Media watch: Puppy mill violations point up weak animal welfare laws

Japan tends to go through intense phases with regard to popular breeds of pet dogs. About 50-60 years ago it was the spitz, and 20-30 years ago you couldn’t pass a dog run without stumbling over a dozen or so chihuahua. Right now the dominant breed is overwhelmingly the toy poodle.

The ubiquity of certain breeds points to the widespread and often lucrative enterprise of pet breeding, which was unregulated in Japan only until recently, and even the new laws may not be entirely effective in protecting animals. An article that appeared last month in the economic magazine Toyo Keizai by pet journalist Mika Sakane took one example of a breeder in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, as representative of the business in general. The breeder, a man named Koji Momose, was arrested, along with some employees, in mid-December on suspicion of violating the animal welfare law. One of his facilities in the Nakayama district of the city contained 360 dogs confined to enclosures of differing sizes stacked four to six cages high. These cages, some of which held more than one dog, were invariably filthy, and almost all the animals were ill or injured in some way. A few were blind and many had trouble breathing. It turns out that Momose had other facilities and police estimated the total number of dogs in his care was around 940. Due to “lack of workers,” according to a statement made by the breeder, these other facilities were in no better shape than the one in Nakayama, and Sakane reports that Momose had talked to other media several days before his arrest admitting that he himself regularly performed C-sections on dogs to deliver puppies, even though he is not a licensed veterinarian. Moreover, he did not anesthetize the dogs when he operated, though he says he did administer “sedatives.” When asked where he learned how to perform C-sections, he said he had watched real veterinarians do it. A representative of the local sanitation department, which is in charge of animal welfare, told the press that “sedatives” are not the same as anesthesia in veterinary surgery. 

Sakane betrays in her reporting the kind of disgust toward the case that you would expect from an animal lover, saying that it is easy to imagine the dogs Momose operated on screaming in pain and then stating definitively that such an “immoral” breeder is only the tip of the iceberg. Not only does Momose maintain a filthy environment for his charges, he neglects to provide them with any chance for exercise, or physical care for that matter. Many of the dogs had overgrown claws and matted fur. Those that were obviously sick had never received any medical treatment. 

The Momose case might be a good chance to test a new national set of regulations for “agents who attend to animals for sale” that was passed in April of last year, except that some won’t go into effect until 2024. The regulations are part of a policy enacted in June 2019 with a revision to the animal welfare law that is meant to crack down on irresponsible breeders. The new regulations set clear standards for citing breeders when they violate the law with regard to their animals’ welfare so that local governments can easily check their businesses for proper handling practices. The main improvement in the law is that the regulations set specific minimum standards for cage sizes and ratio of workers to cared-for animals. It also limits the age of animals used for reproduction as well as the number of litters they have. More to the point, the regulation says that only licensed vets can perform C-sections. (Though the article doesn’t explain under what circumstances C-sections are required with breeder animals.) Sakane says that the careful wording of this last term shows that Momose isn’t the only “bad breeder” doing his own surgical work. Apparently, breeders also administer vaccinations themselves, another procedure that can only be done by a licensed vet. She goes on to relate an interview she did some years ago with a breeder in Fukuoka who bought vaccines and syringes in bulk to save money, and that the breeder got these supplies through a veterinarian. In May of last year, a “pet salon owner” was arrested for administering vaccinations to dogs without a license, and it was discovered that the person obtained the vaccines through normal channels with a medical wholesaler. 

The head of the Matsumoto public animal shelter told Sakane that his department took the Momose case very seriously and that they would start monitoring other pet agents very closely, though Sakane seems skeptical since local governments aren’t really equipped to address the problem properly. Momose, as it happens, had already been inspected 9 times during the four years ending in April 2021. Obviously, the problems for which he was arrested in December must have already been apparent, but the city did nothing, saying that they didn’t find “clear violations” at the time.

That’s because breeders have always operated in a gray area, and while the new regulations are designed to close loopholes and give the authorities clear criteria for citing irresponsible practices, citations alone won’t shut down improper breeding businesses, which have to re-register their operations every five years. If they are cited, they can easily restart their business once the fine is paid or the sentence is completed. Sakane also points out that in order to effectively carry out the new regulations they have to inspect target businesses on a random, unannounced basis. They also have to encourage neighbors to report suspicious activities by breeders, because many residents are afraid to do so owing to fears that they might create “bad relationships” in their communities. (There is no indication in the article how police were directed to Momose’s operations.)

But the real problem is in the pet distribution system. Anyone can be a breeder. There is no license or certification required. All you have to do is register and pay a fee. Breeders do not have to take a test on ethics and responsibilities. They do not have to prove they have any specialized knowledge about breeding and raising animals. The purpose of the revision was to inculcate a “spirit of cherishing pets,” which suggested that such a spirit was not necessarily promoted previously. It is, of course, assumed that anyone who buys a pet does so out of the desire for animal companionship, but such a sentiment can take many forms and be based on impulses that do not necessarily place the welfare of the pet as the supreme condition of the transaction, especially when money is involved. France, for example, recently passed a law that would do away with the selling of cats and dogs by the year 2024. Such a law effectively will erase the pet breeding industry. The anti-pet-sales movement is spreading throughout the world, and there are many in Japan who would like to see pet stores outlawed, including TV celebrity Aya Sugimoto, who runs an animal welfare group called Eva. She sent a petition to the Matsumoto prosecutors’ office asking it to indict Momose on the more severe charge of inflicting injury on animals that could lead to death. As it stands, he’s only been charged with animal abuse, a crime that comes with comparatively light penalties. Even the purposeful killing of animals draws relatively easy punishment: a maximum of 5 years in prison or ¥5 million in fines. The prosecutor has refrained from commenting on Sugimoto’s petition, though he understands the “seriousness of the matter.”

It should be noted that these sorts of breeding businesses, known as puppy or kitten mills, have been booming since the COVID pandemic materialized, since people restricted to their homes have looked to pets for companionship. The problem is that a good many people only want certain breeds of pets and select them as they would a new wardrobe or automobile. It won’t be until the authorities acknowledge that the sale of animals itself encourages cruel practices that these cruel practices will start to be the exception rather than the rule. 

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