I wrote a blog about a month ago about the relationship between animal hoarding and mental health issues that was prompted by realizations about a contact of mine who was found to having dying animals inside her home. I interacted with her family following the suicide of her husband and her death. After learning more about the situation inside the home, I chose to delete the blog and save the topic for another day. This was done primarily out of respect to her family. I told her son I would revisit the issue later and that time has come. I don't expect you to read my blog and agree with me completely. My hope is that you will suspend your judgment long enough to learn something that may serve you well in the future or even help you prevent animal suffering and abuse.
Not a week goes by that we don't hear about an animal hoarding situation in some form. Local tragedies have ranged from hundreds of dogs found inside the home of an elderly couple, many of which were dead, to a woman who was found to have dozens of animals on her rural property, many of which were dead or dying. If you search for the phrase "animal hoarding" you will find a litany of news stories from across the country which describe horrific situations which shock the senses. Some cases result in criminal prosecution. Many do not. What the cases have in common is a person or people who have more animals than they can reasonable care for who end up neglecting or abusing those animals leading to suffering and often death.
My initial reaction to these situations is the same as most people. The information is disturbing, heart breaking and infuriating all at the same time. How can we not be angry about a situation so out of hand that people and animals live in filth and animals are left to die? How could they be so heartless and care so little for their companion animals? Why didn't they reach out for help? I still have the same initial reaction as I would have had years ago as my focus is on the suffering and death of helpless animals. After almost two decades of animal welfare advocacy, however, my next thoughts look a little deeper to examine the "why" and the "how."
I now know these situations for what they are: animal hoarding. When people think of animal hoarding they think of dozens of animals inside a house, perhaps even dead animals inside a freezer. The number of animals is really not important. The complete lack of care for them, despite the best of intentions, is the key. Mental health experts have studied this phenomenon extensively. What at first looks like a criminal act created by intent really is not and the underlying reasons are quite often the opposite.
What is Animal Hoarding?
This article in Psychology Today explains animal hoarding this way:
How to Spot an Animal Hoarder
The following are red flags that someone in your life may be collecting or hoarding animals:
What You Can Do to Help
If you genuinely believe someone you know is an animal hoarder, whether you are related to them or not, take action to try to prevent the situation from getting worse.
When I first learned about the abuse and neglect of animals by my local contact, I openly said that I thought there were mental health issues involved. I later learned there were also issues regarding spousal abuse which contributed to the totality of the situation. This was a tragedy compounded by tragedy compounded by suffering and abuse. I ultimately lost long-term contacts when I shared my opinion about mental health problems being the cause of the situation and when I wrote that it made perfect sense in hindsight that my contact was extremely critical of the local animal shelter. The local shelter did not cause her to be a hoarder. It just made sense that she felt so strongly about the shelter ending the lives of healthy and treatable animals while she felt she was doing all she could to keep her own animals alive.
I am always shocked at how much people in the rescue community advocate for compassion toward animals while having none toward people. There are some who are active in animal rescue (but certainly not all) who carry an immense amount of loathing for people in general which is just below the surface of their functioning. Of course animals suffer and die at the hands of hoarders as the hoarders suffer themselves. As much as the torch and pitchfork crowd may want hoarders to pay severely for their crimes, that does not always happen. As is explained by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, "animal hoarding cases are difficult to prosecute [because] most states have no legal definition for animal hoarding, courts already assign relatively low priority to animal abuse and neglect cases in general, and many people are unfamiliar with the severity of abuse in hoarding situations."
There is a lesson so many in the animal sheltering and rescue community still have not learned: animal problems are people problems.
As terrible as hoarding situations are, they do provide an opportunity for change and to bring good from tragic. I encourage the stakeholders in the animal sheltering, welfare and rescue community in an area in which a hoarding situation is found to examine this issue from a place of compassion and to try to prevent it from happening again. There are some communities that have created a Hoarding Task Force to help address potential hoarding situations using the expertise of mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals and members of the animal sheltering and rescue community. This approach is akin to a shift in some law enforcement agencies from treating every law enforcement encounter with the pubic as a criminal matter and instead using mental health liaisons to resolve situations to avoid arrest, incarceration and prosecution.
Rapid fire questions. Don't think. Just answer.
If you did not have solid answers to these questions you are not alone. I want you to have those answers which is why I'm blogging on the topic of pet parents again.
I think it is human nature to avoid preparing for the worst. We know we should have wills and advance health care directives in case something happens to us, but many of us do not because planning ahead causes us to face our mortality. Even those of us who have wills and have made our health care wishes very clear to those around us may not have taken the time to make plans for the care of our beloved companion animals in the event of some crisis or disaster. But why? We love them and they are part of our families so why would we leave their future to chance?
A lot of people simply presume that if something happens to them, their friends or family will automatically step up and take their beloved companion animals either temporarily or permanently. The sad truth is that often does not happen. Your family and friends may love you, but that love may not extent to making a commitment to care for your pets and all that entails. Short term fostering? Maybe. But taking them for the rest of their lives? Perhaps not.
I cannot count the number of times I have been contacted by someone trying to place pets due to some life crisis either of their own or related to a family member. The message invariably says they need someone to take the animals that day or the next day, as if that is really possible. I realize our bonds with animals are emotional and we often do not think clearly under stress. There are a lot of great animal welfare organizations, animal shelters and animal rescue groups across the country. But the reality is that there is no magical place you can call which will result in someone taking pets with little or no notice. Most progressive animal shelters do try to help with owned animals even though they are not obligated to take them. They provide counseling on alternatives to surrendering animals and may do courtesy social media posts to help a family place animals in the event of a death or crisis. Rescue groups also do the same. There are shelters, however, where not all healthy and treatable animals are saved and where animals who were once loved by someone are destroyed. Think about that for yourself. Can you imagine the animals you loved housed in a shelter only to have their lives ended just because you can no longer care for them. That would be compounding one tragedy with another.
