Dog Breeders Fret That State Lawyer Is a Mole.
By Brandi Grissom
She's volunteered at Emancipet, an Austin animal rescue group. Her Facebook page is populated with posts from animal rights groups. She's also an attorney for the state's regulating agency and is helping to draft a bill that dog breeders say is designed to kill their industry.
"I think she's a mole," said Dale Martenson, who breeds cavalier spaniels in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "They oppose us, and they want us to stop breeding."
House Bill 1451 by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would impose new licensing requirements and regulations on dog breeders in an effort to eliminate so-called puppy mills. Under the bill, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation would develop and enforce the regulations. And TDLR staff, including animal rights enthusiast and agency lawyer Della Woods Lindquist, have been working with Thompson to write the bill. Lindquist even made a visit to one Austin kennel, and she asked Martenson for a tour of his facility to conduct research.
Dog breeders say Lindquist's involvement is a serious conflict of interest. They worry it will mean overly strict regulations and steep fees and fines that could drive them out of business. But Thompson and a TDLR spokeswoman say breeders are overreacting. And animal rights groups say claims of infiltration are "ridiculous." Lindquist is one of many people involved in the bill writing, and they say she won't be solely responsible for enforcing dog breeding rules. "It boils down to just some simply basic things they would want if they would stop getting overexcited about things," Thompson said.
This legislative session is the second go-round for Thompson and the puppy mill bill. Under the bill, anyone with 11 or more unspayed female dogs would be considered a commercial breeder subject to licensing and regulations. The bill would require breeders to pay licensing fees and to abide by strict rules about the animals' living conditions and health care.
Martenson said he's not opposed to regulation, and that he has worked with Thompson, hoping to make the measure less onerous for good dog breeders while still punishing those who mistreat animals. "We're all for doing it right," he said. "But we're not for having it done by animal rights groups who want to shut us down."
After working with Thompson's office for hours, Martenson said he was frustrated not to see changes made to the bill. Then, he got a call from Lindquist. That's when it became obvious, he said, that animal rights activists were plotting to put people like him out of business.
The two had never met before. Martenson said Lindquist told him she would be developing rules and regulations if the bill was adopted and that she didn't have much experience with kennels. She asked to visit his facility. But Martenson said parts of his conversation with Lindquist raised red flags. He said she told him that each time someone purchases a dog from him, a shelter dog is killed. "That just was so chilling to me," he said. "I just decided to get off the phone."
After the conversation he did a Google search on Lindquist and discovered that she had worked with Emancipet. Even more alarming to Martenson was a link on the Emancipet website encouraging donations to the Texas Humane Legislation Network - the very group that is the primary promoter of the puppy mill bill.
A review of the postings on Lindquist's Facebook page - since made private after The Texas Tribune began reporting this story - shows she regularly shares articles from animal rights organizations, including the major groups supporting Thompson's puppy mill bill. The posts include many stories about the farming industry. In one post she wrote, "Factory farming is a great evil." In a comment on a story she posted about puppy mills, Lindquist wrote, "Time to end the cruelty of the 'dog trade' where the animals are thought of simply as 'crops' to harvest and profit from." The list of groups Lindquist "likes" on Facebook is a virtual directory of animal rights groups, including The Humane Society of the United States and the Texas Humane Legislation Network, both key backers of the puppy mill bill.
Martenson also learned that Lindquist had visited the home of a fellow breeder, Tonia Holibaugh, outside of Austin. Holibaugh raises award-winning Maltese. Holibaugh met Lindquist through a mutual friend. She invited Lindquist to come visit her kennel to get a better understanding of how breeding works. "I took her on face value," Holibaugh said. "I thought, 'She just doesn't understand.'" Holibaugh said Lindquist told her she was advising on the bill and that she would be working on the regulations. (The Tribune sought an interview with Lindquist for this story, but a TDLR spokeswoman declined the request.) As the tour continued, Holibaugh said comments that Lindquist made about breeding and about animal rights seemed to betray a bias against Holibaugh's business.
"Either Della is a really good actress, or she doesn't see the conflict of interest," Holibaugh said. "It screams conflict of interest."
Martenson and Holibaugh suspect that animal rights groups strategically wrote the bill to ensure that the TDLR would oversee the regulations, knowing that Lindquist would be there to keep the rules so strict that breeders like them would be forced out of business. "They view our business and the success of our business as the death of shelter dogs," Martenson said.
Susan Stanford, a spokeswoman for TDLR, said leaders there are aware of Lindquist's involvement in animal rights causes. Though she is working on the puppy mill legislation and would be involved in its implementation, Stanford said, Lindquist would not be making all the decisions. "She doesn't have the carte blanche to write these rules," Stanford said. "She's working as a team member." Although TDLR did not ask Lindquist to conduct field research for the puppy mill bill at dog kennels like Holibaugh's, Stanford said the agency often does such visits to better understand how industries that they regulate work. Asked whether Lindquist's involvement presented conflict-of-interest concerns, Stanford said, "No, as a professional, she's able to put her personal life aside and meet the legalities necessary to write the rules."
Thompson said Lindquist's involvement in the bill writing has been limited. Colleen Tran, a staffer who is working on the measure, said breeders have misunderstood Lindquist's role. "I think it just scared them," Tran said. And she added that some of the breeders' suggestions would be incorporated in a new version of the bill that is in the works. Still, Thompson said she was concerned that Lindquist requested to visit breeders' facilities under the auspices of working on the legislation.
Skip Trimble, a board member of the Texas Humane Legislation Network, said neither his organization nor the puppy mill legislation aims to shut down the breeding industry. Their goal, he said, is simply to stop bad breeders who abuse animals, forcing them to constantly have puppies and leaving them in squalid conditions. He called allegations that Lindquist is somehow doing the group's bidding from inside the state agency "totally ridiculous." "It's just all sorts of paranoia," he said.