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)
There is a reason why some organizations are granted nonprofit status. They are tax-exempt because they exist for certain reasons which are recognized by law. In order to get and retain that status, nonprofits have to have bylaws which state that they will not engage in political activity. When they file their nonprofit application with the IRS they must reconfirm in that application that they will not engage in political activity.
Is it stated on the IRS website, “Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner. On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
In June of this year, I filed formal complaints with both the Internal Revenue Service and the Alabama Attorney General's office regarding impermissible political behavior on behalf of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. The basis for my complaint was fairy simple. In 2017 a website was published by an organization calling itself the Alabama Puppy Mill Project ("APMP"). The stated of intent of the organization was to promote legislation to end mistreatment of dogs in "puppy mills" in Alabama. The website was replete with references to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and openly talked about the relationship between the Greater Birmingham Humane and the APMP. The address for the APMP was the same as for the GHBS. The email address for the APMP was a GBHS email address. Although the names of the individuals behind the APMP are not on the website or Facebook page, my impression was then, and still is now, that the APMP is essentially Allison Black Cornelius (who is the CEO of GBHS), an attorney named Angie Hubbard Ingram and members of a rescue group which was up until recently called Cavalier Rescue of Alabama (and now operates as The Cavalier Rescue). The activities of some individuals associated with what is now doing business as The Cavalier Rescue were covered in an investigative article in the Washington Post which exposed the fact that some rescuers buy dogs at auctions and have spent large sums of money to do so. For me, the behavior of the APMP is imputed to the GBHS.
Because I lead an advocacy coalition which includes members who run non-profit organizations, I understand that there is often a fine line between a coalition and the people that make up the coalition. People who lead non-profit organizations are allowed to have personal opinions about political candidates; they just have to be very careful to keep their personal opinions from being interpreted as the opinions of the nonprofit. In order to eliminate any perception of impermissible political behavior, we never tell people who they should vote for. We do tell people the position of candidates on our issue, encourage them to research candidates and encourage them to vote.
When I first saw the APMP website and all the references to GBHS, I didn't think much about it or act on it because the primary purpose of APMP was to advance legislation. I also knew that the GBHS had filed an exception with the IRS to be able to be engaged in lobbying activity. I am not and have never been a fan of the GBHS. This is a huge nonprofit organization which operates with millions of dollars and which has historically had a dismal live release rate. When the APMP brought a “puppy mill” bill in 2017, I did not support the bill. I felt it was way too ambitious. It would have created a new state agency in Alabama which would have required funding in a state which has historically not done a great job of funding education. Beyond that initial hurdle, I just wasn't sure how much good the bill would actually do. It focused very much on licensing and I was left wondering who would enforce it. My thought was that a lot of small time, backyard breeders, who might not be treating dogs well, would simply ignore the law and not comply with it. I didn't state a public position on the bill and I simply stayed out of the way.
As I expected, the bill advanced by the APMP in 2017 failed. It appears that someone led the members of the APMP to believe the bill would make it out of committee; I'm not sure who. In the wake of the bill failure the members of the APMP behaved in ways which I found both extraordinarily unprofessional and embarrassing even though I had nothing to do with the behavior. Rather than simply lament the fact that the bill didn't pass and work to communicate with the senators who did not vote for the bill in committee - toward doing a better job in the future - the women behind the bill went on what I can best describe as a rampage. There was a press conference held in the lobby of the GBHS. People were encouraged to send emails to the senators which I'm told by the senators were juvenile and hostile. One senator told me this: "Unfortunately, those who try to intimidate and vilify end up losing respect and the option to even discuss important issues. My door has always been open to those who want to openly discuss issues in a professional manner." I also saw a number of posters which I thought were incredibly unhelpful towards gaining cooperation from legislators moving forward.
What led me to file complaints with both the IRS and the Alabama Attorney General's office was the fact that the APMP then began engaging in political behavior on its Facebook page. During the primary election in Alabama earlier this year, the page was very vocal that people should support one candidate to the exclusion of the other candidate (the image at this link is just one of many posts about candidates and who to vote for). At the time that this was going on the APMP website was still replete with references to GBHS. The About page talked all about GBHS. The address was the same as for the GHBS. The email address was the same as for GBHS. The candidate promoted by the APMP prevailed over a long-standing incumbent. We will never know if the voting was influenced by endorsement of one candidate over the other. What we do know is that this was political behavior which is considered impermssible behavior by nonprofit organizations.
