I read a lot. I think that in order to be an effective animal welfare advocate, you need to be self-educated. I read a lot of blogs and articles related to animal issues not only to stay informed on what I call animal current events, but just to expand my knowledge base. I do my best to present researched content on my website, but I do not put myself forth as a subject matter expert on any of the topics I cover. I leave that up to my contacts who are much more informed than I could ever hope to be. Some of my reading is of books written by people I consider those subject matter experts. I have a small library made up of my go-to book sources which I find myself going back to again and again, almost like consulting trusted textbooks or treatises.
I learned of a new-to-me book recently as a result of a blog I wrote on the topic of animal rescuers who spend thousands (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars for puppy mill dogs at auctions, outbidding everyone in the tent, while still calling it “rescue.” I do not call it rescue. I call it brokering. In any event, my blog led to a number of comments, some of which were made by my new contact: Becky Monroe. Becky is the author of a wonderful book called “Bark Until Heard: Among the Silenced Dogs I Found My Voice.”
I honesty didn't know what to expect when I began Becky's book. A lot of what I read is heavily based on research and studies and philosophies about different issues. Becky's book is nothing like that at all, but in many ways, it was even better in terms of approach. I felt like I was reading about someone just like me. A lot of what Becky wrote about her struggles and her decisions resonated with me not because we have walked the same path, but because we both became outspoken advocates as the result of a single, life changing event. And I came to realize that when others read the book, they may see themselves in Becky’s words and they may have the courage to consider what they can do as individuals.
I highly encourage anyone who considers themselves an animal lover, animal advocate, dog lover or just concerned citizen to read Bark Until Heard. I don't want to spoil the book for you, so I'll sum it up in a few short sentences, with no disrespect intended. The premise is pretty simple: Becky ended up at a puppy mill auction somewhat unexpectedly while doing volunteer work for a national animal welfare organization. She was so overwhelmed by what she saw and heard, she ended up saving a small dog she named Thorp and she was forever changed by the process. The wonderful thing about this book is that it helps us understand the reality of what Becky experienced and how it changed her on a very deep level. It shook up her personal beliefs about what was important to her and about who she was as a person. Becky has not told me as much, but I would guess that if you were to ask her about phases of her life, she would probably define them as “before” and “after” the first dog auction she ever attended. As Becky wrote:
I had learned so much about life, and in the process, a metamorphosis had occurred. I was braver., louder, stronger. A single event had changed everything I knew about myself and the world I lived in. I would never be the same and I didn’t want to be. It was freeing to be part of a cause - to fight for something I believed in.
The simple beauty of Becky's book is the power which stands behind it and how empowering it can be to others. Not only does the book help people understand the players involved in the dog breeding and auction industries, it also helps people realize that they too can find their voice and they too have the power to help change our society and make it a better place for the dogs we say we love and value.
I asked Becky to participate in a Q&A interview with me to help people understand more about her, about how things have changed since she went to her first auction and about what her future may hold. I hope you enjoy her input here and I do hope you will take the time to read her book. It is now a personal favorite of mine.
One of the most compelling aspects of your book is what you wrote about how you were completely changed by your experiences. You wrote of wishing you could go back to a time when you did not know things you now know. Have you made complete peace with your new life path?
I think I have. Meeting people at book signings, who are inspired to act and to help the dogs, has shown me my mission in life. Sometimes I question why MY heart has to be so fragile for animals, but as I dig deep, I realize that it takes that kind of heart to see the real need - to understand how inhumane the treatment of dogs in puppy mills is. Sure lots of people "don't like it," but they can sleep at night. People like me wake up haunted by the images we have seen and are pushed to act. I can't help but believe that although it can be a very painful, my heart and my ability to communicate with people is MY gift to change things for animals for the better.
There are those who have written about auctions in sanitized terms, making it sound as though the dogs are not that bad off or are not handled that poorly. How would you respond to those who paint this more positive picture of the auction scene?
Last night Alice, my mill dog from September's auction, was snuggled tight against me in my bed. Her tongue hangs out, she doesn't have many teeth, she suffered untreated chronic dry eye for 5 years and will likely go blind in at least one eye. Emotionally, after 3 months of being in our quiet home, she still runs when someone coughs or drops a pen on the floor. She shakes when new people enter our home. She has a long way to go. But, last night as she found her perfect spot next to me, she made the sigh. That sigh rescuers understand because it seems to signal a moment of peace and comfort for the dogs who have never known it.
After she sighed, my mind started to spin with all the Facebook posts from the last Missouri auction. Rescuers reporting, "broken legs, split jaws, infected eyes, prolapsed rectums." One rescuer wrote how there were two pregnant sisters and one made it to rescue and one went to an Amish miller. My eyes flooded with tears picturing the broken dogs and my heart just broke knowing that the other sister didn't get her chance at freedom - she would continue to suffer in the cruel hands of more neglect.