Life happens. Death happens. The unthinkable happens. We live in very uncertain times in terms of people's housing, finances and health. Because you love your companion animals, I implore you to make plans for their future without you t to make sure someone will take them and care for them in your honor. Do not put their lives at risk by allowing them to enter an animal shelter. Do not presume the people you love and know will be able to take them. This requires a direct conversation with the people in your life to develop a plan for pet parents who will take your place. Your pet parent needs detailed information from you ranging from how to get into your home, how many pets you have, what health issues they have and information for day to day care about what and how much they eat, food allergies, crate training, ability to walk on a leash, where they normally sleep, who provides their veterinary care, vaccination status, microchip registration. They need all the same information you know or have so they can care for your companion animals from the moment they have them as you would care for them.
We have a plan for our dog which has been shared with his pet parents (my cousin and her husband who live in Texas), with a local police officer who knows how to get into our house, with our veterinarian who will board our dog temporarily until he can be picked up by my cousin and with some co-workers who may know of some crisis before our family members know. My cousin has an information sheet about our dog which includes a host of information not just about the most vital aspects of his life, but which includes things like what types of toys, treats and style of Frisbee he prefers. We also have a provision in our wills to pay for his care for the rest of his life.
If you need some help preparing for the care of your pets, you can use this basic form shared here in both pdf format and Word format. The form is designed to get you thinking about plans. I encourage you to be as detailed as possible in your planning not only for the benefit of the animals you love but to give yourself peace of mind that they will be cared for if something happens to you.
September is Puppy Mill awareness month. I have not written about mills for a while so a new blog is overdue. I admit that it is prompted, in part, by events in my own area. I don’t live near a Petland at which people protest every weekend and there is only one insidious backyard breeder in my area of which I am aware (who has had dogs stolen because he keeps them in such poor conditions), but the subject of commercially bred dogs is never far from my mind.
There are those who chant, “don’t breed or buy while shelter dogs die.” I’m not quite that absolute in my thinking. As unpopular as this opinion makes me with some people, I have no issue at all with people I call hobby breeders who breed dogs once in a blue moon for the love of the breed and who make little (if any) money from the process. My dentist breeds Black Russian Terriers and has been to the Westminster Dog Show before, having won Best in Breed with one of her dogs. Her dogs are incredibly well cared for and they never end up in shelters. Ever. She has also had shelter and rescue dogs in her home and we’ve talked about her fostering shelter dogs in the past. It may sound like a wonderful idea to end all dog breeding, but we all know that won’t happen as a universal change around the globe. It’s perfectly legal and as much as we would like people to adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue group, some people just won’t for whatever reason. That is their right. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with people who planned to get a dog from a breeder in which I talk about the benefits of adoption. At the end of the day, they use the information as they see fit. I cannot force them to adopt because I see it as the right and responsible thing to do.
Commercial breeding of dogs is another matter entirely. I’ve written on this topic many times. To find my past blogs, you can clip on the keyword “puppy mill” on the right hand side of this page. I call commercial breeding of dogs puppy mills because that is what they are – they breed puppies and they produce them in volume much like a textile mill of wood mill. In the case of Smith v. Humane Society of the United States, 519 S.W. 3D 789, 801 (2017), a puppy mill was defined as a commercial farming operation in which purebred dogs are raised in large numbers. That’s good enough for me. I know that not all mills are created equal. Some are places were dogs are socialized, get exercise and get wonderful veterinary care. Some, however, are anything but that. They are cruel places where dogs are bred repeatedly until they cease to be profitable, never leaving the small cages to which they are confined (which means no form of exercise of even walking on a solid surface) and they don’t get veterinary care. In these operations, the dogs truly are seen as a commodity and a source of profit. It’s all about the money.
Dogs from these commercial operations are sold in stores, creating a complete disconnect between the locations were the dogs come from and the products being sold. When people see a puppy in a store, they are blinded by the cuteness they see, giving little thought to where that dog came from, how he or she was raised, the conditions of the parents and even the health of the puppy him or herself. If each dog was displayed with images and video clips from the breeding operation which were honest, people would be appalled, infuriated and sickened. (Buying a pet store dog has shown that it can actually make people sick in a very real sense based on investigations by the CDC). A friend who bought a dog in a store years ago told me she did so because the dog looked so pitiful, was already there and she knew they wouldn’t sent him back if he wasn’t sold. She knew that someone was going to buy him and she felt that by taking him home, she was saving him from the store. Talk about emotional blackmail.
If we ever hope to bring an end to the commercial dog breeding industry which treats dogs as livestock, with less regard for their well-being in many cases than livestock bred to be part of our food supply, we simply must stop buying what stores are selling. If we know we are not capable of walking away from a puppy in a pet store for emotional reasons, the only solution is to not enter the store at all. There are plenty of stores which sell pet supplies which don’t sell dogs (or kittens), some of which have animals available for adoption from local shelters and rescue groups.
Like so many other things in our society, we have to draw a line in the sand and just say no. No to the multi-million dollar industry which started with a USDA promotion decades ago which was intended to help farmers and quickly got completely out of control. No to the industry which treats the dogs with whom we share our homes as commodities to be abused, neglected and treated as disposable when they no longer bring in enough money fast enough. No to the industry which takes us hostage by exploiting our emotional bonds with dogs and our desire to help them find better lives with us.
(image courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue, Inc.)
Only when we stop buying dogs in stores will the industry cease to be profitable enough to continue the way it has for decades and those farming dogs may go back to farming another commodity instead. We cannot rely on the USDA to police the very kennels to which is issues licenses. It is an inherent conflict of interest which cannot be overcome. We change our society and our culture by changing our own personal behavior so the industry knows what we value and what we will and will not tolerate.