I have not heard from the IRS about the status of my complaint. That is not surprising because I'm sure they get hundreds of thousands of complaints every year. When you file a complaint with the IRS you are told that you will not be notified of the outcome of the complaint.
The process with the Alabama Attorney General's office is different. I received an initial letter saying that my complaint was being processed. I was also informed that the organization against which I had filed my complaint would be given an opportunity to respond to the complaint.
After I filed my complaints the APMP website was scrubbed of references to the GBHS. The About page is gone as is any other reference to the GBHS. The Facebook page for the APMP has not changed much. There is still a lot of content tied to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and I presume that will not change.
I received a letter from the Attorney General's office yesterday which states the following:
This office has received no additional communication pertaining to your complaint against the above reference company or individual. Because the individual / company has obviously indicated an unwillingness to cooperate with this office and its role as a mediator, the Attorney General does not have authority to pursue this matter further. It is suggested that you may want to consult an attorney or considering filing a complaint in small claims court. I am sorry that due to the nature of this matter we cannot be of further assistance. (emphasis added).
If nonprofits want to promote or support legislation, I have no issue with that. If individuals want to support or promote legislation, I encourage that. What I take issue with is a nonprofit organization which tells people who to vote for and who to vote against. In this case, the least the Greater Birmingham Humane Society could and should have done was to respond to the request for input from the Alabama Attorney General's office to show transparency and to defend its behavior. The fact that the APMP website was scrubbed to remove references to the GBHS speaks for itself. Considering the terrible live release rate at GBHS, I would like to think that focusing on saving lives of animals entrusted to the organization's care would be a top priority and that focusing on legislation would be of secondary importance.
I am told the Alabama Puppy Mill Project plans to bring its 2017 bill again in 2019 with some minor revisions. I will again not have a position on the bill. I have one of my own I am advancing which may do some good. Time will tell.
NOTE: On the day I published this blog, I received an email from The Cavalier Rescue, Inc. asking me to change my wording related to the name of the organization and disputing my characterization that the group had been "outed" in the Washington Post article about rescues buying dogs at auction. I modified my paragraph above which references this group to which I had made only a passing reference. I have been in conflict with the people in the group for some time; we will never agree that buying dogs at auction for whatever it takes is rescue. It is a purchase and it is worse than buying a dog in a pet store - something we tell the public to never, ever do. The email exchange with the group is here. I chose to not respond to the last email to me. It would have served no purpose.
When you hear the word “auction,” what image comes to mind? Real estate? Cars? Antiques? Art? Livestock? eBay? How about dogs? Yes. Dogs.
Dog auctions are big business in our country and as I blogged about in both 2016 and 2017, some of the biggest customers are people from the animal rescue community. Although many rescuers are quick to criticize people who buy animals in pet stores, they see no issue with cutting out the middleman and going straight to the source.
There was a time years ago when rescuers could get former “breeder stock” who were no longer profitable, and who otherwise would have been destroyed, for free. One of the most famous faces in the fight against “puppy mills” and irresponsible breeders is Harley Taylor, the little dog who was rescued after having literally been left in a bucket to die. At around this time, rescuers could get some of the breeder stock slated for auction, but in the very worst shape, for some nominal amount. I have been told about dollar dogs or a deal to sell 50 dogs for three dollars. Yes. Three dollars. The inspiration for National Mill Dog Rescue was a dog named Lily Strader who was purchased at an auction for $20 in 2007.
Fast forward to present day and all of that has changed. It changed not so much because the commercial dog breeding industry itself changed, but because of a new buyer at auctions: well meaning rescuers who are so bound and determined to “rescue” or “save” dogs from auctions that they are willing to pay whatever it takes to get dogs, sometimes spending hundreds or thousands on dogs who in prior years would have sold for a fraction of that cost.
I am unapologetic in my criticism from people in the rescue community who buy dogs at auction and pay anything more than some nominal amount that may cover the cost of lunch or a tank of gas. A sale is a sale is a sale. I will not revisit my earlier blogs here other than to state one basic fact: while it may seem noble to buy a dog at auction and call it rescue, doing so is incredibly short sighted because it only serves to perpetuate the very industry we all claim to abhor. Yes, that one dog may go on to lead a great life. But that one dog will be replaced by at least one (if not many more) dogs we do not see. And so the industry continues, driven by pricing and demand created by rescuers.
One of the first publications to cover this topic was Kim Kavin’s book, “The Dog Merchants” which was published in May of 2016. I am pleased to share that Kim continued her extensive research to go beyond her book and that the efforts of 18 months have come to light for all the public to see and read in the Washington Post Article entitled, “Dog Fight: Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn.” I encourage you to read the article for yourself and then give some serious thought to the whole subject of rescuers at auction.
