Utah bill would kill local laws prohibiting exotic animal circus acts and puppy mills

A new bill would preempt cities and counties from passing any local law that prohibits an animal enterprise.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Several rescue animals including Indy visited City Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Oct. 16, 2018 from the Humane Society of Utah to promote a proposed ordinance which would prohibit pet stores from selling dogs, cats, and rabbits unless the animals were obtained from an animal shelter, control agency, humane society, or non-profit rescue organization.

Utah legislators are targeting local animal regulations with a bill that advocates say would erase about a dozen laws against selling dogs from puppy mills and invalidate Salt Lake County’s restrictions on circus acts with exotic species.

The sweeping proposal, HB476, would preempt local leaders from enacting or enforcing any law that “prohibits or effectively prohibits” the use of a working animal or the operation of an animal enterprise, a term that encompasses everything from farms and ranches to aquariums, pet stores, rodeos and circuses.

Its sponsor, Rep. Joel Ferry, contends that the measure would ensure consistency for businesses and farmers, preventing a confusing patchwork of different local laws across the state.

Under Ferry’s bill, cities and counties could still pass laws relating to pet ownership and the welfare of domestic animals. But the regulation of agriculture, businesses and animal research or testing would be up to state officials, said Ferry, a farmer and rancher from Brigham City.

The proposal’s critics argue the measure would be a significant overreach by legislators — and would be particularly problematic because of the state’s weak animal protection laws, which the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranked 46th in the nation last year.

“Instead of being at 46 out of 50 states, we might make 50 with the way we’re going,” joked Ian Williams, president of the Utah Animal Control Officers’ Association, which is opposing HB476.

A broad coalition of animal organizations has united in opposition to the bill, saying it would sweep away much-needed local regulations that have failed to make any progress at the state level.

On the other hand, Ferry’s support is coming from the Utah Farm Bureau, the state’s department of agriculture and a lobbyist representing pet stores.

The state lawmaker and Wade Garrett of the farm bureau both assert the bill is needed to safeguard traditional agriculture and animal husbandry practices, such as docking lambs’ tails or castrating calves.

“We’re not asking for anything crazy. … It’s not ‘anything goes,’” Garrett told a legislative committee this week. “But some of you may have seen what’s going on in Los Angeles with rodeos. It’s not good when we start doing piecemeal-type of stuff.”

Los Angeles officials are looking at banning electric prods and other shocking devices from rodeos, and bull riders have warned they’ll pull their events out of the city if the prohibition passes.

Lobbyist Kory Holdaway, who represents a business called the Puppy Store, said his client had to leave California after the state began requiring all pet stores to sell dogs, cats and rabbits from rescue organizations rather than breeders.

“The ability to be able to do business with legitimate, law-abiding breeders was taken away from this individual,” he said, adding that HB476 would help “push back on the fringe groups that are adamant in moving from one municipality to another municipality, passing ordinances that prohibit this type of activity.”

However, animal groups said the bill is so broadly written that no one quite knows what the full impact will be, and argue it could hobble local leaders in dealing with everything from food production to mink farms.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Hedlund white mink in pens on Anthony Nelson's farm, Jan. 29, 2022.

For starters, it would roll back local ordinances banning pet stores from selling animals bred in puppy mills, said Elizabeth Oreck, national manager of puppy mill initiatives for the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society. A dozen local governments in Utah, including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, have passed these laws, which she said benefit animals and consumers alike.

Dogs bred in a puppy mill are often sick or have genetic problems, she said, and owners who can’t afford to pay the veterinary bills often relinquish their pets to already-crowded shelters.

“These sweeping bills that have so many unintended and intended consequences are very, very dangerous, and they have the ability to really reverse decades of progress that have been made for animals in Utah and elsewhere,” Oreck said. “And that is not something that we want to see happen in our home state.”

Others worry that Salt Lake County’s ban on wild or exotic animal shows in county-owned buildings could also fall by the wayside of HB467 passes. Mayor Jenny Wilson issued the executive order in 2020 after years of controversy over the Jordan World Circus performances at Salt Lake County’s Equestrian Center.

Rachel Heatley of the Humane Society of Utah said advocates have had more success passing animal welfare laws at the local level than in the Legislature, where she said many officials see even common-sense measures as an attack on agriculture. This already-tense situation is further exacerbated by fringe animal activists, who have at times harassed and threatened state legislators, she said.

“The tragedy of this bill is that some legislators are so blinded by their concern or perhaps disgust and distaste for animal welfare activists that they don’t think about the rest of us who are impacted by this and the rest of our companion animals that are impacted by this,” she said. “It’s like as soon as you say the word ‘animal’ at the Hill, it’s not just that an alarm goes off, but a door shuts.”

Animal control officers such as Williams are worried about the bill eroding local animal welfare laws and making it more challenging for them to resolve community clashes and nuisance complaints.

Ferry, a Republican, says his proposal wouldn’t touch local land use regulations, so even if it passes, cities and counties could still minimize conflicts by controlling where farms and other commercial operations are permitted.

Williams says it’s not that simple.

Most areas develop over time, and certain properties that have long-standing agricultural rights are now in proximity to neighborhoods, he said. City and county leaders lean on local regulations as tools for handling situations that are specific to their communities, he continued.

Williams, animal services director in Sandy, said one couple in his city raises and sells a breed of dog that can be particularly aggressive. While they’ve run their business responsibly so far, Williams said he worries HB476 would prevent him from requiring secure fencing and limiting how many dogs they can breed.

“There is a broad spectrum of animal care professionals here in the state that service the needs based on local needs,” he said. “This takes away that local control.”

But Williams and others worry they might not be able to stop the bill as it whips through the Legislature during the hectic final week of the session — and believe it won’t get the scrutiny it deserves as lawmakers handle a final rush of bills.

Williams said the bill came “out of left field” to the state’s animal control officers and that he hasn’t yet been able to get in touch with Ferry to talk about it. The lawmaker hasn’t reached out to the Humane Society either, Heatley said.

The bill passed through the House on Tuesday by a 43-28 vote and has now moved over to the Senate for consideration.