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By William Ecenbarger
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 croppuppies.
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 Readers 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 millssome licensed, others notin 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 pet 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 Statesless than one percenthad 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 USDAs major functions is to promote the economic welfare of the farmer rather than the health and welfare of dogs." In other words, theres a direct conflict of 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 recommendationslike increasing cage size, requiring constant access to water, limiting the number of times a female can be bred, and stipulating stronger sanitation requirementswere 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 cant 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 dont adequately attend to their puppies.
"A lot of it comes from city people, who dont understand animals or farming," he said. "They get overly emotional about dogs, and they dont 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 theyre destined to live in someones home. Its difficult to house-train a pup from a mill because its used to voiding wherever it wants. And its 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 havent 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 its investigating," says Richard Johnston, president of the Connecticut Humane Society.
There is a simple solution to the puppy-mill problem: dont 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 ASPCAs 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 arent waiting for improvements in oversight. Theyve 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 parvovirusanother victim of the mass
production of puppies at the lowest possible cost.
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