It occurs to every kid of a certain age. Let’s say the kid has a hamster, and then two, and they make babies. New value, new commodities. This is fantastic! Maybe the kid can breed hamsters, sell them, and make a few bucks. The capital investment is low and the returns are potentially very high and ongoing. Forget those expensive pet stores. Anyone can get into this business. And especially with the Internet, wow, there is real potential here!
Remember that the commercial marketplace is not only about groceries, shoes, computers, and services. There are markets in everything. Anything that one human wants and other can assist in delivering can become a vibrant market and contribute to the flourishing of life on Earth. The market for pets is vibrant and ever more people can enter it and succeed.
Hold it right there. Maybe you thought that doing such things would be a right in the land of the free. It turns out that pet breeding and selling have been heavily regulated by law since 1966 (thanks, LBJ). All commercial breeders and sellers must be licensed and obey several severe rules on equipment, contracts, qualifications, conditions, and much more, and these have been constantly ramped up over the decades, year by year.
To be sure, the law has traditionally exempted — the terms are rather narrow — home breeders and sellers under the category of “retail store,” a fact which has undoubtedly annoyed the big players in the industry. The big guys never like competition. In 1995, when the Internet opened for business, these smaller institutions suddenly enjoyed new access to markets. Dogs could be shifted from one kennel to another depending on markets. People could sell pets through online contacts.
Maybe you remember the highflying Internet stock from the late 1990s called Pets.com. The dot-com bust laid waste to this institution, which had no capital and no profit at all. But reflect on the reason why it soared to the top. Many people saw a new opportunity here for information and commodity exchange. It’s a pain to go to a pet store and be subjected to their limited choices. Just as with clothing and music, pet owners need a broader range of options, and the Internet can provide that.
It’s not just about dogs and cats. It’s about snakes, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, mice, prairie dogs, flying squirrels, dingoes, and every other critter on the planet. The Animal Welfare Act covers them all, and the exemptions from the law are a matter for the state to decide. As a result, many home-based breeders and sellers have been operating in fear for years. Their fear is that with the stroke of a pen, they will be excluded from the category of retail shops and find themselves under extreme regulations that will shut them down completely.
That stroke of a pen is about to happen. It will come from a division of the Department of Agriculture called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. It is a proposed rule, internally generated by the bureaucrats themselves, subject to public comment, but not contingent on any vote in Congress or by the public plebiscite.
I spent several hours reading through all the details of the proposed rule, its exemptions, applications, and conditions. The language in which the whole thing is written is not English of the normal sort. I could barely find my way around — something I’ve come to expect from reading these rules.
I only wanted to know what is this going to mean for people who breed and sell stuff and use the Internet to find a market. If I want to buy an off-white Maltipoo tomorrow, is this rule going to make it harder or easier, more or less expensive? If I want a rare snake, will this new rule make the consumer better or worse off?
I’m once again grateful to Sofie Miller of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center. She puts the upshot of this whole mess very plainly:
“The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service released a proposed rule revising the definition of ‘retail pet store’ for official licensing purposes, effectively excluding most online pet dealers from the market. The proposed definition of ‘retail pet store’ would be limited to ‘a place of business or residence that each buyer physically enters in order to personally observe the animals available for sale prior to purchase and/or to take custody of the animals after purchase, and where only certain animals are sold or offered for sale, at retail, for use as pets.’ Places officially labeled ‘retail pet stores’ are not required to be licensed or inspected under the Animal Welfare Act; excluding online pet retailers from this definition subjects those entities to AWA inspection and licensing.”
There we go: Independent breeders and sellers will be strangled. That’s the point. They can’t be considered excluded from the central plan and therefore will face such high costs that they will shut down or go underground. This is not only awful for consumers and home-based breeding businesses; it is awful for rare species too. So much for the government’s concern for endangered species!
As the Sportsmen’s and Animal Owners’ Voting Alliance points out:
Basically the new rules present breeders with few choices. Sell all animals only to buyers who physically enter your premises, reduce and maintain the number of breeding females to four (4) including co-ownerships and dogs shared with family members; or obtain a license under the Animal Welfare Act, have a federally compliant facility, and allow APHIS inspectors to inspect your homes and facilities.
Selling even one pet off premise via shipping, at a friend’s home, at a show, at a park, will result in loss of an exemption from licensing, placing limitations on both buyers and sellers. The narrow limits of the exemption restrict the ability of hobby breeders to work together remotely, sharing dogs from litters in order to implement their breeding programs and/or increase diversity in their lines.
This Rule would have dire consequences on the ability of rare or uncommon breed breeders to sell their puppies. Generally, if a purchaser desires a puppy of a more unusual breed, they probably will not find one within easy driving distance, and the puppy must be either shipped commercially or otherwise transported, or the breeder will meet the buyer halfway. If each purchaser is required to visit the breeder to observe the animals or pick up his/her purchases, the number of buyers who are able to do this in the case of the more uncommon breeds is very low. Without a ready market to sell pups, these breeds will quickly die out.
In the case of rare or uncommon breeds, this Rule would make it difficult to maintain genetic diversity, since a breeder could not ship a puppy cross country to another breeder for the purposes of improving the genetic diversity in that person’s breeding program.
The question is: Who cares? Well, apparently, not too many people. There is no controversy about this. No presidential candidate was asked about this and there will be no press conferences. It is an agency with a job to do, and it is doing what agencies do: restricting freedom piece by piece.
But look at the big picture. We are in a deep economic stagnation, yet the government is killing off entrepreneurship in small steps taken every day. The online world has opened up new opportunities, but the government is shutting them day by day. We have unemployment, but the bureaucracies are strangling jobs and commercial growth. Freedom itself is in peril, yet the trajectory toward ever less liberty continues. No one with the power to stop it wants to stop it.
Surfing for information, I bumped into a reptile forum that runs classifieds for every variety of snakes one could imagine. The discussion centered on whether this new rule includes only mammals. The tenor of the conversation was clear: If we the snake people can be determined to be exempt, to heck with it. No one cares about other people’s liberties, just their own.
This is a great example of how it all works. It doesn’t matter unless you are in the market for a cool pet. You try to find one, but no: It is not available. You don’t know why. Most people would never suspect the heavy hand of the state. The effects of the regulation are invisible. Even researching in detail turns up nothing. The only people who know the truth are in the industry itself, but these people don’t talk, because they are afraid.
Meanwhile, the market moves underground, same as with so many other sectors. Less transparency, less quality control, less information. In the future, you will be buying your puppies off a park bench, exchanging money for the contents of a brown paper bag. It is the newest result of another enterprising sector harmed by invisible process of restriction that has been going on one hundred years and it is strangling the life out of society itself. Every step matters. Every step is evil. But this evil flies under the cover of night.
Best buy that beloved pet now. If you get two and they mate, prepare to break bad.