The dogs in this image are from a local brokering operation near where I live. The local breeder says she is part of a “team” of 13 families who breed and sell dogs. In order to buy a puppy from her, you have to make a non-refundable deposit of half the price of the dog. You cannot see the conditions from which the puppy comes and you have to make an appointment to meet your new puppy on a Tuesday or Thursday. The prices for these dogs make this about profit, not about love for a breed. This is a thriving business. I guess I should not be surprised that the dogs are listed on the website as “new products.” Some of the dogs are listed as XXS and weigh a pound.
Just. Say. No.
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I meet some of the most amazing people thanks to my animal welfare advocacy. Most are just normal people like you and me who are on a mission related to animals, using their superpowers for the good of us all. I’ve only met a handful of these folks in person, but thanks to the inter-connectivity of our world provided by video conferencing and email, I still feel as though I know them. And I am proud to say I do.
I first learned about “Pete Paxton” last fall when I learned about his book (co-written with Gene Stone) called Rescue Dogs: Where They Come From, Why They Act the Way They Do, and How to Love Them Well. Pete’s name is in quotes because I honestly have no idea what his real name is, You see, he’s an undercover investigator who has done incredible work for the Companion Animal Protection Society. (I encourage you to visit the CAPS website to help further your education). Pete has been to over 700 puppy mills, hundreds of pet stores, and has worked undercover at some of the biggest mills in the United States. Rescue Dogs is aimed at exposing mills and explaining how the public can help fight them by adopting dogs. The book also explains finding a good shelter or foster group, dog training tips, how to rescue stray/abuse dogs, and busts myths about shelter dogs being “broken” in some way.
I have long railed against the commercial dog breeding industry and have long supported rescue and advocacy groups which help dogs saved from mills and which educate the public toward bringing an end to the industry. I’ve worked on local laws which keep national pet supply chains from setting up shop in communities and importing sick dogs from puppy mills which can, in turn, make people sick. I’ve fought state legislation which would allow pet supply chains to grow roots in my state and further erode the humane treatment of dogs in a culture lost in time compared to the values regarding dogs in the rest of the country. When I heard about Pete’s book and his undercover work in the mills themselves, I just had to read it
The first part of Rescue Dogs was a hard read for me, but not in a bad way. As you would imagine, there is something quite criminal (and, I would argue, nefarious) about the way many people in our society treat dogs for their financial gain. It is heartbreaking, infuriating and mind-boggling. And I say that as a person who has never walked a path remotely close to the one walked by Pete. I cannot possibly imagine the mental and emotional toll taken on people who take on fake identities and put themselves in the bowels of hell in order to take down the very people whose behavior we find abhorrent. I am confident that we cannot possibly understand what Pete and others like him have endured for the sake of dogs and for the sake of all of us. Could you pretend to be someone you are not and work in a place where dogs are abused, neglected or killed on a regular basis all for the sake of money to collect evidence? I know I could not. Which is why I consider Pete one of my animal superheroes.
The second part of the book was incredibly informative. I think that most people in the shelter and rescue world assume the public knows all about rescue dogs, where they come from, how wonderful they are and why adopting a rescue dog is such a compelling choice. Many people just do not know, even if we think they should. Thanks to Pete’s book, now they can. He goes into great depth about where many of these dogs come from, how they think and how to make them members of our families – as opposed to buying dogs from the million dollar industry which has no regard for their well-being, viewing them not as sentient creatures but as things.
Pete was kind enough to help me introduce you to information which goes beyond the book through the Q&A that follows. I think it’s helpful for me to say a few things about the book, but I want you to learn something information not found in the book to entice you to read it. You can find Rescue Dogs on all major book selling platforms and at your local bookstore. I hope you enjoy our exchange.
You repeatedly use the phrase “puppy mill” in the book. I also use this phrase as a reflection of volume of dogs produced as well as the conditions in which they live. What does that phrase mean to you?
To me, “puppy mill” refers to any facility or person who raises dogs for profit. I realize that puts individuals who sell a litter of puppies every two years to neighbors into that category. However, I use the term “puppy mill” to refer to anyone that is part of a system that results in dogs being killed in shelters and exploited for human gain. Whether a facility keeps dogs in the house or a kennel, has two dogs or a hundred, or is licensed or not, they are contributing to that system.
Most people who love animals would have an incredibly difficult time investigating undercover like you did while staying in character. Your work must have been difficult beyond description. How were you able to stay so focused to see the investigations through to collect enough evidence?
I appreciate the kind words. I’d like to say I’m just that tough, but I think part of it relies on my personality. I enjoy taking risks and improvising puts me in my comfort zone. Undercover work does involve suffering moral injury, but it also involves Adrenalin. Whether it’s a lot or a little, the Adrenalin is often there, and if you enjoy taking risks than it changes some situations that would normally repulse you into ones you want to dive into. Essentially, it’s the work itself that keeps me motivated, which I believe is true for any professional who enjoys their job.
In specific cases, though, it is knowing that if I quit, I’m letting victims down. In most undercover investigations, there’s no second chance to get the evidence. If you lose patience or will, it means everything you’ve seen animals suffer for will be for nothing. When I started doing investigations and would sometimes complain about stress to friends and family members, they would tell me I should walk away from cases and take care of myself. I would tell them instead to remind me that anything I’m going through is nothing compared to what the victims I’m documenting are going through. Friends who used to tell me, “Take care of yourself,” now tell me, “Cowboy up and stop whining.” It’s quite motivating.
Do you still do undercover work to this day? I would imagine that someone can only do that kind of work for a certain amount of time before they need to take a break.