Kim was gracious enough to spend some time to help me blog on this topic and about her article. I hope you find the Q&A informative.
(A poodle dog is seen jumping at the Sugarfork Kennels on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Goodman, Mo.
Photo credit: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Your article sets forth facts and evidence which could be interpreted as evidence of criminal behavior by individuals and rescuers. Do you expect any criminal charges to be filed and, if so, how would that come about?
What we did with this article is shine a light on a practice that most everyday dog lovers don’t realize is happening, pulling back the curtain on the fact that dog auctions exist and that some rescuers are going there to buy dogs alongside the breeders.
Those basic facts, alone, have been a revelation to many dog lovers, based on the comments I’ve seen around the Internet and what I’ve heard from even my own friends and family. We achieved our goal of documenting the fact that this business model is happening in the world of rescue, and that it is widespread, with the rescue and advocacy groups and shelters that we tied to auctions now operating nationwide and into Canada.
Now that we have presented the information, how other people choose to use that information, well, that is up to them.
Your article makes it sound as though many rescuers have now taken the place of USDA licensed brokers because they buy dogs at auction and then sell them to the public using the phrase "adoption fee." Is this a fair assessment?
I think the line in the story that speaks best to that question is this one: “The breeders call ‘retail rescuers’ hypocritical dilettantes who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated, online pet stores.”
That line was written based on what our reporting showed. Several of the breeders we quoted in the story are USDA licensed and, thus, know how brokers operate.
It’s interesting to me that you homed in on that point. So did the Best Friends Animal Society, on its blog, where the Best Friends writer stated: “Breeders refer to these rescuers as ‘hypocritical dilettantes who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated, online pet stores.’ It’s hard to argue with that observation while more than 4,100 dogs and cats are still being killed in our nation’s shelters every day.”
In my experience, most people who donate to rescue groups knowing full well that they plan to buy dogs at auction think they are doing a good thing. They believe that they are helping rescues save dogs from lives of misery and servitude. What would you say to those people to persuade them that these purchases actually enrich the industry?
We do use the word "enrich" in the article. The editors and I discussed, debated and ultimately decided to use that word based on our reporting. We believe our reporting supports it.
For some of that reporting, I’d point readers to the quote from Southwest Auction owner Bob Hughes, in the sidebar Q&A, that I think speaks most directly to the way that you asked your question: “I think rescuers do help drive up the prices — but all bidders help. The $18,000 and $12,600 dogs that we broke records selling in February, they didn’t go to rescue. To say that rescuers don’t help the prices, though, would be wrong. . . . Every single person that attends an auction is driving the price up. And if . . . the breeder is determined to get the dog, and the rescue is equally determined to get the dog, that’s going to drive the price.”
I’d also point readers to that same Q&A, to the interview with the owner of the Heartland auction, who said: “Prices paid by rescues are higher now. The rescuers come in here with more money than the breeders. … The principle of what’s happening with the rescues is the same at our place as at Southwest, but the prices aren’t the same.”
I know of rescuers in my state who travel hundreds of miles to buy dogs at auction while turning a blind eye to the dogs in shelters near them who need to be rescued to stay alive. Is this behavior typical as far as you know?
It’s interesting to me that you are asking about that underlying debate within the rescue community, because again, the Best Friends Animal Society did the same thing in its blog.
This was the take that Best Friends had on it: “Would it surprise you to learn that the rescue group that purchased the two Cavaliers for $10,000 each is located in Alabama, the state with the third highest number of shelter animals killed annually? Or that the rescue group that purchased the pregnant Frenchie is located in Texas, the state that tops the shelter killing list? Texas kills an estimated 232,000 shelter pets per year and this Texas ‘rescue group’ is buying pregnant dogs from breeders at auctions in Missouri. This is not rescue, this is enabling abuse.”
My contacts have told me that the presence of rescuers at auction has completely changed the industry because of their willingness to pay whatever it takes to buy certain dogs. Would you agree?
Our reporting included some quotes from breeders who said, “We have breeders that breed for the auction,” and, “A breeder friend of mine said she’s thinking about saving her puppies until they get about a year old and take them to the auction. The rescue people will pay more than the pet-store brokers.”
And then in the sidebar Q&As with the auction owners, Hank Grosenbacher, the owner of Heartland, said: “I did have an out-of-state breeder tell me he has heard breeders say, ‘Well shoot, we’ll just start raising dogs and take them to Southwest and sell them to the rescues for high dollars. We’ll just breed for the rescues.’”
