As the second worst puppy mill state in the country, Ohio has a problem.
"Puppy mills are not only an animal welfare crisis, they're also a consumer protection issue," said Corey Roscoe, Ohio State Director of The Humane Society of the United States.
So, why is the government protecting the people behind them, rather than people in the market for a dog?
News 5 made special requests to the USDA, the government agency tasked with regulating breeders and making sure they're above-board.
First, News 5 submitted a public records request. Then, per their response, News 5 filed a formal Freedom of Information Act request months ago, asking the USDA for the names and addresses of the people who aren't in compliance with dog breeding regulations - essentially, the people running puppy mills.
Weeks later, the FOIA request was filled, but everything that was requested is redacted - blacked out.
When asked why the records were redacted, a USDA Government Information Specialist responded via email, citing an exemption to the FOIA request News 5 made.
"Exemption 6 permits the government to withhold from 'personnel and medical files and similar files'"..."when the disclosure of such information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," the email states.
Why protect the privacy of a breeder, a federally-regulated business, that is breaking the rules?
The agency cites the privacy act.
Doesn't the public have a right to know who is behind a puppy mill, so they can avoid purchasing from them and dealing with the consequences, which often times can be heart-wrenching?
Not according to the USDA.
The email response later reads:
"While we do find that there is public interest in the withheld information, we have determined that the protection against potential embarrassment or harassment of the licensee far outweighs any public interest in revealing the personal information in these records."
"Yes. People should be embarrassed, but that doesn't mean we should protect them from embarrassment," said John Goodwin, Senior Director of Stop Puppy Mills. "What it means is we should have the appropriate penalties to correct their behavior. And I would argue that a consumer who is about to spend $3,000 on a puppy deserves to know the conditions that puppy's mother lives in. And that's what's getting lost here."
It wasn't always this way. The information used to be easily accessible to anyone, until early 2017, when the USDA removed their online inspection report database.
So, what do consumers do to avoid puppy mills, rampant in our state, when so little is accessible right now?
"It's difficult for a consumer to know if a breeder has a clean record or a bad record," Roscoe said. "That's why in all cases, the easiest thing to do to avoid supporting a puppy mill is simply refusing to buy a puppy online from a breeder you haven't seen or met."