A new law requiring state licensing of commercial pet breeders sits under a cloud of uncertainty, while those trying to enforce it express frustration -- even fear -- over the resistance they're encountering.
The law has engendered vehement protest from some breeders, who claim they are already regulated, and that this is a thinly veiled effort by animal rights activists to put breeders out of business.
The Oklahoma Commercial Pet Breeders Act was passed into law in 2010, amended in 2011, and now faces significant change by state lawmakers in 2012.
According to the statute, anyone with 11 or more breeding females is considered a commercial breeder and must be inspected and licensed by the state. Mandatory fees for license applications and inspections can total from $375 to $1,020, depending on the size and nature of the breeding operation.
There is no firm number of commercial breeders in Oklahoma, but the Pet Breeders Board estimates the number to be between 1,000 and 1,200. Fewer than 300 currently are licensed by the state.
Prior to the law's passage, there was no oversight of breeders at the state level. Breeders selling their animals out of state were already required to be inspected and licensed by the USDA, but Oklahoma animal welfare advocates say that process is inconsistent, and allows many sub-standard breeders to operate under the radar.
Under the new law, two investigators have the sole function of conducting inspections and enforcing the law's state licensing requirements. The investigators are not commissioned, however, meaning they must recruit local law enforcement to assist them in situations where breeders choose not to cooperate and allow them on their property.
The actions of the Board's investigators was one of the grounds on which Charles Evans, a commercial breeder in LeFlore County, filed a lawsuit last year, challenging the Act's constitutionality. Evans claimed, among other things, the law is overly broad and is being arbitrarily enforced.
The lawsuit, Evans vs. Board of Commercial Pet Breeders, was cited by numerous other breeders as the reason they were not going through the process of getting licensed by the state, since the act requiring the licensing might be ruled unconstitutional.
But, on February 13, LeFlore County District Judge Jonathan Sullivan ruled against Mr. Evans and said the law is constitutional.
See the judge's ruling.
Still, as one challenge to the law went away, another appeared. Since Sullivan's ruling, a contingent of rural lawmakers has introduced legislation that would disband the Pet Breeders Board, and move the inspection and licensing responsibilities to the state Department of Agriculture.
While these challenges play out, the Board's investigators, Tracy Lyons and Shawna Cornish, remain committed to enforcing the law that is presently on the books.
"This is something that Oklahoma needs," said Lyons. "And the person to do this job needs to be passionate about it."
Lyons and Cornish say they are passionate about it, which has helped them deal with the defiance they say they routinely encounter from breeders suspicious of their intentions.
"They hear a lot of rumors," said Cornish. "We're not out to shut people down and seize their dogs and euthanize them. That's not what we're about."
Angel Soriano, Chairman of the Pet Breeders Board, says the only breeders who should be concerned with the new law are those operating inhumanely.
"If you're running a good operation, if you're running a clean operation, if you care about what you're doing, there's nothing in [the law] that's offensive. There's nothing in there that is going to break an operation," Soriano said.
But in LeFlore County, which, according to the Pet Breeders Board, has one of the highest concentrations of breeders in the state, breeders like Tom Miller aren't convinced.
"If I had a soul food restaurant, I wouldn't want a vegan organization coming and doing my inspections, and that's basically what we got," Miller said.
Miller and other breeders say they don't trust the Board's investigators to conduct fair inspections, which is why, he says, he "cordially" refused to allow them onto his property.
"I came to the gate, introduced myself," said Miller. "They said, 'We're here to inspect your dogs.' I said, 'no, we're not gonna do that today'"
In McCurtain County, Lyons and Cornish were recently visiting with the owners of what they suspected to be an unlicensed commercial breeding operation. While talking with them, they observed someone load up several dogs into a van and drive off. They speculate it was an attempt to lower the number of female dogs at the property below eleven.
With the help of a local sheriff's deputy, the person was pulled over, and a video camera attached to Lyons' shirt recorded this exchange:
Lyons: "We're not just gonna go away because you drive off. You're going to be cited--"
Van driver: "These are my dogs--"
Lyons: "Well, you're going to be cited."
Van driver: "I have the paperwork at my house, and I have kennels, too."
Lyons: "Well, you can show it to the Attorney General."
Van driver: "Fine. I don't believe y'all have any right being up in my business."
A week earlier, their cameras captured more than 60 dogs living in kennels in a sea of feces and debris in Okmulgee County.
Both inspectors believe what they're doing is right; protecting animals and consumers from bad breeders.
"These animals they're selling are sick," said Lyons. "Or they're getting sold animals that are different than they thought they were."
"People need to do what's right, and we're here to make sure that happens," Cornish said.
But they're learning the job comes not only with frustration, but with risk.
During a visit to the home of another LeFlore County commercial breeder last November, Lyons and Cornish had what they say was their closest call. They say the owner, Colene Fisher, refused to cooperate with them and barred them from her property.
Shortly afterward, while sitting in their vehicle outside Fisher's locked gate, the two say they heard a gunshot.
"It was a frightening moment," Cornish recalled.
"You don't know what their intent is," said Lyons. "Are they capable of shooting at you? Are they capable of putting a bullet in you? Who knows."
Fisher told us she knows nothing about a gunshot.
In a phone conversation, Fisher, the owner of Fisher Mountain Puppies, acknowledged kicking Lyons and Cornish off her property.
"I'm a single mother with two children. I don't just let any and everybody come on my property."
As for the gunshot, Fisher insisted she didn't shoot at anyone.
Two days later, a worker at the Pet Breeders Board office in Oklahoma City reported taking a call from someone complaining about the investigators driving around in LeFlore County. The person reportedly threatened, "If they come around to my place, I'm gonna kill them. And then I'm gonna come there and kill all y'all."
Pet Breeders Board Chairman Soriano says each Board member has received death threats.
"We have, indeed; on a couple of different occasions," said Soriano, "And the unfortunate part is they're not being investigated."
LeFlore County District Attorney Jeff Smith says it was his feeling that the threat that allegedly came from his county was not serious.
"Quite honestly, if I had a dime for every time somebody ran their mouth about threats," Smith said, suggesting such comments are commonplace in his jurisdiction.
Smith says he didn't investigate the threat and doesn't remember a report of any shots being fired. He says he's done his best to assist the Board's investigators, but there's only so much manpower he's willing to devote to investigating unlicensed pet breeders.
"I've got murderers. I've got rapists. I've got drug dealers. I've got manufacturers. I've got thieves," said Smith. "And in southeastern Oklahoma, that's going to take priority."
Smith says it was a mistake to pass a law creating an investigative arm to the Pet Breeders Board and not give it police authority.
LeFlore County Sheriff Bruce Curnutt wholeheartedly agrees.
"We're pretty much covered up, as it is," said Curnutt. "We certainly don't have much time to be driving around and investigating commercial pet breeders."
Like Smith, Curnutt says he's willing to help Lyons and Cornish when he can, but says the law was poorly written, and is simply not a high priority for him.
"That's what I don't understand at all," Curnutt explained. "If these agencies are to enforce state laws, then they should be commissioned by the state of Oklahoma and have police powers."
"I love animals as much as anybody," said D.A. Smith. "But also my job is to make sure that we can enforce the law as it's written, and some of the laws... have holes in them."