There’s little debate that horses, chickens and pigs fall squarely within the definition of agricultural animals. But this week, a Massachusetts judge added another animal to the list of what’s considered livestock: puppies.
The ruling from Middlesex Superior Court Judge Christopher Barry-Smith came after officials in the central Massachusetts town of Ashby attempted to shut down a designer dog breeding operation. The decision followed a year and a half of controversy. The next door neighbors, who intervened in the court case, moved out.
Kimberly Clinton owns a 24/7 operation that breeds bernedoodles — a mix of Bernese Mountain dogs and poodles that bear a striking resemblance to teddy bears. Her Massachusetts Bernedoodles is a lucrative, robust enterprise, with over two dozen breeding dogs, 22 employees and a nursery. A single Bernedoodle puppy can fetch up to $6,500.
Clinton started the business in 2019 in a renovated barn behind her house, just a few minutes away from the town common. The business quickly grew. So did the number of noise complaints about dogs barking.
The town issued a cease and desist order, demanding Clinton remove all her dogs because the business violated zoning laws in the residential neighborhood. But she sued the town, arguing that under state law her six-acre property can be considered a farm and that breeding dogs — much like raising chickens or keeping dairy cows — is an agricultural business.
“Do I treat them like caged chickens? Of course not. Do thoroughbred racehorse trainers treat their horses like chickens? No,” Clinton said. “I’m a personal breeder, and I sell my puppies directly to the consumer.”
Still, the noise was what got residents upset to begin with. Clinton said she tried to make accomodations.
“We always have someone outside with the dogs supervising them and distracting them, redirecting them if they start to bark. We put up a lean-to outside, evergreen trees. We did a lot of things to make sure that our neighbors wouldn’t be disturbed by any dogs barking,” she said.”
Barry-Smith concluded that Clinton’s property falls under the Dover Amendment, which exempts agricultural businesses from local zoning laws. The dogs, he decided, are considered livestock.
Massachusetts general laws offer a couple of definitions for “livestock.” One section explicitly excludes dogs as livestock, whereas another doesn’t mention dogs. But the judge cited a 1993 appeals court decision that “livestock” includes animals that are bred for profit.
Mike McCallum, an Ashby selectman, suggested the ruling could have wider repercussions.
“Interview a thousand people in Massachusetts and ask them what livestock is, and you’re unlikely to hear the word ‘dog’. Probably a lot of cattle, a lot of sheep, goats. But dogs? I don’t think so,” he said.
McCallum said he worries the ruling will weaken zoning laws across the state, allowing anyone to use the agriculture exemption for all kinds of commercial purposes.
“Because agriculture is such an enormous range of occupations. Just saying blanket, it’s all OK — that goes from massive chicken farms to feed lots. There’s a lot of very industrial agriculture,” he said. “All these little towns around that think that their zoning protects them from certain things, it doesn’t.”
The judge’s ruling also stated that the town of Ashby can implement “reasonable regulation.”
Robert Hanson, the town administrator, told GBH News that town officials are currently figuring out what that would entail. “We are pondering which boards and what regulations and who would govern,” he said.
Alison Blanck, director of advocacy at the Animal Rights League of Boston, told GBH News the organization monitors laws concerning dogs. But because this was a zoning case, its meaning is unclear.
“We have certain requirements for dogs that we certainly don’t have for other sorts of livestock. So the idea that we’re sort of taking this dictionary definition of livestock and applying it here, I think that there is certainly some room for judgment on that,” Blanck said. “And I’ll be interested to see how this evolves, because I do think that this is something that the average person hears and they say that just doesn’t sound right, that my dog is very different than a horse or than cattle.”