Life on the Web
The pet industry should come together to create the best practices for selling pets over the Internet, before regulations harm the industry.
Michael Maddox Charlie Sewell
Internet commerce continues to transform the way we do business. Twenty years ago, there were approximately six million Internet users worldwide; today, those ranks have swelled to encompass over one-third of the world’s seven-billion-plus inhabitants. And that number increases exponentially as emerging markets develop infrastructure, overcoming the digital divide.
The pet industry, for one, has certainly been reshaped by the digital age. More and more pets are being sold via the Internet, as are pet pharmaceuticals, foods and supplies. As a result, record numbers of consumers are patronizing online pet businesses, looking for bargains and information that is only a click away. To keep pace, traditional pet businesses are reconfiguring their models to differentiate their offerings and to identify new customers. What a retail economic catalyst technology has wrought.
But with success comes oversight. Congress has an uncanny ability to know who makes money. It also has an insatiable desire to regulate business success, because many of its members make the assumption that new business opportunities attract bad actors. When the Internet was in its infancy, the prevailing sentiment in Congress was to let it grow unfettered by too many rules that could dampen its economic potential. Unfortunately, as the Internet has matured, we have seen terrorists, pornographers, rogue pharmacies and fraudulent e-retailers ply their wares in cyberspace, creating a clarion call for regulatory oversight. Many in Congress now believe the only way to stop the spread of criminal or questionable behavior, even of sites solely dedicated to legitimate commerce, is to enact a myriad of laws.
Activists want to ban pet sales over the Internet outright. They are organizing, finding signatories for petitions online, generating constituent emails and phone calls to Congress, and engaging in a public relations offensive.They have attracted the attention of Congress.
Speculation about the “tens of thousands” of dogs sold over the Internet was raised as far back as 2005, during testimony before a Congressional subcommittee on federal legislation to amend the Animal Welfare Act. In reality, there is no definitive data detailing how many animals are purchased through this channel. But locating websites that offer various pets for sale is a simple matter. Major search engines will produce hundreds of thousands of hits in response to queries about the availability of dogs, cats, ferrets, reptiles, fish and other pets for sale.
The selling of live animals over the Internet raises concerns about the welfare of the animals themselves and the condition of their health when shipped to a buyer. Furthermore, depending upon the species of animal, shipments across state lines or imports from foreign countries carry legal implications. U.S. and international law often restrict the trade of many species.
Congress’s current emphasis in regulating animal sales over the Internet has focused on amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Different bills have been introduced over the years to ostensibly target the “Internet loophole” in existing law. While the AWA mandates licensure for persons who engage in commerce (for compensation) in the buying or selling of pets, that law exempts certain people, including those who are selling exclusively at retail. The reason for this is that the Act was intended to cover breeders and brokers who are not generally open to the public, as opposed to retailers whose facilities are readily subject to public scrutiny.
Those who sell animals primarily on the Internet, however, do not typically offer this kind of public access. Yet, if they are selling exclusively at retail, they are not required to be licensed under the AWA. In the mind of many members of Congress and numerous other proponents, this creates a loophole in a law that was passed decades before the Internet even existed. The problem that the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) and many others see in various iterations of Congressional legislation—including S. 395/H.R. 847, The Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act or PUPS bill—is that it reaches far beyond the Internet sales that proponents claim they are targeting. Those defending the legislation claim that it becomes difficult to single out only those who engage in Internet sales.
The PUPS bill was introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Majority Whip in the U.S. Senate, and Representative Jim Gerlach (R-PA-6). Support for this measure is increasing. There are now 105 sponsors of the bill in the House of Representatives and 20 sponsors of the Senate companion measure.
Regardless of how an AWA retail exemption might ultimately be amended, the issues surrounding the sale of many animal species will not be addressed in such a bill. That is because the AWA only encompasses warm-blooded animals, so countless reptile, amphibian and aquatic species don’t even enter that conversation. And issues other than animal welfare—such as the legality of trading in certain species—are another conversation entirely. Regulation of animal sales on the Internet is not likely to be an initiative that can be accomplished in one fell swoop. But it is one that has long been coming, and it won’t be going away anytime soon.
Whether or not it ultimately decides to take action on PUPS, little doubt remains that Congress will eventually do more to regulate the Internet, especially when it comes to pets. Even pet products could be targeted. This means that it is incumbent upon the pet industry to implement best management practices now and be prepared to codify reasonable regulations before the politicians develop a regulatory scheme that could severely harm the pet industry.
Michael Maddox is vice president of governmental affairs and general counsel for PIJAC. Charlie Sewell is PIJAC’s executive vice president, external affairs.