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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Treating Animal Shelters Like Puppy Mills

In most states, nonprofit animal shelters and rescue groups are praised for their efforts to find homeless dogs and cats new and loving homes. They are not regarded as ordinary commercial enterprises any more than a food bank or a battered women’s shelter. But in Missouri, under the new regulations proposed by the state Department of Agriculture, nonprofit shelters and rescues will be required to pay an increased license fee and a new tax for each dog or cat they successfully adopt out—as if they were, say, selling cars or lawnmowers, rather than providing an essential service for our communities. If this short-sighted rule is finalized, Missouri would be the only state in the nation to take such a shameful and harmful step.

The economic downturn is having ripple effects in nearly every part of American life, but the impact on animal shelters has been especially acute. Struggling families are relinquishing more dogs and cats to shelters, as they find they can no longer afford the costs of pet care, or they are evicted from their homes and cannot find pet-friendly housing. At the same time, municipal governments are cutting local services, meaning that private humane organizations have to carry more of the burden. And third, because of the economic downturn, charitable giving is on the decline and humane organizations are struggling to make ends meet. It’s a triple whammy for animal shelters—greater demand but fewer resources.

Dog_at_shelter_270x224 Add to that the recent natural disasters in Joplin and southeast Missouri, and many shelters and rescue groups in the state are already facing dire financial straits. Now these life-saving organizations will be required to pay as much as $2,500 every year to the state coffers, even though these private groups are helping the state by providing an essential service. These are the same fees and taxes imposed on for-profit, large-scale, commercial dog breeders, which are the very organizations that contribute to the problems that the shelters must contend with. Shelters and rescues serve the community, and are not in the business of making a profit by breeding and selling dogs commercially. They are handling a problem not of their own making.  They should not be put into the same category and required to pay the same amount to the state as commercial puppy mills. 

While it may make good economic sense to impose scaling fees on businesses (in this case, commercial breeding enterprises) based on the volume of puppies sold, in the nonprofit context it makes no sense. As commercial breeders sell more dogs, they make more money. The same is not true for charitable organizations—as more animals move in and out, it requires more labor and more resources. Animal shelters exist to provide care and housing to homeless pets, while trying to find them loving homes. Charging a shelter a per animal fee effectively penalizes the organization for its success in adopting out animals, and is a disincentive for the group to perform well. Additionally, every dollar these charitable groups are forced to spend on this new tax and increased license fee means fewer resources to care for animals and to place them in new homes. 

This is not only unreasonable, but it’s also penny-wise and pound-foolish. If nonprofit animal shelters and rescue groups are unable to perform services for the community—sheltering animals, providing adoptions, and reducing pet overpopulation through spaying and neutering—a greater burden will fall on the shoulders of Missouri taxpayers and public animal care and control agencies. With no one to care for stray dogs and cats, the demands on law enforcement, county health officials, and animal control will grow, not to mention the potential costs of dealing with dog bites or a rabies epidemic. And who is it that handles so many dogs seized from illegally operating puppy mills: again, to a considerable degree, it’s the private shelters, cleaning up the mess that others have made.

Ironically, while Missouri officials are finding ways to strip away incentives for shelters and rescues to find homes for homeless dogs and cats, lawmakers in other states are seeking to do just the opposite. A bill recently introduced by Pennsylvania State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, following another in a previous legislative session by California State Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, would provide a tax credit to people who adopt from in-state shelters or rescues. This not only provides an incentive to the public to adopt, but is also a proactive step to reducing pet overpopulation. It is a shame to see the “Show Me State” showing the country how little the government values the service provided by the state’s dedicated shelters and rescue groups.

Shelters and rescues are performing a service for all Missouri citizens, and shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as commercial puppy mills—those who are not working tirelessly to solve the problem, but are in fact adding to the problem and to the cost of government by churning out puppies and flooding the marketplace. The Missouri Department of Agriculture has the authority to allow a hardship waiver for this tax or to reduce this license fee. If you live in Missouri, please contact the agency before September 30 and tell them to protect shelters and rescue groups by euthanizing this new tax.



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