James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Secrecy started in the barn, moved to the kennel

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: August 25, 2014 - 10:02 AM

My Sunday column (linked here and pasted below) described the shroud of secrecy that the Legislature agreed to place around its new program to regulate commercial cat and dog breeders. That was achieved with one sentence added to Section 13 (the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act) in an existing provision (below) for "animal premises data." 

(a) The following data collected and maintained by the Board of Animal Health related to registration and identification of premises and animals under chapter 35, are classified as private or nonpublic:(1) the names and addresses;
(2) the location of the premises where animals are kept; and
(3) the identification number of the premises or the animal.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health is tasked with working with livestock farmers to try to eradicate disease. The Legislature allowed hogs, turkeys, horses and all the others to keep their addresses unlisted, and now they've extended that privilege to commercially-raised dogs and cats as well. 

Here's the column:

This month, the state Board of Animal Health posted a list of the first seven licensed dog and cat breeders in Minnesota, including A maze’n Farmyard and Dog Gone Cute Puppies.

That’s the sum total of the information available to the public under the state’s new program to oversee commercial breeders. The Legislature made everything else secret.

The address, owner, number of animals: all confidential.

When inspectors look for violations at a kennel, their reports aren’t public.

If conditions are so appalling that the state revokes a pet breeder’s license, Minnesotans have no legal right to know about it.

Day-care centers, nail salons, nursing homes, lawyers, chiropractors and every other regulated profession and facility in Minnesota seem to thrive with their licensing records open to the public. Yet the industry of breeding cats and dogs is apparently so sensitive that it cannot survive the same scrutiny.

To understand how this happened, I talked to some folks at theBoard of Animal Health, who said they took no position on the secrecy issue when the bill was under negotiation. They sent me to Belinda Donley, the current president of the Minnesota Pet Breeders Association.

Donley raises miniature schnauzers and cairn terriers (the breed that gave us Toto from the Wizard of Oz) in Park Rapids, Minn. She blames what she calls “ARs,” short for animal rights activists, for creating such a hostile environment that her industry demanded privacy in its dealings with government.

Breeders are terrified that inspection reports could be seized upon and blown out of proportion by unscrupulous activists, Donley said.

“If they come to inspect me, and they find some feces laying there, because I hadn’t been out to clean yet today, I don’t want to be written up for that,” Donley said. “I don’t want it out on the Internet. That’s where that data privacy comes in.”

Besides, she said, many breeders are also licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose records are public. If a breeder is truly irresponsible, then they will face criminal charges, in which case the whole situation becomes public, she said. Otherwise, “until it’s criminal, it’s private.”

That’s the way it has been, and story after story of skeletal puppies, disgusting cages and breeders charged with animal cruelty are what motivated the Legislature, after a half-dozen years, to extend big government into kennels and catteries. Yet effective regulation depends on help from the public, who know things that inspectors don’t and also can evaluate how well an agency is doing its job. That can’t happen without the two-way sharing of information.

The bill’s sponsors in the House and Senate aren’t thrilled with the secrecy, but they say consenting to it was the only way to get the law passed. Rep. John Lesch, a St. Paul DFLer, said that any enforcement actions against commercial breeders will become public if they get into court, but he admits that the privacy provision gave him and others “heartburn.”

“I really don’t like that kind of thing because I think this information ought to be public,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “People supporting the bill had to swallow hard to accept this.”

Marty said he expects the Legislature will revisit this issue. Until that happens, other than the name list, the Board of Animal Health will keep a lid on all information about its breeder licensing. The law does allow it to release information if doing so “will aid in the law enforcement process or the protection of public or animal health or safety.”

We just have to trust the state to make that decision for us.

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