By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – The Department of Agriculture suspended its pet shop inspections last October for budget reasons, and animal welfare groups remain concerned about pets’ well-being.
Jennifer Robertson, public relations coordinator for the Michigan Humane Society, which operates animal adoption centers in Detroit, Rochester Hills and Westland, said her organization is concerned with the state’s decision.
“It’s important when there is a situation of commercial handling of pets that there is a place for consumers to go to express their concerns and complaints,” Robertson said. “The Department of Agriculture had a strong set of regulations in place, as well as field veterinarians on staff who were able to investigate and validate concerns.”
Jennifer Holton, public information officer for the department, said state veterinarians have inspected pet shops since 1969.
Eliminating inspections is saving $150,000 in personnel and travel costs this year, she said.
Holton said the department no longer supplies pet shop health certificates and any pet shops complaints are redirected to local animal control agencies.
However, Robertson at the Michigan Humane Society said such agencies are too busy with other responsibilities.
“Local animal control agencies and cruelty investigation officers are already very busy, and this decision has further increased their workload,” Robertson said.
Steve Halstead, the state veterinarian, agrees.
“They’re struggling with their budgets the same as we are on the state level,” Halstead said. “They probably aren’t able to allocate the same resources we were.”
Sue Jeroue, chief animal control officer at the Macomb County Animal Shelter, said the shelter has not received more pet shop complaints since the state suspended inspections.
“Here it hasn’t been a big issue,” Jeroue said, saying the shelter has investigated complaints about a couple of pet shops, but none were valid.
Halstead said the Agriculture Department didn’t want to suspend inspections, but “it was the reality of the economy.”
He said most violations noted during pet shop inspections weren’t serious, with inspectors checking for proper pet housing, ventilation, food storage, health care and disease management. Pet stores were required to have an initial inspection to get an operating license, and the department continued unannounced inspections afterward.
“Most stores were compliant, but there were a few we had to ride pretty close,” Halstead said.
Holton said typical violations included poor record-keeping and failure to provide animals with enough water.
Halstead said without the inspections, stores might not comply as well with regulations.
“It’s general human nature,” Halstead said. “When you know you’re being watched and we could potentially drop in any day without you knowing, you tend to manage your shop properly. Without inspections, there could be some slippage.”
Cori Menkin, senior director of legislative initiatives for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York City, said her group is disappointed in the decision.
“It’s critically important that operations that house live animals are seen by someone,” she said.
Menkin said most pet shops comply with sanitation requirements so the public won’t be turned off.
“Most stores keep the front part clean at least or they won’t sell any animals,” Menkin said, “but some have quarantine rooms in the back for sick animals.”
She said the lack of inspections carries the potential for conditions to worsen.
“Before, an inspector could come in and if they found an infraction, they would tell the owner to fix it by a certain date,” Menkin said.
Halstead, the state veterinarian, said he hopes inspections will be reinstated to protect animal well-being and because they help the department monitor for emerging diseases.
“It’s a very important program for the welfare of our animals and part of our responsibility for public health,” Halstead said. “We have to watch for diseases animals have that they could potentially give humans.”
The pet shop program suspension came in a round of budget cuts that also eliminated funding for horse riding stable inspections, seed testing and dairy product testing to ensure products meet their labeled nutritional claims.
Holton said the department continues to inspect animal shelters and she hopes the pet shop inspection program will receive funding again when the economy picks up.