But it wasn’t only breeders and an auction owner giving us that information. It was also some rescuers. I would point people to the video at the very top of the story, to click “play” right below the headline, where they can see a rescuer—one who knows the commercial-breeding industry well—say very plainly that things have changed in recent years, and that today, “The industry understands that rescue is a piece of the business of the auction.”
That rescuer also did a phone interview with me, and she said a similar thing, about rescuers paying high dollar amounts for auction dogs: “They’re creating an industry inside the industry.”
I understand your investigation for the article took 18 months and was more work than your research for your book, “The Dog Merchants.” What shocked you most about the results of your investigation?
To be honest, I’m most shocked that it happened at all, that an industry insider read “The Dog Merchants” book, felt I was honest and fair in the reporting, and started sending me all these auction invoices and other documents. It’s quite a thing, to have all of that documentation show up in your inbox.
The result is that this story is the first time that anyone has ever documented—in dollars and cents—the multimillion-dollar river of cash that is flowing from rescue nonprofits, shelters and dog-advocacy groups through auctions into the pockets of dog breeders. That’s pretty shocking, too, that we were able to shine a light in such a substantive way.
I heard that one of the most profitable auctions by Southwest Auction Services in Wheaton, Missouri, was held in early February. I'm told a record was set regarding the amount of money spent by rescuers and the amount spent for a single dog. Do you have any information about that?
That sale in early February 2018, according to Southwest’s owner, was his most successful dog auction ever. He sold more than $600,000 worth of dogs, and a breeder paid the highest price ever for a dog at Southwest: $18,000 for a Miniature/Toy Poodle.
The top price that a rescue-affiliated buyer paid at that same auction was $8,750 for a pregnant French Bulldog. Readers can see that invoice for the $8,750 Frenchie right on The Washington Post’s website, along with a graphic drawn from other documents we have showing other prices that numerous rescuers have paid for various breeds at the auctions on other dates.
Some of the comments made by Bob Hughes make it seem like he has a certain degree of disdain for many rescuers (even though they help his business remain profitable) at worst and marvels at their behavior at best. Is that a fair assessment?
I think there are two quotes in the story from Bob Hughes where he answers your question for himself, and he where he is clear about his beliefs regarding rescuers.
We used one in the main story, where he states: “I honestly think there are very good, responsible rescues that just love the dogs and want to get them out of the breeding industry. And I think there are malicious, lying, cheating rescues that are in it for the money and the glory and the funding.”
Then in the Q&A sidebar, we used a quote from a phone interview that I did with Bob Hughes after I had contacted all of the rescuers, trying to do interviews with them for this story. The rescuers, after receiving my requests for their comment, had apparently picked up the phone and called Bob Hughes. In his own words, this is what happened when he received those calls, prior to the article being published: “I’ve probably had 30 phone calls from rescuers about this story. I told them I have empathy for them, but just no sympathy. Where were they when all the lies were being told about the breeders? You never once stood up. You never corrected a story. You keep painting us all with the same brush. You keep calling all of us ‘puppy mills.’ You want to use the word ‘puppy mill’ to describe the whole industry, and you’re part of it, but you don’t want to be accused of being part of it. Well, what goes around comes around.”
What do you hope the takeaway is from your article for the general public?
What our reporting shows is that most consumers don’t even know that dog auctions exist, let alone that breeders and rescuers are doing business side-by-side inside of them. Our story looks at the controversy surrounding this segment of the rescue world, so consumers can understand what’s going on, ask smart questions and make up their own minds.
I’ve seen in some of the comments posted around the Internet that average people are saying exactly that: They plan to ask more questions no matter where they get their next dog. That means we’ve made them aware, that we’ve done our job in shining a light on the facts for them to use as they wish.
What do you hope changes regarding rescuer behavior as a result of your article?
Based on the comments I’ve seen around the Internet, I think the same answer applies. We’ve shined a light on facts that, based on their own comments, even some rescuers didn’t fully understand.
Our reporting showed that while some rescuers have been going to the auctions for a decade or longer, in the past three to five years, the amounts of money that some rescuers are spending to buy dogs from breeders at auctions has really increased. So has the percentage of business that the rescuers make up, based on our reporting. The owner of America’s biggest government-regulated dog auction told us that rescuers now make up 30 to 40 percent of his business.
