TAMPA — In May of last year, the Tampa Bay Times asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide the three most recent inspections of 15 puppy breeders who supply Tampa-area stores.
It took nine months, but the reply arrived last week: 54 pages of total blackout.
Every word of every inspection — from the date to the violations — were redacted from the documents provided. Providing "personnel and medical files," the agency said, would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
These records used to be available on the USDA website for anyone to search and find. But in the first month after President Donald Trump took office, the information was scrubbed entirely from the website.
Why does that matter to Floridians? Because state lawmakers are now considering legislation that would null any local ordinance that prohibits the sale of dogs from a USDA-licensed breeder.
Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, on Tuesday morning filed the amendment, which was tacked on to a 125-page bill offered by state agriculture secretary Adam Putnam. The amendment could be voted on as early as Wednesday.
Hillsborough County is one of those localities that bans the sale of dogs, though existing stores were allowed to continue operating. The goal of the ordinance, approved last year, was to block the pipeline of puppy mill dogs into Hillsborough. But as the Times learned last year, USDA-licensed breeder does not mean the facility is not a puppy mill nor does it mean it has a flawless track record.
A Tampa store, All About Puppies, received dogs from several large-scale out-of-state dog breeders with multiple USDA violations discovered at inspection.
One of those suppliers, Puppies Extraordinaire, a Kansas breeder that maintains about 1,000 dogs on site, was cited in 2015 and 2016 for keeping dogs in buildings and enclosures that were not up to code and could potentially cause injury.
At another Kansas breeder, Twin Oaks Kennel, inspectors in 2014 found staffers treating dogs with expired oxytocin. Whispering Oaks Kennel, also in Kansas, had a Shih Tzu in 2014 with an untreated eye infection swollen and crusted from a "slightly intruding point coming out of the pupil." There, dogs were drinking water that was green out of containers with "green slime."
All of that information is based on USDA inspections that were previously available to the public. Under the Trump administration, they are not. And if the Legislature decides to block local puppy mill ordinances, then dog buyers in those localities won't be able to see the condition of the places that bred those pups.
"Having a USDA license for breeding dogs is like having a driver's license," said John Goodwin, the senior director of the Humane Society of the United States Stop Puppy Mills campaign. "You get to hold onto it even with a number of citations, except now, no one knows what those citations are. The worst people in the world could be selling to pet stores, and no one is the wiser."
The Florida Association of Counties opposes the amendment as the latest example of Tallahassee stripping local governments of power.
The amendment ensures that pet businesses that have operated for decades won't be shut down due to changes in local rules, said Ron Book, the lobbyist representing pet stores pushing for this amendment. He defended the USDA-license process for breeders as effective in shutting down truly heinous puppy mills.
However, he said his clients do not support the USDA blocking public access to inspection.
"We support open records and open communication on those things," Book said. "We believe the public is well served by openness."