I don't know how anyone with a heart could report that there a healthy, happy dogs at an auction. I have never seen it nor have I ever heard anyone who loves dogs say it. The mere thought of auctioning dogs (man's very best friend) as products should make a normal person's stomach turn.
You wrote in your book that at the second auction you attended, 50% of the dogs were bought by rescuers and that number was 70% at the third auction. Do you have an opinion on how the presence of rescuers at auction has changed the auction process itself?
Aaahhh - the million dollar question, literally. I contemplate this issue A LOT. Nearly a decade ago, when I was attending Amish auctions in northest Wisconsin, we went in with really small budgets attempting to get out the most amount of dogs. We also went in "not as rescue." We tried to just fit in with the crowd. We didn't want them to know who we were. We would wear something subtle and in common, like turtlenecks or ball caps, to help recognize each other as rescues. We never felt welcomed or wanted. We felt like such a small part of the whole operation. It was "their" thing, we were just there trying to save a few dogs.
Today the arena has drastically changed. While we might have saved 70% of the dogs, I still don't think we made up 50% of the money exchanged because we bought the cheap dogs - the dogs our small budgets could afford. Yes, once in awhile I can recall a few dogs being rescued for a lot of money. Maybe $700-$1000, but I also recall those dogs vividly. One was an English bulldog in such bad shape. He actually had Band-aids on his body to try and cover his open wounds. I also remember a Shar Pei whose eyes were so infected - her eyelids were inside out. There were probably a few more, but those stuck out and every rescuer in the audience understood getting them out.
Even then, the controversy over rescuing was present. There were always protesters outside of the auction and many of them disagreed with us giving a single dollar to the evil people. I remember one of the protesters coming into the barn during auction to get warm (it was -20 outside) and she said to me, "My head is out there and my heart is in here."
I guess that is what I would say about the current status of rescues buying at auction. My heart completely understands the desire, the absolute need to want to give the dogs freedom, but my head is starting to question the long term consequences of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Truly, rescues are becoming the primary consumers at auctions. When I hear that rescues are spending that kind of money and saying they will spend whatever it takes, I cringe. Simple economics teaches us that this is not the answer.
Back when I went to auction, we would get dogs for $25- $50 on average. Yet at that time, I heard that rescues were getting dogs for PENNIES and NICKELS in Iowa and Missouri. This last auction, I heard the prices were astronomical. I can't help but believe rescue is responsible for raising the prices.
If I knew that for a million dollars or even more we could buy EVERY SINGLE mill dog and put an end to the wretched industry, I would be on the front-line raising the money. If I knew that it was the end, I wouldn't even care if the millers all retired millionaires, but the reality is buying up all the dogs at auction is NOT ending it, but perpetuating it and increasing the profitability of it. This is not the solution.
You wrote in your book about being at an auction and meeting a woman from Florida who said that she decided to attend an auction after reading your book. What is your advice to others like her who feel compelled to see an auction for themselves? Do you think there is a down side to that?
I do think people should go to an auction. I think seeing it first hand makes it undeniably real. And while it is unbelievably difficult to experience, I do believe it makes people act and speak out. We need that in this movement.
If every person went to an auction and bought a dog, perhaps that would not be the best solution. We would only be adding to the profitability of an industry most of us despise. Yet, seeing hundreds of dogs bought and sold like a commodity, dogs who are sick and scared and unlike dogs most people can relate to, I think could be a priceless answer to the issue. If I am going to believe in the good of humanity, I have to believe that the majority of human beings in America would stand up and scream, if they saw what I have seen.
You blogged recently in your Tails and Truths blog about the Amish related to puppy mills. There are those who have suggested that we should actually help Amish dog farmers financially so they can do a better job. How do you respond to that?
I would be the last person to suggest helping the Amish do anything. After seeing them in action, I feel no empathy towards them. The way they treat animals is horrific.
I also want to take a minute to explain my opinion because I say in that blog that I am content blaming all Amish for puppy mills. I feel this way because no one in their community is speaking out against it. If no one in the community is against it, I must assume they are all okay with it. Being okay with the mass cruelty and neglect of companion animals, is not something I could ever support. I won't buy a single thing made by Amish or Mennonites.
In fact, last summer at a farmers market I was about to purchase some tomatoes. The man (who was not Amish) selling them said, "Aren't they spectacular? I get them from an Amish family down the road." I replied, "oh, I apologize, but I don't want them anymore." He looked puzzled and said, "Why?" I said, "Because the Amish have hundreds of puppy mills across the country and I cannot support a group who believes in such cruelty." He then said, "Well, to be honest, the people who grow the tomatoes are Mennonites." I said, "They do it, too." And I walked away.
