I love dogs. I can't imagine my life without them.
Those of us who are owned by dogs know the rewards: Dogs love unconditionally; they love the people we really are, not those we try to be; they forgive and forget every slight; and they treasure every moment they are with us. They exist to be our companions, our guardians, our friends, and we should be no less for them.
As executive director of the Humane Society of North Central Iowa, I deal every day with pets left homeless by owners who were either irresponsible or unrealistic in their ability to care for an animal.
So imagine my dismay when I read these recent inspection reports from just two of Iowa's more than 400 federally licensed dog breeding facilities:
''White male poodle (ID unknown). Approximately 90 percent of the dog's body is covered with heavily matted hair. The licensee stated that she was unable to remove the animal from its enclosure for closer evaluation or to scan his microchip due to his temperament.''
'''Cagney,' a female Siberian husky, ID unknown. She has an approximately 6-inch-by-6-inch area of complete hair loss on her right hip. She also is very thin with readily visible bony structures on her hips, backbone and rib cage.''
''An accumulation of dirt, grime, and fresh rodent droppings is present on a corner post ... an accumulation of hair, dirt and grime is present on the center cross bar of five stacked cages housing a total of seven dogs."
''The 'little dog trailer' does not have sufficient lighting to allow for the routine inspection and cleaning of the facility and observation of the dogs. The majority of the windows in the trailer have been covered and the licensee stated that there was no further artificial lighting present in the trailer. The inspectors had a difficult time evaluating the condition of the animals and identifying non-compliant items in the facility without the aid of flashlights.''
There are many professional breeding kennels in Iowa where dogs are well cared for. But when companion animals are treated as inexcusably as those described above, these breeders are operating puppy mills.
A puppy mill is a place where puppies are mass-produced for quantity and profit. In puppy mills, breeding dogs live their entire lives overcrowded in small wire cages or other makeshift enclosures, deprived of nurturing human contact and exposed to extreme elements.
They are almost never removed from their cages except for breeding, and are bred every heat cycle until their bodies wear out. When that happens, they are often shot, abandoned or, rarely, relinquished to animal rescue organizations.
Iowa is ranked third in the nation in the number of licensed dog breeding facilities, with more than 400 facilities housing more than 23,000 adult breeding dogs. Some have hundreds of dogs and a few have more than 2,000.
Only six federal inspectors oversee 400 Iowa facilities to ensure proper care of more than 23,000 dogs. In USDA inspections conducted from January 2007 through August 2009, 59 percent of breeders were cited for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
However, there is no funding source for regular inspections and, when they do occur, few violators are sanctioned or lose their licenses. None of the breeders cited above were fined or suspended; they simply had to correct the violation before the inspectors returned.
Iowa has inspectors who oversee state-licensed breeders, brokers and animal shelters, but under the current law, they are prohibited from inspecting federally licensed kennels.
A bill pending in the Iowa Legislature would allow state inspectors to inspect federally licensed kennels after a complaint has been made by the public.
The bill was introduced through the work of Iowa Voters for Companion Animals, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving dog-breeding operation oversight. Adjacent states -including Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska - have already enacted similar laws.
To cover program costs, the proposed Iowa law calls for an increase in licensure fees from $20 annually - an amount set in 1988 - to $175 per year.
Known as ''Spirit's Law,'' the bill is named for a 9-year-old female terrier purchased by an Iowa rescue group at a dog auction in Missouri. Spirit's owner, an Iowa breeder, failed numerous state inspections to obtain an Iowa license. Rather than improve his operation, he applied for, and received, a federal license, making him untouchable by Iowa inspectors.
Tragically, Spirit did not survive the neglect and torture she had suffered for years. But her ''spirit'' will live on in the thousands of Iowa dogs that will be protected by this legislation.
One may think that this is a law that every legislator would find easy to support, but this legislation is not without controversy. Some agricultural interests oppose the bill due to concerns that animal rights activists will use this law as a springboard to restrict livestock production.
Dogs are not livestock and shouldn't be treated as such. Dogs have been bred for centuries to have a special bond with humans, to provide love, companionship and comfort to us. They need human contact and nurturing.
There is no question that livestock should be treated humanely, but hogs and cattle are not companion animals. The Humane Society of North Central Iowa is interested in the welfare and responsible breeding of pets; we have no intention of interfering in livestock operations.
Federally licensed dog breeders who treat their animals with care and compassion have nothing to fear from this law. In fact, ''Spirit's Law'' could put irresponsible breeders out of business, increasing the market for puppies from reputable breeders.
How you can help
We can all play a role in ensuring that Iowa's breeding dogs are treated humanely.
First of all, call or e-mail your state representative and senator and ask them to support ''Spirit's Law.'' Secondly, if you are thinking of adding a puppy or dog to your household, keep these tips in mind:
Refuse to buy from a pet store or large-scale commercial breeder.
If you visit a commercial kennel, ask to see the puppy's parents and where they live.
Ask if the kennel has a program for regular veterinary care and request the name of their attending veterinarian.
Review their license and most-recent inspection reports. If they won't show you these things, do not purchase a puppy from them.
Consider adopting a shelter dog. Shelters are wonderful places to find the perfect pet for your family.
When you do adopt, always spay or neuter your pet as recommended by your veterinarian.
Jeremy Bentham, an 18th-century philosopher said it best: ''The question is not 'can they reason?' nor 'can they talk?', but rather, 'can they suffer?''' As Iowans, it is the very least we can do to make sure that, in our state, no breeding dogs will endure years of suffering in cramped, cold, dark and dirty cages.
For more information about ''Spirit's Law,'' visit iavotersforcompanionanimals.org for additional resources as well as e-mail links and mailing addresses for your state legislators. They need to hear from you.
Laurie Hagey is executive director of the Humane Society of North Central Iowa.
Editor's note. "Spirit's Law passed the House this past week and is awaiting action in the Senate.