Bill that would ban local laws on zoos and pet stores advances in Iowa Senate

By: - February 23, 2021 2:13 pm

After years of litigation, the legal fight over the court-ordered shutdown of an eastern Iowa zoo continues. (Photo from Iowa District Court exhibits)

Legislation that would prohibit cities and counties from restricting the operation of zoos, pet stores and other businesses that involve animals advanced in the Iowa Senate on Tuesday.

Despite vocal opposition from representatives of Iowa’s cities as well as animal-welfare groups, the three-member Senate Agriculture subcommittee voted unanimously to move Senate Study Bill 1195 to the full committee.

As written, the bill bars cities and counties from enacting any ordinance or rule that seeks to prohibit, or effectively prohibits, the operation of “an animal enterprise or the use of a working animal.”

The bill defines an “animal enterprise” as any zoo and any commercial or academic enterprise that uses or sells animals, or animal products, for profit, food, fiber production, agriculture, education, research or testing. A “working animal” is defined as an animal to perform a specific function in commerce.

The law states that the only test to determine whether a local ordinance effectively prohibits such a business is whether it imposes a “financial hardship” on that business.

Mindy Patterson of the Cavalry Group, an organization that says it advocates for animal-related businesses throughout the nation, voiced support for the bill, saying it was needed to block local efforts that ban “legal, licensed, regulated animal enterprise” in Iowa.

She said the goal of the bill is to “slow down the animal rights’ extremist agenda and their steamroller,” by barring any local ordinances that would ban businesses engaged in animal commerce. She said localities in at least 29 states are working at “breakneck speed across the country” in an effort to ban such businesses.

The Cavalry Group says banning the sale of dogs and cats in pet stores “sets a dangerous precedent and opens the barn door wide open for animal-rights groups to introduce legislation in the future to ban the sale of livestock animals.”

Other supporters of the Senate bill include the Cedar Rapids Kennel Association, Iowa State Dairy Association and Pheasants Forever. Opponents include the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, Iowa State Association of Counties and the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association.

Vanessa Heenan of the Boone Area Humane Society told the subcommittee she is strongly opposed to the bill, noting that in 2018 the city of Boone passed an ordinance that prohibits the retail sale of dogs and cats in stores. Similar bans have been approved in the towns of Stuart and Fraser.

“This bill will allow people to open up pet stores in our town and sell puppy-mill dogs, correct?” Heenan asked subcommittee Chairwoman Annette Sweeney, a Republican from Alden.

“The pet stores are heavily regulated — and define for me what a puppy mill is,” Sweeney replied.

Heenan said puppy mills are large-scale operations that sell animals to whoever wants them and does so for profit.

Sweeney told Heenan the bill would actually “protect” the Boone Area Humane Society since, like pet stores, shelters charge a fee for the adoption of animals. “You are a legitimate business and, who knows who, somebody, they could come in and try to shut you down, too,” Sweeney said.

“There are puppy mills and there are shelters, and to compare the two in that way — that is just the most ignorant comment I have ever heard out of any senator I have ever dealt with in my life,” Heenan said after the meeting. “For her to say, ‘Well, you sell dogs, too’ … Well, we are not breeding dogs in our back building. We are trying to place dogs that are homeless and need help.”

Elizabeth Oreck from the Best Friends Animal Society said her organization opposes the legislation for both animal-welfare and consumer-protection reasons. Dogs purchased from pet stores often come from puppy mills, she said, and are then dumped at shelters due to health problems.

“So to the unsuspecting consumer this frequently results in the purchase of a pet that’s facing an array of immediate veterinary problems or is harboring genetic diseases that surface down the line,” she said. “Commercial pet mills are a serious problem in the U.S., and they are in business primarily to supply pet stores. And although they are regulated by the USDA, the federal standards do not ensure a safe or quality life for dogs. These breeders can legally have more than 1,000 dogs in one facility confined to tiny wire cages for their entire lives, breeding continuously to produce as many puppies as possible for the retail pet trade.”

Mindy Callison, an Iowan who describes herself as an animal lover, told the subcommittee that almost 1,000 Iowans had sent lawmakers emails in recent days objecting to the bill. “These are real Iowans, real voters in your state who have spoken up against this bill,” she said.

Sweeney disputed Callison’s claim, saying, “I clicked on a couple of those, whatever how many emails I got and, no, those were not legitimate addresses in my district,” she said. “At least two of the 500-and-whatever I got, there were two of them that I clicked on, and they were not legitimate.”

Sweeney said the opponents of the bill need to read it. “You know, some of the things that are talked about are overstepping what the bill is really doing … A lot of our things are very heavily regulated in this state.”

Lobbyist Tom Cope, representing the cities of Cedar Falls and Coralville, said he was concerned the bill was “very broad” in scope and could be read as limiting the ability of cities to impose zoning restrictions on zoos or other animal-related businesses.

In response, Sweeney said, “No, it does not have anything to do with zoning. This is just about people with extra activity, that they want to shut down a legitimate business.”

Cope reiterated his concern that the bill is worded too broadly. Daniel Stalder, lobbyist for the Iowa League of Cities, said his organization shares that concern and opposes the bill on local-control grounds.

“The least intrusive government is the government which is closest to the people,” Stalder said. “These decisions should not be made under a golden dome in Des Moines. They should be made in city halls all across the state.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.