There are a lot of people who will read your book and feel compelled to take some action themselves to find their own voice. What do you think are the most important things individual advocates can do to help bring an end to puppy mills? Are there any things those people should specifically not do?
I hope that is what people do after reading the book. I want to inspire everyday people to act on behalf of the silenced animals. I think there are numerous things people can do depending on what they are most comfortable with. I think education and awareness are at the top. Even just sharing the story with friends and family is beneficial. I think writing letters to the editor and writing to legislators is a great way to show support. If someone wants to protest a pet store who sells mass bred dogs, I say do it! I think people willing to bring forth ordinances in their towns, counties, and states to prohibit the sale of mass bred puppies and kittens is a great way to stop the supply and demand.
I also believe that volunteering in some capacity with a shelter or rescue is a great way to get involved. We all know that fostering one dog saves the lives of at least 2. I think that getting involved in any part of the animal welfare movement on a local level, will educate people on the realities of not just puppy mills, but of the 2 million adoptable animals killed for space every year. We have got to get more people on board with adopting not shopping in stores or on-line.
Two of your dogs came from mills through auctions, Thorp and Penelope. How are both of them doing today?
Thorp and Penelope turn 13 and 12 respectively this year. They are doing well, but still bare some scars from years in the mill. Thorp is a certified Therapy Dog and we still work with kids in our community who are emotionally and behaviorally challenged. Thorp is starting to show his age and often takes naps while we visit with the kids on the reading blanket. Penelope has always been resilient.
Recently, we fostered and have since failed, another mill dog, Alice. She is a 5 year old Shih Tzu who was bought at an auction in September by a rescue I know. She was one the tougher fosters and so they asked if I would take her. Alice's tongue hangs out of her mouth due to blunt trauma she sustained in the mill. She suffers from neurological deficits. Her dry eye, a common ailment in Shih Tzu, went untreated for all her life, so we are doing everything we can to save her vision now. Beyond her health issues, she, like so many, suffers from such emotional trauma. She is terrified of humans, didn't understand grass or toys or stairs or common noises. She has come far in 3 months, but we have so far to go. However, I am very hopeful that she can be a therapy dog like Thorp, one day. Kids love her and her funny tongue. :) And, most importantly, she has that unbridled kindness and quietness to her. I also think she might just be the inspiration to a follow-up book!
When you have book signings or speaking engagements about Bark Until Heard, what surprises you most about the public reaction to your message?
I am always blown away when people tell me they "didn't know." They didn't know about puppy mills. They didn't know how cruel the Amish were. They didn't know pet stores were lying about where the puppies come from.
On the bright side, it also gives me the greatest hope because I believe the more people who know the truth, the more likely we are to end the cruelty.
I know you volunteered in an animal shelter for a number of years and that has shaped how you view the commercial dog breeding industry. My personal opinion is that the commercial breeding of dogs has a direct impact on how many dogs are destroyed in our municipal animal shelters, not because mill dogs enter shelters but because of how many dogs mills produce and public perception about them being superior in some way. Do you think there is a correlation between puppy mills and how many dogs die in shelters?
I do believe without a doubt that the commercial breeding industry plays a direct role in the number of dogs killed for space each year. The millions of dogs churned out in mills secure a spot in a home, while the millions of beautiful, adoptable dogs get killed in shelters- never able to get a second chance.
Honestly, I don't know what the supply and demand numbers are, but I don't buy into the concept that we need to mass breed dogs in order to meet demand. We need to stop the mass breeding and market the shelter dogs better. We need to educate people on the number of purebreds at any shelter at any given time. We need to teach people about animal adoption. Not nearly enough people know about Petfinder.com or Adoptapet.com. I find that not enough people know there are breed rescues for nearly every breed in every state.
Above all else, I think people need to know that AKC papers do NOT in any way guarantee the health or the demeanor of a dog. The AKC is merely a registry. They will register any dog whose breed is accepted by them as long someone is willing to pay the fee. That AKC puppy could be born in a barn with no heat, no A/C, no medical care, no human interaction. The AKC admitted to me that they do not have the resources to inspect every AKC breeder.
Do you have any plans for a new book soon? If so, what do you plan to write about?
Yes! I have been mulling around a sort of sequel... I never thought Bark Until Heard would remain so relevant 8 years after my initial experience at Amish auctions, but the business of puppy mills and pet stores remains extremely timely. I have grown so much since 2008 and there are so many more organizations and individuals fighting the fight. I believe I would like to re-visit it all and show our progress and our strength. In 2008, I felt so alone and today I am grateful to be surrounded by so many great people wanting to make things better for breeding dogs.
(images courtesy of Becky Monroe)
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson