Darla sat quietly, panting on her owner’s lap at the General Assembly on Tuesday, seeking attention from anyone looking her way.

Just a year ago Darla weighed about 6 pounds only half what she does now. Her hair was so matted that she had to be almost completely shorn, whiskers and all.

“She was pregnant, but her babies were all dead because her teeth were so rotted that she couldn’t eat,” says Denise Austin, a Raleigh resident who adopted Darla from Saving Grace, a nonprofit rescue agency.

Darla was one of almost 200 dogs living in dingy, crowded, substandard conditions in a Wilson County puppy mill that was shut down last year. The owner now faces 13 charges of animal cruelty.

Stories like Darla’s led to Tuesday’s press conference during which Sen. Don Davis, D-Wayne, continued his push to pass stricter rules against operating puppy mills.

“This is a business that’s operating now without any regulation at all,” he says.

Senate bill 460 would define a puppy mill as any place housing 15 adult female dogs and 30 puppies for sale. It would require breeders to pay $50 each fiscal year to gain a state license and to adhere to basic rules on veterinary care, housing and recordkeeping.

Davis introduced the legislation last year after witnessing a puppy mill sting in Wayne County where 300 dogs were being mistreated. The bill did not make it out of committee.

“It was just a horrific sight,” Davis recalls. “I saw some with fused eyeballs. I saw some missing a lot of their hair. I saw nails that were a result of no grooming piercing through the body and the skin.”
It passed the Senate last year, but the House has yet to act. The legislation awaits consideration in the finance committee.

And in trying to foster support from a wider demographic, bill proponents have included NASCAR families including Kelley Earnhardt, sister of Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Krissie Newman, wife of Ryan Newman, who advocated for the bill.

Hope Hancock, director of the Wake County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says puppy mills hurt both animals, some who are unable to walk as a result of their living conditions, and consumers, who buy animals that aren’t as advertised.

“A lot of people who think they are getting one of these gorgeous, well-bred dogs are in for a lot of surprises in terms of what they are in for medically, psychologically and socially,” she says.
She adds that puppy mills lead to overpopulation, which leads to overcrowded shelters and that taxpayers must fund.

But Henri McClees, a N.C. Sporting Dog Association lobbyist, thinks existing animal cruelty laws are sufficient, noting that dogs like Darla have been rescued without the bill Davis is promoting.
“Every version (of the bill) I’ve seen has been a complete morass of regulation on top of existing regulation. It would cause confusion,” she says.

McClees went on to say that this is not a matter of animal rights.

“We love our dogs. My people hunt with dogs. We spend a lot of money on our dogs. We are very proud of our dogs, but our dogs are our property,” she says. “We don’t believe in animal rights. People have rights.”