(individual dog images courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue)
In November of last year, I wrote a blog called "Rescuers at Dog Auctions - Please, Stop." The blog received a lot of attention and not all of it was good. I knew that some in the animal rescue community would not take kindly to my position. I honestly expected a great deal of hostility from some rescuers and I was not at all surprised by their negative reaction. My hope was to reach ordinary, animal loving people who may not be aware of the topic and who may unwittingly be complicit in the behavior through well-intended donations.
The concept is fairly simple. There are organizations and individuals which breed dogs and which then sell them at auctions, much like a livestock auction or an auction of farm equipment. Dog auctions are held in a variety of places. The most well known dog auctions are held by Southwest Auction Service in Wheaton, Missouri. The next dog auction is being held this Saturday - October 7th. Looking at the schedule, four more dog auctions will be held before the end of the year after the one being held on Saturday. There was a time when the people at dog auctions were other breeders and were brokers who were there to buy dogs to be sold in pet stores across the country. Make no mistake - this has always been big business and it is fueled by one thing: our willingness to buy dogs in pet stores. Millions of dogs are bred each year to meet public demand and millions of dollars change hands in the process.
I have never been to an dog auction, but I have numerous sources and contacts who have and their first-hand accounts are good enough for me to not only have an opinion about the auction process in general terms, but to have an opinion on how that process has changed - for the worse - due to people in the animal rescue community. My sources have decades of combined experience in interacting with commercial breeders and with the auction houses themselves. They have been around long enough to see the evolution of the industry based on sweeping changes brought about by good intentions, but which have made matters worse. Many of them have been involved for decades in seeking legislation to regulate the dog breeding industry, to make auctions illegal and to ensure better conditions for the "breeder stock" and the puppies they produce.
As I wrote in my earlier blog, there was a time as recently as 10 years ago when the presence of rescuers and rescue groups at dog auctions was not the norm in most regions. Most of those present at auction were breeders who were at the auction to buy dogs to add to their businesses. During this time, it was not uncommon for some in rescue get dogs for free, to get "dollar dogs" or to get large numbers of dogs for small amounts of money (i.e., 50 dogs for $3. Yes you read that correctly). That all changed not quite 10 years ago in the Great Lakes region and about 6 years ago in the Midwest. Rescuers had an increasing presence at auction and were often easy to spot from the way they dressed, the way they behaved and the amount of money they were willing to spend on dogs. The presence of rescuers at auction is now extremely obvious to both the auction companies and to the breeders who are both fascinated by and repelled by the rescuers’ behavior in terms of how much money they are willing to spend to "rescue" dogs.
I have heard the arguments of many in the rescue community to the effect that buying dogs at auction is a noble cause and that it is all about the dogs. I recently read an article written by a rescuer who equated the dogs she and her peers buy at auction as machines. She said the breeding dogs are the machines and the puppies are the products. She wrote that when she and others like her buy dogs at auction, they are taking a machine out of the production process and that dog will no longer be objectified or mistreated in the course of producing puppies. This argument is not only incredibly short-sighted. It is simply wrong. Yes, there are some dogs "in the system" at "puppy mills" or in large commercial dog breeding operations who are not treated well. Some are outright abused. Yes, it is noble to seek to get those dogs out of the system to end their lives of imprisonment and servitude and to rehabilitate them to put them into loving, compassionate homes. But when money is paid by rescue groups for those dogs in amounts which far exceed what any other bidder would pay, three things happen:
- a dog has been removed from the breeding operation and will more likely than not go on to lead a wonderful life in a new home(if the dog has been neglected, has serious health issues and is not socialized to people, the rehabilitation process can take a long time and many well-meaning adopters may not understand the challenges they will face)
- more money has been paid for that dog than would have been paid by non-rescue bidders at the auction (in some cases these amounts are many times what another breeder would have paid for a dog)
- the dog which is no longer part of the breeding operation will be replaced by a better, younger or more healthy dog
The first of those three things is great. I would love nothing more than for all dogs currently being used as part of a breeding operation to be freed, rehabilitated and to go on to live lives of luxury and be spoiled rotten. That is not a realistic idea at this juncture simply because the business is so huge and because it is fueled by us and our demand for dogs. It is the second and third things which are the issue. The money paid for the dog at the auction simply serves to enrich the breeding operation and the dog bought by the rescuer will be replaced with at least another dog if not more than one dog.
It cannot be denied that the presence of rescuers at auction has changed the industry. Breeders send dogs to auction because they are done breeding them (they are no longer profitable), because they can't sell them directly to consumers and/or because they know they can get more money at auction than anywhere else. As I wrote about last year, there are now breeders who produce puppies of certain breeds specifically to sell to rescuers at auction.
