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New York Post
September 22, 1996




By Laura Italiano
Post Correspondent


Inside the picturesque barns and wooden fences of Amish country, pedigree puppies are bred by the tens of thousands, many living in a hellish world of filthy, crowded cages.

They are "puppy mill" puppies, and they bring in $4 million a year for the 100 Amish and Mennonite farmers who supply boutique dog-shop markets, including at least two New York dealers, the ASPCA says.

"It's not just some cottage industry by people who sell bread-and-butter pickles by the roadside," said Roger Caras, ASPCA executive director.

The farmers sell 20,000 puppies a year to wholesalers for an average $223 a pup, government records show.

And it's making some of these quaint farmers quite rich. U.S. Department of Agriculture documents show that one farmer in the town of Blue Ball sold 1,293 puppies last year for an estimated $290,000 though federal inspectors have cited his farm for numerous violations since 1992 including overcrowded cages and inadequate sanitation, pest control, feeding and watering of animals.

"Then these sickly, genetic nightmares are delivered to the upscale pet shops," Caras said. "They given them a bath and blowdry them and fluff them up and pray they don't die before they're sold," for $1,000 or more each.

Separate investigations by the ASPCA and The Post found the deplorable conditions of puppy mills hidden away in picture-postcard Pennsylvania Dutch country, the fastest growing puppy-breeding region in the eastern United States.

Inside one dark, fetid metal shed inspected by The Post last week, About 40 puppies—German shepherds, dobermans and shitzus among them—were locked in threes and fours in cages a single dog would find cramped.

Many were unresponsive to a visitor's presence and voice. Most had coats matted with feces. There was no apparent escape from the shed's darkness and stench.

When questioned about the shed, Amish farmer David Zimmerman denied it was a kennel, even pretending that the ruckus of dog barks coming from inside was "just Potsy, the family dog, chasing that gray kitten again."

He might have been cautious for good reason: Zimmerman's license to sell puppies in bulk has been suspended by the USDA.

"It's harassment," Zimmerman said of the USDA, which has also fined him $51,250 for numerous animal-welfare violations. Zimmerman, whose farm is in Ephrata, is appealing the fine.

"I believe this is the wealthy dog breeders trying to make money" by putting the Amish out of business, Zimmerman said. he and his wife then chased a Post reporter and photographer off the property when they'd seen the puppies inside the shed.

"You're not supposed to go in there!" said Zimmerman, clad in suspenders and wide-brimmed hat.

"Get off the land!" shouted his wife, who wore a bonnet and long dress, as she pointed angrily down the driveway.

Animal-cruelty investigator Sue Pressman reported seeing even worse conditions. Earlier this year, she visited the Blue Ball farm of Melvin Nolt, who sold 805 puppies in 1995. Given that the USDA estimates average sale prices at $223 a pup, Nolt's 1995 puppy income could have hit $180,000.

Despite repeated USDA citations for conditions violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, Pressman found a puppy farm in full operation on Nolt's premises earlier this year.

"They had the cages stacked so that the puppies on the bottom were defecated and urinated on, collectively, by all the puppies above them," said Pressman, who has 37 years consultancy experience investigating zoos nationwide.

The USDA is the most powerful agency for preventing puppy-mill abuses. It sets sanitation, nutrition, housing and other standards for licensed dog wholesalers under the Animal Welfare Act.

But the agency is "spread thin," said agency spokesman Patrick Collins.

"We only have 73 folks [nationwide] who inspect all licensed animal-breeding facilities, zoos, marine-mammal facilities and circuses," he said.

And when the USDA manages to take on puppy-mill breeders like Zimmerman and Nolt, the agency's bark is often worse than its bite.

Even with Zimmerman's looming $51,250 federal fine—which he said he won't pay—he continues to mass-produce puppies.

Making matters worse, the ASPCA says that at least a dozen other farmers also are continuing to mass-produce puppies, even though USDA records show their licenses to sell have either lapsed or been turned in.

