In the opening scene of the movie, A Dog’s Purpose, based on the novel by Bruce Cameron, a Golden Retriever puppy escapes from a wire cage when the door is inadvertently left unlatched while a commercial breeder is showing a prospective purchaser a variety of dogs. Cages are stacked upon cages, and though the animals do not appear malnourished or mistreated, many observers would describe the operation as a “puppy mill.” In fact, that is exactly how it was described in a book review in Publisher’s Weekly.
But what is a “puppy mill,” and is the term legally defamatory? This is an issue that recently had to be decided by the Missouri Supreme Court in Mary Ann Smith, d/b/a Smith’s Kennel v. Humane Society of the United States and Missourians for the Protection of Dogs, SC 95175 (April 25, 2017).
The case involved an animal rights advocacy group’s accusation that a dog breeder was operating a “puppy mill” and one of the “worst puppy mills” in the state. The Supreme Court of Missouri determined that this language, which was used “during a hotly contested political campaign” over proposed animal rights legislation, was “rhetorical hyperbole” and “lusty and imaginative expression” that could not reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts, but constituted protected opinion. As such, the statements were not actionable defamation as a matter of law.