The solution to me is simple even if some people get emotional about it. The dogs who are in the commercial breeding industry now are already there. Some are well cared for. Many are not. If we want to end what many call "puppy mills" or better regulate the commercial dog breeding industry, the way to do that is through endorsing legislation which sets standards for the care of the dogs and to stop buying the products in pet stores. And in auction tents. I understand we feel badly for those dogs in the system, particularly those who have not been treated well. We see them as victims and we should. But when rescuers buy them at auction and call it rescue, we are simply ensuring the industry will be more profitable than ever and we are ensuring that dogs we do not see will take their place. It is a fallacy to think that by purchasing a dog at an auction, no other dog will be negatively impacted.
Animal rescue is very much about helping animals in need, many of whom are in our antiquated sheltering system and who are at risk of death every day in all but the most progressive communities. If you are a rescuer, or you financially support a rescue group, please focus on those dogs in need in the animal shelter in your own community or in another community. If yours is a breed specific rescue and the demand of your followers for the breed of choice is so great it cannot be met through saving shelter dogs or other dogs of that breed needing to be re-homed for some reason, consider expanding your rescue organization to also help other dogs of a similar size or look. You may be surprised to learn that many people think they want a particular breed, but are willing to adopt another breed of dog in order to save the dog's life.
Please, rescuers, just stay away from auctions. Please. And donors, please do not financially support those who buy dogs at auction. You may think you are doing something noble and just. But you are not. If you are intent on having a dog which came from a puppy mill for some reason, connect with an organization which does not buy dogs at auction and which instead gets dogs relinquished to the organization for free by breeders and auction houses with no money changing hands.
(Note - at the time I was writing this blog, I learned that the City of Dothan, Alabama, was planning to auction off a number of dogs which had been seized from a local dog breeding operation. The dogs had been spayed/neutered and vetted and I am told that this was done as a fundraising effort toward building a new shelter. I opposed the auction decision; a lottery would have been another way to raise money from the community while raising awareness about all shelter dogs. A number of people in the rescue community who regularly buy dogs at auction in Missouri spoke out against the Dothan auction, but they attended anyway. I had hoped they were attending for research purposes. They bought dogs as intermediaries for other rescue organizations, in some cases outbidding locals who had hoped to adopt the dogs.)
(images courtesy of PetShopPuppies and National Mill Dog Rescue)
Please stop what you’re doing and do a search on your phone or computer for this:
"Dog by Dog"
This will lead you to the website for a compelling documentary film about the commercial dog breeding industry and the subject of "puppy mills" which has been getting more and more attention these days. The film is now available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Youtube, Vudu and Google Play.
There are some materials which I consider compulsory viewing or reading for any animal welfare advocate, any person who cares about companion animals or any person who is interested in how we spend money in our country at federal, state and local levels. "Dog by Dog" is must see viewing as far as I’m concerned. I first blogged about Dog by Dog last August prior to public release of the film and I called it a game changer akin to "The Cove" or "Blackfish." I was fortunate enough to get a Q&A session with Chris Ksoll, the film's Executive Producer. Now that the film has been released for all to see and I have seen it myself, I felt it was important for me to talk about this film again and to implore people to watch it.
I have long believed that if we could get the American public paying attention to what takes place in our country related to the subject of the commercial dog breeding industry and related to puppy mills in particular, people would be so outraged that they would demand change. We Americans love our dogs to extent we could even be called "dog snobs." We hold the values of our culture higher than the values in some other cultures where dogs as used solely for utility purposes or where dogs are consumed. We are appalled at places and by people who don’t share our values, as if those people are less evolved than we are. But just how evolved are we really? It’s hard to stake a claim on the moral high ground when we produce millions of dogs each year while we destroy millions of dogs each year in places we dare call "shelters."
"Dog by Dog" introduces us to subjects we’re not used to hearing about related to puppy mills: money, power interests and legislation. Unlike some footage many of us have seen regarding puppy mills, this is not an "in your face" film that overwhelms you with disturbing images which will keep you awake at night. It is more of a thinking person’s film which helps us understand the topic logically and pragmatically while introducing us to some incredibly important people who are working really, really hard to change our society. And while I would hope what you see does not keep you up at night, I hope what you learn completely changes your opinion on this subject and compels you to get involved.
• We hear from people like Bill Smith of Main Line Animal Rescue who appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2008 and effectively put the phrase "puppy mill" on the public radar. Bill has an excellent quote in the early portion of the film where he compares the way we house mill dogs to strapping them into seats on a 747 and making them live there for 8 years.
• We hear from Bob Baker, the Director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, who helps us understand what happened to legislation in Missouri to regulate mills which was opposed by powerful and influential forces, but which ultimately led to enactment of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act.
• We hear from Bob’s counterpart in Ohio, Mary O’Connor Shaver, a long-time contact of mine whom I hold in very high regard. Mary leads Ohio Voters for Companion Animals and she is on the front lines of fighting puppy mills in her state through public awareness and by advancing legislation.
• We hear from people in the "weeds" of rescue like Mindi Callison of Bailing Out Benji who protests puppy mills weekly in an effort to educate the public and while saving mill dogs.
• We learn about the incredibly powerful influence of the American Kennel Club related to dog breeding and the regular opposition of the AKC to common sense legislation to regulate that breeding.
• And we learn about the staggering influence of "Big Agriculture" interests which fight incredibly hard to thwart legislation which would serve to help dogs using the "domino reasoning" that the legislation about dogs would surely lead to legislation about cows, pigs and chickens.
In order to give more depth to this follow-up blog about the film, I solicited some input from three of the people you will see in the film. I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to Christopher E. Grimes, Bob Baker and Mindi Callison for taking the time to answer some questions for me.
Christopher E. Grimes, Director of Dog by Dog
Q: What is the one thing that shocked you most about the subject of puppy mills during the course of producing the film?
Bob Baker, Director, Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation
Q: Even though Proposition B (covered extensively in the film) was altered after the public vote, are you satisfied with the changes created by the legislation?
Mindi Callison, Founder, Bailing Out Benji
Q: There have been a number of documentary films made about the puppy mill industry. What do you think separates "Dog by Dog" from those other films?
If you have not seen this film, I simply cannot urge you strongly enough to take 88 minutes out of your life to see it. The power to end puppy mills and regulate the commercial dog breeding industry rests with us. Yes, us. Mills will exist as long as we keep buying the products and until we learn about the incredibly powerful forces at work in our society that keep the industry alive and thriving.
You will surely walk away from viewing the film wondering why in the world the mass production of dogs is even legal in America considering our otherwise progressive culture.
(images courtesy of "Dog by Dog")
Every now and then a documentary film comes along which is a complete game changer. I'm talking about the kind of film which serves as the functional equivalent of a slap across the face, but does so with an awakening of the mind to a topic which was previously unknown to most people or just not really on what I call "the public radar." I like to think that most people are more good than bad and that in a lot of cases, we would care more about important topics if they were put right in front of us in a big way. Some documentaries do just that and they become the tipping point for social change. We saw this with "The Cove," which exposed us to the realities of dolphin hunting and slaughter. We saw this with "Blackfish," which forced us to consider the issues created by keeping orca whales captive for our entertainment. We are also beginning to see it with "Redemption: The No Kill Revolution in America" which helps us understand the history of the animal welfare movement which was born of compassion and then lost its way, leading to a culture in which healthy and treatable animals are destroyed in our sheltering system for no good reason and using our tax dollars.
I am thrilled and excited to share that there is a new documentary film that's really going to shake things up culturally related to the commercial dog breeding industry. "Dog By Dog" is a documentary that aims to expose the American public to the horrible realities of "puppy mills" by essentially following the money and the power players in what is a huge, global, multi-million dollar industry fueled by our love affair with the canine species. The film has been shown at a number of venues across the country (and in other countries) in the last 15 months and will become available to everyone early next year. As soon as I heard about the public release date, I wanted to help promote the film in advance of the release in hopes that people will treat this film like the game changer it surely is. I have long said that if the dog-loving American public was made aware of the realities of the commercial dog breeding industry and educated on the topic of puppy mills even a little, most people would be both sickened and outraged and would no longer support the industry. All puppies are cute; we are so blinded by the cuteness that we see that most of us either don't know about where those dogs come from or we just don't want to think about it.
Dog By Dog has been reviewed by a number of journalists and I wish to take nothing away from that coverage. A simple Google search for "Dog By Dog" will lead you to a host of articles already written about the film by people who write for a living. I felt it would be more helpful for me to do two things as an individual animal welfare advocate: 1) share the trailers for the film (each runs just over 2 minutes); and 2) get some insights regarding the documentary through a Q&A session with Chris Ksoll, the Executive Producer.
I would like to thank Chris for taking the time to help us all understand this topic better and to understand how it is that this documentary film became a reality. Please take the time to watch the trailers, read what Chris had to say about the story behind the film and the film itself and then mark your calendars for the release of the film in January of 2017. The website for the film is here and the Facebook page for the film is here.