One of these farmers is Daniel Esh, who in May told Pressman—not knowing she was an ASPCA inspector—that he had 51 newly weaned bichon frise puppies "ready to go." This despite his having turned in his puppy-farm license 16 months earlier.

"We know Esh is still breeding. But now with no license he doesn't have to report his numbers to anyone or go through any federal inspections," Pressman said.

Two Amish men at the Esh farm in Intercourse shoved a Post photographer and reporter who tried to get into the farm's kennel. Puppies could be seen peering through a barn's second-story windows, and they were barking in what sounded like large numbers.

"Nobody goes up there!" one of the two shouted. Then he pointed to a German shepherd guard dog and warned, "You're lucky he doesn't tear that knapsack off your back!"

Caras called it "a federal offense" to sell what are "essentially contraband puppies" but added that the puppy breeders "come under no one's apparent jurisdiction."

"They found a trick. You simply drop your license, and then you can sell your puppies and keep them in whatever condition you want, and the USDA doesn't inspect you any more," he said.

ASPCA investigators have just completed a nine-month investigation of Lancaster's puppy mills, with Pressman able to gain entry to 42.

"None of them met even the most minimum standards, and some of them were appalling." she said.

Harder to quantify, though, is what happens to the puppies once the farmers sell them.

Caras said two New York area stores—Yuppy Puppy in Port Jefferson, L.I. and Pedigree Mutt in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn—told the ASPCA they are supplied by a wholesaler who buys Lancaster puppies in bulk and brings them east in a converted school bus.

Consumers have filed 23 complaints against Yuppy Puppy with the Better Business Bureau during the past three years—far more than any other pet store in the metropolitan region, according to Jennifer Dikes, a bureau staffer.

The bureau has given the Long Island pet shop its lowest rating because of unresolved customer problems with dogs that had genetic disorders or were sick or lame when they were purchased.

The bureau listed no complaints against Pedigree Mutt.

Spokesmen at both stores denied dealing in puppy mill puppies.

Caras stressed: "Neither of those two stores is breaking any law, but it is our belief that, after preliminary investigation, those two and many, many other stores in New York City are getting their animals from Lancaster, where the conditions are appalling.

"They get nutritional problems and diarrhea, respiratory infections because they're all crowded together," Pressman said. "And because of the hither-and-yon 'I don't give a damn' attitude about in-breeding, there's a lot of genetic flaws: hip dysplasia, crooked bones, bad eyesight and rage disease [violent episodes]."

Even when the puppies survive without major health defects, the puppy-mill system is a cruel one, treating dogs like farm-factory livestock—or worse.

They're not being treated like companion animals, Pressman said. "They're being treated like poorly treated chickens. And that's a hell of a foundation for a $1,000 family pet."

Pet Papers can be worthless

The American Kennel Club gives pedigree papers to puppy-mill puppies, the ASPCA says.

"They should be personally checking more of these litters—and the paperwork—to see what kind of pets are bearing their mark of quality," says puppy-mill expert Sue Pressman.

"Their mark, 'AKC registered,' is what keeps these pups selling at a thousand dollars a puppy," says Pressman, who spent from November to July investigating Lancaster County, Pa., mills as a consultant for the ASPCA.

AKC spokesman Wayne Cavanaugh says his organization conducts "about 4,000 inspections a year—more inspections [of puppy breeders] than the ASPCA and USDA combined."

"But the USDA is the only one who can close down a puppy mill. We are really frustrated there," he added.

The USDA, in turn, says it is too short-staffed to adequately police the mills in Lancaster and in the Midwest.

Consumers shouldn't take AKC papers as gospel, says Pressman. "Their pedigree means nothing," she said. "All that paper does is inflate the value of a rotten dog."


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Click here for 1995 Philadelphia Inquirer article on Puppy Mills & the AKC