I still work undercover, and much of it still for the Companion Animal Protection Society, which I mention in Rescue Dogs. I take breaks when needed, sometimes for weeks at a time depending on how many reports from past work and research for future work I have to keep me busy. Enough time behind a computer and I’m dying to go back in the field.
Stopping to write Rescue Dogs was a particularly long and unusual break for me. It was a difficult process going through so many old case notes and videos to verify details and write about things from years ago in a narrative manner. My field notes allow me to remove emotions from the context of evidence. Rescue Dogs had me write about that evidence in an emotional manner, in which my thoughts and feelings were as much the focus as the victims concerning them. At times it was cathartic, and at times it made it impossible to sleep. In the end, I’m very grateful I did it and that authors Gene Stone and Nick Bromley worked the entire process with me.
You write about dogs you met during your investigative work you wanted to help but could not because it would have blown your cover. Are there any specific dogs who haunt you or do you have any regrets?
This is where things will get dark. There are so many dogs that haunt me that the vast majority of them are not even mentioned in Rescue Dogs because there was no need to drag readers through the memories of so much cruelty, when one story alone could make the point. It was painfully difficult to select which dogs would be used in stories. In every investigation I’ve done, whether of a puppy mill, factory farm, slaughterhouse, or commercial fishing boat, there are victims whose stories are never told publicly. Often, it’s that there’s so many victims that it’s not possible to concisely explain what happened to them all in a video or interview. Other times, it’s that some victims are part of a crime that is irrelevant to other evidence the press or a client wants to focus on. If you ever see a video about an animal cruelty case, you should know that you’re not seeing half of what happened. You’re only seeing enough to try to keep your attention so you can then read about what you can do to help without shutting the video off.
There are so many dogs I want to mention whose individual stories are not told in Rescue Dogs that I feel like I’m suffocating under them. However, the reality is that I’ve tried to tell those stories to people. I’ve tried writing about them, explaining them in person, and discussing them in interviews. It’s simply too much for people to handle. It drags people through emotional turmoil and isn’t necessary to make them understand a subject.
The problem I have is that while undercover, I very rarely get an opportunity to help animals. I have seen many dogs suffer and die without saving them. For so many to be lost in a bigger picture, without their stories told, I feel like I’m betraying them and not giving them the final dignity they deserve. I have been in so many morally ambiguous situations that shame and pride have often been synonymous for me. Choosing which victims will have their stories told is another one of those situations, but I believe we chose well in Rescue Dogs.
I imagine you have testified numerous times regarding your investigations. Do you feel the legal process works to hold breeders accountable or is the system (and laws) not in keeping with public values?
You may be surprised to learn I’ve rarely had to testify in court. Most of the time, when a defendant has so much evidence piled against them that they are dead to rights, they plead out. That said, I’ve testified in front a jury, without a jury, in front a grand jury, and dealt with both good and bad law enforcement at the county, city, state, and federal level. Here’s the short version: The system doesn’t work for animals.
Here’s the longer version: As written, most cruelty statutes make causing unnecessary suffering a violation. You’d think that would make it pretty easy to bust breeders who don’t treat dogs’ wounds, leave them to the elements, or let their teeth rot in their heads. The problem is that culture supersedes enforcement. The vast majority of breeding dogs are in commercial kennels, and the vast majority of those kennels are in rural areas where commercially bred dogs are treated as livestock. In fact, dogs are often seen as an alternative livestock that can be more profitable than other animals. Compared to hogs, for example, puppies are more profitable by the head and you can keep a larger number of breeding stock in a smaller amount of space. Most states have exemptions to cruelty statutes if an act that would normally be considered illegal (such as mutilating an animal without anesthesia) is a routine operation on a farm. The difference between legal cruelty and illegal cruelty becomes so difficult to discern that cruelty laws are rarely ever enforced on farms. Since puppy mills are seen by farmers as the same as hog farms or dairies, local law enforcement typically ignores cruelty complaints about puppy mills just as they do hog farms and dairies.
Furthermore, many commercial kennels are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture. The same agency that inspects slaughterhouses inspect dog breeding kennels. That agency has a dual motive of enforcing regulations while promoting the industries they license. The more enforcement actions they take, the more they are cracking down on an industry they want to promote. Therefore, the USDA notoriously lets violations go. I’ve seen USDA inspectors ignore dogs dying in cages and even warn people ahead of time they will be inspected. Many inspectors prefer to be friendly with breeders instead of confrontational with them. To assist inspectors, the USDA has a policy called “teachable moments,” allowing inspectors to tell the breeders to fix violations on their own instead of them even been written in a report.
When desensitization to animal cruelty, law enforcement corruption, and government corruption come together, I call it a “culture of cruelty.” Commercial dog kennels often exist in this culture.
I have been unapologetic in my criticism of rescue groups that buy dogs at auction and call it rescue. What do you think about rescuers and rescue groups that buy dogs at auctions and make it sound like they have done something good (while showing no regard for the dogs who will take the place of the dogs they paid for)?
I applaud your criticism. Activists buying dogs at auctions provide funding for puppy millers to buy more dogs and keep their operations going. Many puppy millers have rescue groups take their spent breeding dogs, but breeders will have no incentive to do so if they can profit from selling the dogs instead.
What is the single most important thing you think people need to know about commercial dog breeding operations in order to deter them from buying dogs in pet stores?
I have two single most important things to mention. For commercial dog breeding kennels, you should know that most of them are worse than you’d imagine. For pet stores, you should know that most lie to you about their breeders in ways that are bold and ridiculous, but clever.
Even commercial dog kennels that are clean and have few dogs frequently have problems such as severe dental issues for dogs. Dogs also frequently suffer from anxiety being kept in cages and pens. There is no part of the Animal Welfare Act (USDA’s standards for licensed puppy mills) that has anything to do with dogs’ psychological well-being. It covers cage size, cleaning regulations, and even regulations for lighting, but even puppy mills that follow the standards have no rules make sure their dogs are actually happy.
