I parked my car and walked up the dirt road toward a weathered barn.
This was Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the land yields
corn, tobacco, and a new cash crop, puppies. As I approached the barn, I heard a cacophony of high-pitched barking. The
owner came out to meet me."You have any puppies?" I asked.
"Poodles, Yorkies, schipperkes, Maltese, Jack Russells, Shih Tzus, Pekinese, boxers, cockers, Labs?"
I asked to see some Bichon Frises. Raising a palm, cautioning me not to follow, the farmer went into a large kennel. But he left the door ajar,
and I took a good look inside. This was my first visit to one of those dog-breeding operations
conventionally known as puppy mills. In fact, this facility had once been licensed by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. So, when I saw the
conditions in which these puppies were being raised, I was stunned. The animals lived in small wire cages stacked four and five high. Some
puppies had open sores or hairless spots from lying on the metal wire.
Urine and feces from upper cages dropped into the ones below. Food was
tossed in among the waste. Some dogs had no water. They all seemed malnourished.
When the farmer returned, I bought a puppy for $200. Later I took him to
an animal hospital for an exam. Other than having an ailment called kennel
cough, he was okay, and someone soon adopted him. He was one of the lucky ones.
A Continuing Tragedy
Laws governing dog-breeding operations have been on the books since 1971.
But legislation has not solved the problem of atrocious conditions. In a special investigation for Reader's Digest, I interviewed government
officials and humane-society and pet-industry representatives. I also studied hundreds of reports compiled by federal inspectors. Most
important, I visited 53 puppy mills, some licensed, others not, in seven states. What I
saw not only broke the law; it broke my heart. Puppy mills thrive because the demand for pedigreed dogs has created a
highly profitable market for small farmers and for the chain pet stores they supply. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
(ASPCA), the Humane Society of the United States, and the Companion Animal
Protection Society (CAPS) estimate that nine out of ten puppies sold at
shops come from puppy mills. Abuses occur in both licensed and unlicensed
facilities. Just how many unlicensed mills operate nationwide is unknown.
Last May I visited a puppy mill near Bunnell, Fla., that had been closed down. When police and humane officials arrived six months earlier, they
were greeted at the gate by dozens of dogs, many of them sick or injured.
On the porch of the ramshackle farmhouse was a stack of filthy cages,
where the decomposing carcass of a terrier dripped fluids onto a live poodle
below. Inside, every downstairs room was piled with excrement-filled cages. Rats
scampered in and out of them. Authorities seized 358 dogs. A few were in such poor health they had to be
euthanized. Many of the females had mammary tumors, and a half-dozen dogs were blind from glaucoma. Nearly all the adult dogs had severe periodontal
disease, and many had to have teeth removed. Last November the owners were convicted on 12 counts of animal neglect.
They are appealing.
As appalling as this mill was, says Amy Wade-Carotenuto, shelter manager
for the Flagler County Humane Society, "There are a lot more like
this or worse around the country."
Conflict of Interest
Since formal licensing was begun by the USDA in October 1971, facilities that fail to meet minimum standards face penalties ranging from written
warnings to revocation of their licenses. But inspection is spotty. In the 18-month period ending June 30, 1997, only 29 of the 4100 licensed
commercial dog breeders in the United States,less than one percent had their licenses suspended or revoked. No one claims that the low level of
enforcement reflects a high level of compliance by breeders. Marshall Smith, a former USDA investigator who resigned in February 1997,
says the agency "tends to go lightly on violations of the Animal
Welfare Act." The main reason, according to Smith: "One of the USDA's
major functions is to promote the economic welfare of the farmer rather than the
health and welfare of dogs." In other words, there's a direct
interest. In 1995, 149 members of Congress condemned the industry, citing
"overcrowding, inadequate shelter, improper veterinary care, lack of sanitation and incessant breeding."
The legislators asked the USDA to correct inhumane conditions through new regulations. Two changes were adopted: plastic-coated wire for cages is
now required, and the tethering of animals is forbidden. But, as this report
demonstrates, violations are common. Many other recommendations, like increasing cage size, requiring constant access to water, limiting the
number of times a female can be bred, and stipulating stronger sanitation
requirements, were not adopted. Sue Pressman, an ASPCA consultant, says some of the worst victims of puppy
mills are the breeding bitches. "They spend their entire lives in one
place, producing one litter after another," she says. (The
recommended method is to breed no more than once a year.) "Under these
conditions, puppy-mill bitches live four or five years and are disposed of."
At one mill in Pennsylvania, I saw a breeding female chained to a tree, trying to nurse a dozen hungry puppies of different sizes. In many mills,
the bitches are restrained in wire cages or pens and get no exercise. The stress induced in these bitches by such conditions often results in
hostility to their offspring. The pups end up treating littermates the
same way. Not surprising, such aggressive behavior does not yield good pets.
In the typical puppy mill, newborn animals receive little or no individual
attention. This lack of human contact is why puppy-mill dogs are so often aggressive, distrustful and hard to train. "A lot of them end up
abandoned in shelters because their owners can't deal with them," says George
Watford, vice president for special investigations at the ASPCA.
I asked Melvin Nolt, a commercial breeder in East Earl, Pa., about the criticism that operators don't adequately attend to their puppies.
"A lot of it comes from city people, who don't understand animals or farming," he said. "They get overly emotional about dogs, and
they don't understand that dogs are different from people." But Donald K. Allen, a Youngstown, Ohio, veterinarian and member of the
board of directors of CAPS, disagrees. "Sure, dogs are different from
people," he says. "But dogs are different from livestock, too,
because they're destined to live in someone's home. It's difficult to house-train
a pup from a mill because it's used to voiding wherever it wants. And it's
failed to bond with people." The poor sanitation at many mills leads to another dire problem: disease.
To cut costs, many commercial breeders do not vaccinate dogs against
diseases, including parvovirus, a highly communicable and often deadly canine disease that especially affects puppies. In addition, Watford
notes, some puppy-mill puppies are less than eight weeks old when sold.
"Diseases and congenital defects haven't had time to incubate and show up."
The Myth of Pedigree
Driving the whole puppy-mill industry is consumer demand. And part of that
demand stems from the notion that the "best" dogs are purebred.
Says Allen, "For the past half-century, the American Kennel Club (AKC)
has driven home the propaganda that a purebred dog is better than a mixed breed. In doing so, it has created a popular demand for pedigreed dogs,
and puppy mills have sprung up to supply this demand at the retail
level." A policy statement of the AKC speaks against puppy mills: "We oppose
random, large-scale breeding of dogs solely for commercial purposes. The AKC believes the solution is scrupulous enforcement of the federal Animal
Welfare Act and state and local regulations governing the humane care of animals."
Yet the AKC takes in hefty revenues from registering animals according to breed. In 1996 alone the AKC collected registration fees totaling $26
million. "A conflict of interest arises when the group responsible for
enforcement benefits financially from the same groups that it's investigating,"
says Richard Johnston, president of the Connecticut Humane Society. There is a simple solution to the puppy-mill problem: don't buy your puppy
from a pet store. This step is supported by the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, CAPS, and most state and local humane organizations.
"Without pet-store sales, dog breeding would not be a lucrative
business, and most mills would be forced out of existence," says the ASPCA's
George Watford. Marshall Meyers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint
Advisory Council, disagrees. "A boycott would be unfair to the
thousands of responsible pet-store owners and operators. The reasonable answer to any
problem is better enforcement of existing regulations." To their credit, some retailers aren't waiting for improvements in
oversight. They've simply stopped dealing with puppy mills; still others have never started.
Short, Sad Tale
Oscar, a dachshund, began life on September 24, 1996, in a licensed Missouri puppy mill. The farm sits in a hollow, out of sight from the
gravel county road some 100 yards away. At that distance, though, anyone passing by can hear the dogs barking and smell the puppy-mill reek.
In November, Oscar was sold to a dog broker in southwest Missouri. There, he had a clean kennel and room to run. But soon Oscar was air-shipped to
his final destination: a pet shop in central Ohio. In the baggage office of the Columbus, Ohio, airport, Susan Lively, a
28-year-old airline employee, saw the dachshund and fell in love. She told
the pet-store employee that she wanted to buy Oscar. The next morning Lively went into the store, paid $400 and took him home.
That night Oscar began spitting up his food. The pet store told Lively
that a veterinarian had examined Oscar and found nothing wrong. The following
day, Thanksgiving, Oscar began vomiting every five minutes. A veterinarian
prescribed antibiotics, which helped briefly.
Susan Lively was heartbroken when, five days later, 10-week-old Oscar was
dead from parvovirus? Another victim of the mass production of puppies at
the lowest possible cost.
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