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Fight over dog-breeding ballot measure called 'clash of two cultures'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2010 - Amid Wednesday's swift final passage of a bill mandating insurance coverage of autism treatment, and debate over other measures of varying controversy, was a heated fight in the state Senate that consumed the evening and gave another meaning to "going to the dogs."

At issue was an effort largely led by rural senators -- from both parties -- to derail a ballot measure they say would destroy the misunderstood industry of commercial dog breeding.

"We are seeing a clash of two cultures," said state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, as he argued in favor of a bill to block an initiative-petition measure that may well end up on the Nov. 2 ballot. The measure would restrict dog breeders to no more than 50 breeding dogs and mandate that they comply with certain conditions for caring for the dogs, including "adequate rest between breeding cycles."

Backers of the petition turned in more than 190,000 signatures on May 2 -- almost twice the number needed -- to get its dog-breeding restrictions before Missouri voters in November.

At the behest of the dog-breeding industry, the state Senate spent much of the night considering several options, including a counter-proposal to require any ballot measure proposing controls on animal-raising operations to get a two-thirds majority statewide to pass. As it stands, the dog-breeding measure can become law with a simple majority.

For decades, animal protection groups have sought to curb Missouri's "puppy mill" industry, the nation's largest. They point to abusive practices at some operations, such as too frequent breeding of female dogs and poor living conditions of some animals. The Legislature had resisted such efforts, prompting the initiative petition drive. The U.S. Humane Society helped bankroll the signature-gathering campaign.

During Wednesday night's lengthy debate, Shoemyer attempted to present a sympathetic portrait of the two camps in the state's ongoing war over the commercial raising of puppies.

On one side, said Shoemyer, are farmers fighting for a way to preserve their economic viability.

"The vast majority of breeders in my district used to raise hogs," he explained. When they couldn't make a living, in part because of the large corporate pig-raising operations, Shoemyer said they switched to breeding dogs.

One the other side, the senator said, are "out-of-state interests" represented by the U.S. Humane Society. "They're not crazy; they just love their pets," Shoemyer added.

He contended, though, that the backers of the restrictive dog-breeding proposal include many well-to-do urban dwellers "who have never had to make really tough choices in their lives" -- unlike rural farmers struggling to survive by raising dogs instead of hogs.

Most dog-breeding operations, said Shoemyer and his allies, were well run and treated the animals well. State Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, said the ballot measure would only affect the licensed breeders -- not the unlicensed ones that he and Shoemyer said had unfairly given the whole industry a bad name.

The Senate went into recess, and later "at ease," in a multi-hour effort to reach some sort of compromise.

Several of the senators, including Shoemyer, used part of their break to walk over the Missouri House to watch another agriculture debate that was, ironically, related to the fight over puppy mills.

The House was debating, and later adopted, an amendment on agriculture bill to restrict nuisance lawsuits against the large, corporate pig-farming operations that -- to hear Shoemyer -- had prompted many small pig farmers to, in effect, "go to the dogs" to stay on their land.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.