Pet stores frequently show videos of breeders with dogs and puppies running in exercise yards, and point to a part of the Animal Welfare Act that says breeders have to regularly exercise their dogs. The closest I’ve ever seen a breeder come to actually following the exercise regulation is to occasionally put dogs into pens larger than the dogs’ cages or runs. Pet stores show videos of dogs running through lush green yards, which if dogs were to actually be in every day, would be worn down to dirt. Pet stores will lie and say their breeders keep dogs in their homes, have only a few dogs instead of hundreds, play with the dogs all the time, and treat the dogs like family. Most customers don’t know how to disprove photos and videos shown to them as though they are fact, or to contradict someone who says they personally visit breeders selling to a store. The simple reality that I’ve seen, as evidenced on the website for the Companion Animal Protection Society (caps-web.org), is that pet stores lie.
A writer once told me that there will always be a need for large scale commercial dog breeding to meet demand and that if we want breeding communities like the Amish to do a better job caring for dogs, we should be prepared to put money toward their operations to raise standards. I could not disagree more. My position is that if they cannot properly care for dogs, they should raise another “cash crop” instead. What do you think?
Saying there will always be a need for commercial dog breeders because of customer demand is like saying there would always be a need for cigarettes because customers demanded them. The cigarette industry is thankfully dying, because it exploited people for profit. The puppy mill industry is dying, because it exploits dogs and lies to people for profit. If we want dogs to be treated better, we shouldn’t subsidize an abusive industry. We should abolish it. I agree that breeders can transition from raising dogs to another business. Ingredients for plant-based foods are diversifying, and I would prefer tax subsidy shift from supporting animal agriculture to supporting farmers whose operations are better for the environment and free from animal cruelty.
Much of your book is devoted to helping people learn about rescue dogs so they will be informed and will adopt. What do you think people misunderstand the most about these dogs in need of homes?
People often think that if they get a rescue dog, they won’t know how the dog will behave. There’s more foster-based rescues and shelters that take time to train dogs now than ever before. Shelter workers and volunteers spend time with dogs to learn their personalities, likes, dislikes, and teach them how to navigate the normal routines of living in a home if they didn’t already know it. Raising a puppy, you can’t guarantee your training will mold the puppy’s personality into who you want. You simply don’t know who you’re getting when you buy a puppy from a breeder, but you are much more likely to know who you’re getting if you adopt a dog from a shelter.
People also often think that dogs are dumped at shelters because something is wrong with them and that they all have separation anxiety. That’s simply not true. Most of the time, dogs are given to shelters by people who can’t afford vet bills, won’t take the time to properly train them, are moving and can’t take animals with them, or who found stray animals they can’t keep. There’s nothing wrong with dogs at shelters. In fact, overcoming adversity have can make them better at dealing with change.
I believe a time will come when our tax-funded shelters no longer destroy healthy and treatable pets because the public will no longer tolerate the old catch and kill model of sheltering. Do you think this is possible for our future?
I think it is possible. The fact that the term “rescue” refers to an adopted pet, and not just an animal taken from an abusive situation or as a stray, is part of a cultural shift that the publicly increasingly recognizes the need to adopt animals instead of purchase from breeders. There is a stigma beginning to be attached to people who buy purebred and designer breed puppies, and a mark of respect for people who adopt. Momentum is building for pet stores to be shut down in the U.S. Welfare legislation, too strict for the worst puppy mills to stay in business, is gaining footholds. Municipal shelters are increasingly working with local rescues to decrease euthanasia rates.
The fight against puppy mills is multi-pronged, and we’re seeing every effort have impacts in the entire process. When pet stores ban selling animals from breeders in a major city on the coast, puppy mills in the Midwest start to go out of business when they lose their main market. When false rescues are shut down, the same thing occurs. All of this makes me optimistic.
Your book was published in October of 2019. What has the feedback been like?
The main responses are that readers have learned a lot about the puppy mill industry in ways they haven’t before, particularly in understanding how puppy mills operate in ways that are hidden from us. Other readers have noted being happy with the amount of information on how to rescue dogs, with different people noting different sections of the book as most useful, which is ideal for me. I wanted a book that reaches out to everyone involved in dog rescue, and I think we nailed it.
There’s been no major controversy I’ve detected in the rescue community about the book, but from some feedback and interviews I can tell that my advocacy against domination-style training and against purpose-driven thinking are the most controversial points. Rescue Dogs explains why dogs view us as equals, and why they respond best to positive reinforcement-based training, as opposed to punishment that includes shock collars or reprimanding dogs verbally. I stand by this way of thinking, and I should note that many dog trainers advocate it. Personally, it’s helped me rehabilitate some terrified dogs into being comfortable members of loving families.
I believe my stance against purpose-driven thinking, also known as teleology, is most controversial. In Rescue Dogs, I counter the idea that dogs are here for us to fight, race, or breed in a manner that goes against their psychological and physical well-being. However, the idea that a dog was born with the purpose of racing for our amusement is no different than the idea that a dog was born for the purpose of being loved. Both rest upon the notion that something gives a purpose to dogs outside of our control and beyond our judgement. Dogs have no inherent purposes. We give them purposes, with some of us doing so for our own benefit, and others to benefit individual dogs. If we don’t rely upon science, ethical considerations for dogs’ well-being, and the history of how dogs have come to be so exploited by people, we end up relying on justifications that dogs are used by us because, “That’s why they’re here.” I’m adamant against teleological thinking because I’ve found it is the most common justification for abusive acts I’ve seen.
