Arkansas has a problem. Actually, we have multiple problems. But this one is fixable, and I believe would carry the support of more than 90% of our citizens.

I am referring to the disproportionate number of stray, domestic animals (cats and dogs) and their mistreatment in several ways.

Unlike many problems, this one is not partisan. I don’t know of anyone not revolted when they see an animal mistreated. Yet, in Arkansas we see stray dogs chained to trees, under homes in the heat with no water, and wandering our streets and neighborhoods unleashed.

We have been lulled as a state into accepting that this reality must continue. Why? Because in Arkansas “that’s just the way it is.” Hogwash. We can and should do better.

Every week of the year, a bus leaves from a parking lot in North Little Rock, usually with about 50 stray animals that are shipped up north to their “forever homes” — new, loving families who have been vetted by animal rescuers.

There is a reason why this happens. In the Northeast, there are strict spay and neuter laws, leash laws, and laws preventing the existence of unregulated puppy mills.

For those unfamiliar, puppy mills are for-profit enterprises that allow for animals to be bred and sold either to individuals or retail pet stores. The problem is conditions in many puppy mills are squalid and disgusting. Dogs are kept in cages their entire life, soiled with their own excrement, often poorly fed and without proper veterinary care.

My wife has worked for years with a local animal rescue group. We see this firsthand.

One example of this pathos was when her rescuer friend put a four-year-old breeder female on the ground for it to “go potty.” The dog froze, terrified. It was the first time in this sweet creature’s life that she had not been on a concrete surface or in a cage. The dog had never been on grass or dirt. Bewildered, she did not know what to do and so she did nothing.

The problem in our state is multifaceted, but I will focus on one issue. Several weeks ago, the Arkansas legislature passed HB 1591. The purpose of this bill is “to clarify the applicability of the Arkansas retail pet store Consumer Protection Act of 1991 and to preempt certain laws concerning retail pet stores.”

There are two scenarios by which puppy mills operate.

Scenario A: any individual can breed their animal and sell the offspring to any other private individual, completely unregulated. There are potential problems here, but that is a discussion for another time.

Scenario B: for $100, any individual can become a licensed breeder in the state which then allows them to sell puppies to a retail business, which sells the puppies to the public. This is the scenario addressed by HB 1591.

The specific wording is “a local government [meaning city or town] shall not pass an ordinance, resolution, or regulation that prohibits a retail pet store from acquiring an animal from a kennel, chattery, or back-yard breeder.”

Effectively, this removes the ability of those in a particular town from passing legislation banning puppy mills in their community.

This amendment to a pre-existing statute does exactly the opposite of what we should be doing in our state. It makes it far easier for puppy mills to exist unregulated and to go unpunished when they treat animals inhumanely.

Again, I know of no Arkansan who would personally support this. Yet, we have just reinforced the capability of puppy mills to exist and do exactly that.

Over the past several years, much of what has come from our legislature has produced a culture of cruelty. It seems now that those policies are aimed at different groups of individuals in different marginalized, minority groups were not enough for our legislators.

I don’t understand it, and I never will. But now, through this particular amendment, Arkansas has extended that culture of cruelty to canines.

The only explanation I have for something like this is soul rot and money. I don’t see how this benefits any Arkansans, save those who are benefiting financially from the unregulated and often cruel breeding of puppies and the retailers they serve.

Arkansas can and should do better. Regulating these industries is low hanging fruit. Our state has a lot of problems and is near the bottom of many rankings when it comes to creating a livable state – and also a state which will attract industry.

It is long past time for this culture of cruelty to animals to be addressed legislatively. As my friend David Wilkerson said, “When we fail to honor animals, we fail to honor humanity.”

Postscript: Three hours after writing this column, I came around a curve on a pitch-black Arkansas country road one mile from my home. Standing in the middle of the road was a 40-pound dog I now know as Otis.

There was no time to react, and I hit Otis at  35 miles per hour, causing massive trauma. Sickening is not a visceral enough adjective to describe this situation.

I quickly gathered Otis up, consulted with my wife on the phone, notified the owners in person and began a 130-mile drive to the nearest emergency hospital. Otis was rushed to surgery and, thankfully, is now back home. However, he is missing his right back leg.

This is a heartbreaking  story which was preventable if leash laws were enacted and enforced.

I’m confident that Arkansas is not the only state where such situations are taking place, so I urge you to check the laws in your state and demand better from your lawmakers.

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