to be weakening in their support - citing nebulous reasons, such as the prospect of the third party trade going 'underground' and away from regulatory control. These claims are deeply worrying because they suggest a defeatist attitude rather than an ambition to overcome any perceived barriers. It is also a concern that the basic mechanics of the 'puppy trade' are so misunderstood by organisations regarded as 'experts'. In reality, it is very unlikely that third party puppy sellers will continue underground, for the simple reason that to sell sufficient numbers of puppies, vendors have to advertise widely through channels that are highly visible and this exposes their activities. There is more than enough proof that individuals selling large quantities of puppies can be identified and traced, even if they try to evade detection, so the fear of a black market developing is entirely unfounded. Added to this is the fact that puppy buyers are making a one-off purchase, they aim to make responsible choices and they will turn to the most obvious source of puppies. This is in no way comparable to the market for illegal drugs or weapons.
It has been suggested that better regulation of the 'puppy trade' is preferable to an outright ban and a strategy of wholesale licensing of dealers has been proposed as an alternative. If the lack of support for a ban is worrying - the support for licensing is absolutely horrifying, for several reasons. The considerable welfare issues associated with the third party sale of puppies appear to be acknowledged and unanimously accepted, so it seems inconceivable that anyone would suggest the practice be allowed to continue when there is an opportunity to end it. There is absolutely no justification for compromising welfare to ensure supply. Quite the reverse - welfare should be the number one priority when breeding dogs as pets, with all other considerations of secondary importance.
It also seems absurd that a process widely considered ineffective, should be suggested as a proactive measure for tackling welfare problems. While licensing does set a basic minimum benchmark for premises, there is little evidence to indicate that standards are significantly lower in unlicensed or illegal establishments. In fact there are often very striking similarities between licensed and illegally operating facilities, implying that the conditions required by licensing are the barest essentials necessary for sustaining life. Additionally, some high profile case studies that have drawn media attention over the last twelve months show that if illegal selling is taking place, prosecutions will generally result. Depressingly, if the premises are licensed, usually very little if any action is taken.
Much like 'Brexit' the precise details of how licensing would work and as importantly, what it would achieve have not been provided, suggesting a lack of commitment to the proposal. A ban on the sale of puppies though licensed pet shops is a very specific strategy to prohibit a commercial trade in puppies by anyone other than the breeder, with the intention of removing the primary market for puppy farm breeders and preventing the negative impact on the welfare of puppies. If the practice is illegal then it can be enforced by crime prevention agencies and is therefore as enforceable as any other ban. Conversely, the intention of a regulation process has not been clearly defined and there is no clarity on how enforcement would be funded and to what degree it would be implemented. We have been told that licence conditions would be tightened but the practical details are vague. Just how a failing system can be turned around to efficiently protect animals and consumers has not been addressed - yet with all these vital details missing some animal welfare organisations are still incomprehensibly willing to throw support behind it.