(video courtesy of the Companion Animal Protection Society; mill images courtesy of Pet Shop Puppies)
On April 27, 2007, law enforcement authorities converged on a property at 1915 Moonlight Road in Surry County, Virginia, to execute two drug search warrants. What they found on this rural property quickly became the subject of intense national discussion and drew a great deal of attention to pit bull type dogs. Because of the involvement of then NFL football player Michael Vick in a multi-state dog fighting operation, the dogs soon came to be know as “the Vick dogs.” The dogs became the subject of a civil legal proceeding regarding their disposition as property. The following wording is taken from the Verified Complaint regarding the dogs which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division (federal court) on July 2, 2007:
On or about April 25, 2007, state investigators executed two search warrants at 1915 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, Virginia. During those searches, the officers recovered and observed numerous items associated with an illegal animal fighting venture, including approximately 54 pit bulldogs. Many of the pit bulldogs recovered or observed in the search had scars and injuries consistent with injuries sustained in dog fighting.Additional items were recovered and observed. These items include: a blood-stained fighting area; animal training and breeding equipment, including a "rape stand," a "break" or "parting" stick, treadmills and "slat mills;" assorted paperwork documenting involvement in animal fighting ventures; and performance enhancing pharmaceuticals commonly used to increase fighting potential in dogs trained for fighting, as well as to keep injured dogs fighting longer.
On August 31, 2007, the Court entered a judgment forfeiting the seized dogs to the United States. Although some large national organizations were calling for the dogs to be destroyed (namely PETA and HSUS), they were not. On October 16, 2007, the Court granted a motion by the government to appoint Professor Rebecca J. Huss as the guardian/special master to evaluate the permanent disposition options for the forfeited pitbulls. The recommendations were adopted by the court and the dogs went to a variety of organizations: 22 dogs went to the Best Friends Animal Society Sanctuary in Utah, 10 went to Bad Rap in California, 3 went to the SPCA of Monterey County in California, 1 went to Our Pack in Virginia, 4 went to the Richmond Virginia Animal League, 3 went to Recycled Love in Maryland, 3 went to the Georgia SPCA, 1 went to Animal Farm Foundation in New York and 1 went to Animal Rescue of Tidewater. (Of the 52 dogs taken from the Vick property, 2 died while in government custody and 2 others were euthanized due to physical/emotional suffering)
It seems since the time of the initial seizure of the dogs and we learned about Vick's personal participation in the dog fighting operation and killing dogs he has been in the news regularly. I will not recount the history here. He was last in the news in late August when it was announced that he had been named as sports analyst for Fox Sports. Prior to that, he was in the news in July when he was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. I often read statements by people to the effect that Vick “did his time” and “paid his debt to society.” I beg to differ. We all know that Vick spent some time in prison. What many people either don't realize, or refuse to acknowledge, is that he did time in federal prison for federal crimes related to engaging in a criminal enterprise which crossed state lines. The Surry County District Attorney at the time of the dogs were seized and the scope of the dog fighting operation was discovered was Gerald Poindexter. He chose to not prosecute Vick for the state law crimes which included his personal participation in torturing and killing dogs. If you have never read Jim Gorant's book which sets forth what really happened at 1915 Moonlight Road and what happened after the dogs were seized, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so. "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption" is an incredibly well researched book which holds a place of honor in my own animal welfare library. For me, Vick's “debt to society” will never be paid because he was never fully prosecuted for his crimes. I realize that he has a right to earn a living and feed his family. I do not believe that he should enjoy any type of celebrity status in our society or that he should be put forth as a role model of any kind.
When I think about the ten years since the dogs were saved, I choose to focus on the dogs and not on the thugs who used dogs for their own entertainment and financial purposes, leading to abuse, neglect and death. Although there were calls for their destruction, the 48 dogs who went on the organizations approved by the court proved to be far more resilient and far more forgiving than anyone would have imagined. They are examples that even when pit bull terrier type dogs have been subjected to the worst that humans have to offer, they are capable of defying the media hype of them as super-predators and of overcoming incredible abuse. Many of the dogs saved on April 27, 2007, have since passed away. To learn the history of all of the dogs, please consider reading Jim Gorant's recently published book, “The Found Dogs: The Fates and Fortunes of Michael Vick's Pit Bulls, 10 Years After Their Historic Rescue.” I don't want to spoil the book for you. I will say that of the 48 dogs placed, "17 passed their CGC (Canine Good Citizen test), seven were certified as therapy dogs and more than half have made public appearances to support anti-breed legislation or to raise awareness and fight discrimination. At least that many have also been used in training programs and foster homes to act as role models and help calm other dogs."
We've learned a lot about pit bull type dogs in the last ten years. It has obviously not been enough as municipalities continue to enact and enforce BSL (Breed Specific Legisaltion) and BDL (Breed Discriminatory Discrimination), objectifying perfectly good family dogs who have done nothing wrong while perpetuating myths about the dogs which are not based in science. The pit bull ban is still in effect in Denver, Colorado. It is also still in effect in Miami-Dade County, Florida, although a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the ban was filed on October 11, 2017. I'll be watching that case closely and genuinely hope the ban is repealed.
To learn more about fact-based research related to pit bull type dogs and dog aggression, I encourage you to visit the website for the National Canine Research Council. I relied heavily on materials published by the organization in my original 2009 edition of my research paper advocating adoption of pit bull type dogs and the revision of my paper published in 2014.
If you'd like to read an incredible law review article on the topic of pit bull type dogs and Breed Specific Legislation, Katie Barnett of the Barnett Law Office is published here. Katie and I first interacted during the time when the criminal and civil cases about the former Vick dogs were pending. I consider Katie another one of my go-to subject matter experts; her law review article is incredibly comprehensive and goes far, far beyond the scope of my research paper.
