What the USDA Purge of Animal Welfare Records Means to One Michigan Group: An Interview with Puppy Mill Awareness Founder

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By Molly Tamulevich

For the past eight years, members of Puppy Mill Awareness of Southeast Michigan (PMA) have stood outside with picket signs and flyers. They have commissioned sculptures at the Plymouth Ice Festival and set up shop at art fairs and public jubilees. You may have seen them at the state capital lobbying for stricter breeding laws, or at your city council meeting contesting the ethics of selling sick dogs for profit. Last Friday, however, an action by the United States Department of Agriculture put PMA, and many other advocacy organizations, at a huge disadvantage. Without warning, all reports of animal welfare, including animal abuse, were purged from the USDA website, leaving many activists questioning how to effectively continue their work.

“It happened quickly. There was no warning.”

“It happened quickly” explains Pam Sordyl, PMA’s founder and chief organizer. “There was no warning.” Before the records were removed, it was easy for the average citizen to look at inspection reports of any USDA licensed facility, including farms, breeders, and laboratories. Sordyl and her peers used the data as a foundational part of their work. For example, she recalls, a few years ago, an annual inspection was conducted with a Michigan breeder and a poodle was found dead in her crate. There was no mention of follow up actions, so PMA called the inspector and asked if the violation had been reported to local animal control officials. It had not. Within a few weeks of PMA’s involvement, the facility’s license was revoked.

Sordyl has plenty of examples detailing how inspection reports have been critical to animal welfare in Michigan: the multiple failed inspections of a dog breeder who still sells to a large chain of pet stores, the tiger display that was permitted to operate in Sterling Heights despite a troubling track record, a trail of sick puppies sold for large sums of money. PMA’s campaign against Petland in Novi has drawn heavily on the reports, many of which cite grisly medical details that paint a picture of what life is like for a breeding dog. At a single breeding facility in Ohio, it was observed that:

“one dog was missing its left eye and the right eye had a 2-3 mm attached mass with a thick discharge. 
Other observations included dog limping; a dog with a cloudy eye; dogs with diarrhea; a dog with runny 
nose and coughing; a dog with thick, hairless skin covering her tail and around her rear end and a walnutsized firm mass in her left rear mammary gland; a dog with scabs and ulcerations on his muzzle; a dog 
that was underweight. The licensee stated the underweight dog had weaned puppies about three weeks ago, 
but hasn’t gained much weight as she fights with other dog over food.”

“… from picketing to lobbying”

It’s reports like these that have enabled PMA to make the transition from picketing to lobbying. In 2015, despite opposition from retail giant Petco, PMA helped persuade the Eastpointe city council to pass a Humane Pet Acquisition ordinance prohibiting the retail sale of puppies, kittens, ferrets, and rabbits. In spite of Petco’s economic clout, USDA inspections of Marshall Farms, the company’s ferret supplier (which was proven to be housing 55,000 ferrets and 22,000 adult dogs) allowed Sordyl to make the argument that if a family wouldn’t buy an animal from this supplier, Petco shouldn’t either. The ordinance went into effect September first, 2015.

In states with hundreds of licensed breeders, USDA animal welfare reports helped to establish patterns of abuse and neglect so that advocacy groups could pinpoint the most dangerous breeders, retailers, and organizations and raise awareness of their practices. While Michigan has only five USDA licensed breeders, the public archive allowed activists to look at out of state supply chains for local retailers. Every January, PMA publishes reports that list which states have the most puppy mills and licensed breeders. This national transparency helped connect the dots between breeders, brokers, and retail outlets.

Strangely enough, some of Michigan’s pet stores claim the removal also negatively effects them because it prevents them from thoroughly researching their suppliers. Without the reports, it is nearly impossible to tell which breeders comply with animal welfare laws and which do not. (Sordyl says, “Of course, we always tell families, they should see the conditions and meet the parents. Retailers have never been responsible in choosing commercial breeders, not here in Michigan! These reports should not substitute an on site visit.”)

Official responses to critics of the purge have encouraged activists to pursue information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but according to Sordyl, a single request can take over a year. FOIA requests require more time and effort from the government and are far less cost-efficient than the old system, which allowed individuals to research on their own.

With one decree, an agency responsible for regulating animal welfare has become an agency that sequesters information about animal welfare. Puppy Mill Awareness will keep picketing, they will keep investigating, and they will continue to work on behalf of Michigan’s dogs and puppies. For the foreseeable future, however, they will have to do so with no support from the very agency whose regulations they are helping to enforce.