In honor of National Pit Bull Awareness Month, let's all take a moment to reflect on the dogs saved more than 10 years ago, on those dogs still being unfairly judged due to media hype and on the people who love them dearly - who know the truth about the capacity of these dogs to love and be loved.
(image of Molly courtesy of the Best Friends Animal Society; image of Hector courtesy of Roo and Clara Yori)
If you consider yourself and animal person, you are probably more aware of how other people treat their animals that some people. You notice the dog chained to a tree. You see the skinny cat which belongs to your neighbor. You lament the dog you see living in a pen 24/7/365 with no human interaction. Some people can see these things and simply tell themselves that it is none of their business and not their responsibility to remedy or fix. Others of us lose sleep over these animals. We tell ourselves that there must surely be something we can do to make their lives better. Surely there are law enforcement authorities who can help.
Yes. And no.
Most of us will see something or become aware of a situation in our lifetime which we consider animal abuse, neglect or cruelty. The reality is that whether or not what we see is illegal is a different question entirely. Each state has state laws regarding animals, some of which are strong and some of which are not. Many municipalities have their own laws regarding treatment of animals and yet other municipalities rely on the state laws for standards. The only federal law related to animals is the Animal Welfare Act which was enacted in 1966 and which regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers. The point is that what is illegal in one place may be perfectly legal in another place and there is little you can do about it. What you see may bother you and keep you up at night, but it is entirely possible that law enforcement authorities cannot do anything about it at all.
We have legal principles in our country which are understood by most people as a result of public education, through some personal knowledge of the legal system, from awareness of current events or just from reading books or seeing movies and television shows. We are all familiar with the concept that people are innocent until proven guilty using our legal system. Most of us are also familiar with general principles of due process and probable cause. In order to pursue a criminal case against a person for a wrong, they must be breaking an existing law and there must be a way to prove that using evidence, normally in the form of first-hand testimony and exhibits. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove that someone committed some wrong. We learn of situations all the time when some crime was committed, but it cannot be prosecuted because those with direct knowledge refuse to testify about it.
The same is true regarding animal crimes. If you see something you don’t like, you can submit an anonymous report in many areas of the country. But almost all of those places which allow for anonymous reporting also require the complaining party to testify if an actual criminal case moves forward. Only those people with first hand knowledge of the abuse, neglect or cruelty can provide evidence - in the form of testimony - in support of a criminal case. This responsibility cannot be passed along to a third party or to animal control personnel.
Some instances of abuse, neglect and cruelty are self-proving. For example, if you live in a community where it is illegal to chain a dog to an object (like where I live), you can call and report a chained dog to local law enforcement. They can then go to the location, see the chained dog for themselves and issue a citation about it. That may lead to further legal action. In my city it is a misdemeanor offense to chain a dog or fail to care for a dog who lives outside. People are given an opportunity to comply with the law first but then are subject to criminal penalties if they do not comply or if they repeat the offense.
Other situations are not self-proving and require you to become personally involved. You may see something day after day which bothers you. A cat who is being physically abused by being kicked or thrown. A dog who never has water or who has no shelter. If authorities go out to check it, it is entirely likely the animal owner will either deny the allegations or will claim the situation just arose. The water just ran out. The shelter was there an hour ago. In some cases, authorities will have to have a search warrant to investigate abuse and neglect which has been issued by a judge as a result of a showing of probable cause. In many cases there is little authorities can do about the abuse, neglect or cruelty absent your willingness to speak up for the animals who cannot speak for themselves. You are the one who must break the he said/he said stalemate by reporting what you know, by being prepared to file a formal complaint, by being prepared to testify about what you know and perhaps even by providing photographs you took or video you have recorded (while doing so in a manner which does not amount to trespassing or harassment of the animal owner).
I got into an argument of sorts with some rescuers recently who are upset about how a man is treating his dogs. They have been told numerous times by authorities that they must file a formal complaint in order for criminal charges to be considered. They must have evidence of what they allege has occurred even if that evidence is only in the form of personal testimony. They simply refuse to do so. They also refuse to meet with authorities to talk about their concerns or about to keep track of what they see in order to develop evidence. Their opinion is that it is the job of the animal control officer in a particular county to handle the situation without them having to be involved. Our legal system simply does not work that way in cases that are not self-proving. They can complain about the ACO all they want, but it does nothing to help the dogs they claim are being neglected in some way. Animal control officials have been to the property multiple times, have spoken with the owner multiple times and have found no “actionable” neglect or abuse. They have even gone so far as to persuade the owner to surrender some of his dogs to rescuers and to allow rescuers to provide dog houses for his dogs in an effort to improve their quality of life. Is the situation perfect? No. But what is happening on the property that is within view of officials is not illegal and the people who claim to have knowledge of neglect refuse to step up and report what they know formally.
If you see something which bothers you so much that you loose sleep over it or you feel compelled to get involved, please be prepared to own your outrage. If you think the animal owner is approachable, try direct contact first. There may be circumstances going on of which you are not aware. If the person is not approachable and you really want something done by someone, remember that the someone is you. If you have time to complain about the situation on social media, you have time to channel your energy into positive action. Stand up for what you believe and speak for the sake of the animals who cannot speak for themselves. If you won’t do it, who will?
Other information on this topic is found on these pages here:
Animal Cruelty in Your State
Who to Contact and What to Report
Reporting Mills, Dog Fighting or Hoarding
Using Common Sense Regarding Animal Cruelty
(images courtesy of Chris Haight Pagini and Tamira Ci Thayne)
When I first became an advocate and started doing volunteer work to help rescuers years ago, my presence was simply a Youtube channel. I stored my slideshow projects there and I still do, even though I have moved my voice to this website and to the other websites I manage related to my advocacy.
One of my early projects was a slideshow simply called "Find Me." I used a Fisher song which was unreleased at the time and which was written about the disappearance of Natalie Holloway. Although I have reworked a number of my slideshows over the years to keep them fresh, I have left Find Me as it was originally created. I put it together at a time when I was incredibly frustrated and exasperated and it is one of my darker projects. My thought now is that there is enough negativity "out there" related to issues about companion animals and I'm better off taking a more educational or positive approach. I know how I react when a commercial comes on TV for the APSCA or the HSUS. I just don't want to be seen in the same light. They can keep the doom and gloom approach and I'll try to reach people using other methods. One of the recurring frames in Find Me is the traditional see no evil, hear no evil speak no evil image which is ordinarily associated with the Three Wise Monkeys.
I was interacting with a contact of mine with No Kill Houston recently and she let me know she had been contacted by a filmmaker after reposting an old "rant" of mine about shelter volunteers who enable failed shelters through their silence or who otherwise defend the destruction of savable animals. The documentary film is called Silent Shelter and it is currently in production. What caught my attention about the film was not only the image which leads off the trailer, but also the subject of the film itself: the rights of volunteers who help in animal shelters related to their free speech.
I am the first to admit that I have very little tolerance for people who volunteer for or otherwise support shelters where healthy and treatable animals are destroyed. There are proven programs to end the killing and they have been known for about 15 years. My own advocacy has been made more difficult not only due to shelter leaders and employees mired in a dysfunctional system, but also by rescuers and volunteers who refuse to speak out about what is broken. Some of the most toxic opponents of my no kill advocacy have been rescuers and volunteers who spend their time defending the killing and enabling the process when common sense would dictate that they would work just as hard as I am to end the needless killing. I cannot count the number of times I have been told by volunteers that they essentially "go along to get along" so they won't be "cut off" from helping animals. I've never really understood that position at all. If you really want to help animals, then look further than X dog or Y cat to resolve the systemic issues which cause them to be destroyed in the first place. Your silence is, ultimately, your approval.
In spite of my criticism for enablers and apologists, I know of numerous other people within the system who have spoken about about wrongs they have seen, heard and experienced only to be banned from a shelter or told they must sign some type of document saying they will not criticize the shelter. Is it this subject which is explored by the film and for that I am thankful. This subject has been covered by a lot of people a whole lot smarter than me so I won't go into detail on the issue here. The bottom line is that shelter volunteers and employees cannot be silenced because doing so violates the free speech provisions of our Constitution.
I look forward to seeing the film. I hope you'll take a few minutes to watch the trailer. If you are a volunteer or employee at a shelter where bad things happen, I hope you will take some time to educate yourself on no kill philosophies and issues related to free speech.
If you don't speak out for the welfare of animals in shelters, who will?
It was Friday when I saw him for the first time. I backed down the driveway into the road, waved goodbye to the boys and there it was. A dog pen. On our neighbor's property. In which sat a yellow lab. In the rain.
We moved to our home only after being driven away from what we thought was our retirement parcel. Our state gives more legal rights to shooting ranges than to property owners and I just couldn't tolerate being forced to listen to automatic weapons fire while inside our home. Leaving was incredibly hard. We chose our new house because it's inside city limits (meaning we do have property owner rights), because it has a few acres and because no one near us had dogs living outside 24/7/365 on a chain or in a pen. So much for that plan.
I understand that I live in a region with cultural differences related to domesticated animals. I realize that some people were raised to believe that dogs don't belong inside because they are animals. But hasn't the time come to move past the 1870s? Haven't we learned enough about the intelligence of dogs and their emotional needs to do better for them than to imprison them in pens while denying their nature as pack animals?
Because of my job, I know far too well what happens when we force man's best friend to live as a resident dog, separated from our homes and more focused on a 100 square feet of dirt or the world found within the length of a chain than on anything else. I know about fatality attacks by dogs who were not properly socialized to people and who paid for our failings with their lives. The dangers of resident dogs are well documented by people much smarter than me. To me, forcing a dog to live outside chained or penned is abuse and simply abhorrent. If you put your dog in a pen outside for short periods of time in order to get fresh air and because you lack a fully fenced yard, I get that. But to put your dog inside a pen where he or she can only stand up, walk a few feet and turn around makes absolutely no sense to me. To force that dog to live in those conditions perpetually, regardless of weather conditions and with no human interaction beyond providing them food makes even less sense to me.
A dog kept chained (or confined to a pen) whether for hours, days, months, or years can suffer tremendous psychological damage. Under these limited conditions, dogs are forced to eat, drink, urinate and defecate all in the same small area. Because of the dog’s minimal physical space and lack of socialization, dogs kept penned or chained can become exceedingly hyper and aggressive. A penned or chained dog is not protective of the people who live in a nearby home. They are protective of and territorial toward the area in which they are confined. Left unsocialized to people on a regular basis, they can become aggressive toward anyone who comes near them, including unsupervised children.
The National Canine Research Council's investigations into dog bite-related fatalities reveals the majority of these tragic cases involved circumstances where owners failed to provide necessary care and human control of their dogs: 1) failure by dog owners to spay or neuter dogs not involved in a responsible breeding program; 2) maintaining dogs in semi-isolation on chains or in pens; 3) allowing dogs to run loose; 4) neglecting or abusing dogs; 5) maintaining dogs not as household pets, but as guard dogs, fighting dogs, intimidation dogs, breeding dogs or yard dogs; and 6) allowing children to interact with unfamiliar dogs.
My dog will never live outside. We keep him safe and dry. We provide him with the veterinary care he needs, the companionship he needs and he is a member of our family. He is not our child, but we are as responsible for his needs as if he were our child.
If yours is a resident dog, why do you even have a dog in the first place? I don't expect an answer to that. It just makes no sense to me at all. And it never will. Your dog deserves better than to be a prisoner in your yard.
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