Dog by Dog Trailers
Q&A With Chris Ksoll, Executive Producer
A lot of people have heard the phrase "puppy mill," but they aren’t really sure of what that means? Can you help us understand what that phrase means to you?
Here is the funny thing about that word; the USDA does not acknowledge it. They claim to deal with "large scale commercial breeding operations". The word puppy mill evolved because conditions in those large scale commercial breeding operations are so bad. Generally, a mill is an establishment that breeds puppies for sale, in conditions regarded as inhumane. That is a more accurate description of conditions and the USDA will not acknowledge the reality of the term. The USDA actually says they are insulted when people use the word puppy mill. I am pretty sure the dogs living in chicken wire cages 24/7 feel more than insulted every day.
Do you have any idea how big the scope of this issue is in terms of dogs sold each year and dollars made each year? Is there really any way to tell?
It is estimated that over 2 million dogs are sold in pet stores. Most of the stores are closely-held so that is a guess. More than 2 million are shipped, however, and not all puppies survive the long ride or pet stores. So it is not just the selling. It is the entire commerce chain that should be considered for total numbers. Let's just use $400 as an average price per dog; then we have an $800 million industry. Almost a billion dollar industry. Given the advent of "oodles" and other mixes, I am guessing the average cost is greater than $400/per.
As someone in the banking industry, some people may not understand how you got involved with this topic. How did you first get exposed to the realities of puppy mills?
I call it "pure life changing luck". Someone told me my first rescue was a Shiba or at least part Shiba. He is so awesome, I went to the Shiba rescue to get him a wife--at first. A man was sent to do the home visit and when we talked to set up the time, he was telling me about his foster puppy who was living under his couch. He told me no one could touch him and he was terrified of everything. I told him to bring the puppy during the home visit because Louie, my first dog, was like a therapy dog. He did, and Louie never got a wife; he got a son. Brady was the first mill dog. Poor Brady took a whole year to house-train and I could not really touch him for months. Louie did everything. The rescue folks had my name, so one evening I got an emergency call that a woman fostering two breeder girls had something bad happen to her and they needed to place the dogs ASAP. So then I had a puppy mill puppy and a breeder girl in my home. I did not know what fostering was, and while I went on to foster a lot of dogs, Kumiko never left. Meeting her changed my life. I remember the car door opening and a 17 pound ghost almost crawled out. All her female organs were hanging and out; she was missing most of her teeth; her has a tract infection; she had worms; she had bad fur and no fur on her tail; her eyes were almost closed because she was in pain. I knew I had to get her spayed and healthy as quickly as possible. Louie stood guard 24/7, just confirming how sick she was. He is like that. Brady immediately adopted her and also took care of her. So there I was with these 3 dogs, thinking how could this be legal? Was it legal? I couldn't stop crying. and my head hurt--this problem became like a migraine in my head. That is also how we got to the name, Dog By Dog, as that is how the mill dogs are currently being helped. Now it is time to do more.
A lot of people have been personally affected by a situation with a puppy mill dog, but very few actually act on that experience in a big way. What led you to become involved with a documentary film?
Every day, I was inspired and amazed by Kumiko and Brady. With a lot of care, they got healthy and better. Every day. Plus, their personalities started to come out. My head was constantly spinning about the topic though. It was like a shadow and a migraine at all times. I also started fostering mill dogs that I was going to adopt out. Early in the fostering, I remember two male puppies. The rescue said they needed a foster home asap or the mill would kill the dogs that did not get out. Another fetal position moment. The economy was bad, the pet stores were buying less, and if the puppies grew bigger than the pet store cages, they had no use for the dogs anymore. It was a death sentence. So the puppies came. Then there were 5 but I got the puppies adopted out separately to amazing homes. Then more fosters came and more and more. Every foster had a mill story to tell and inspired me to do more. It occurred to me though, that I could foster until I am dead, and I would not have solved the problem. Fostering just was not enough for me, although it is absolutely important.
I started researching-like a banker. I started reading everything I could. I asked questions of anyone who would speak to me. I watched documentaries, TV shows, anything I could to learn. But I kept feeling like the "head of the snake" was missing in all of the the things I was researching. The Oprah special was as close as I could get to feeling like I could see a broad overview. That was outstanding. What it did not do was list the bad guys. Clearly, we hold the actual mills accountable for substandard conditions, but as a banker, everything has a money trail and my job is to understand it and define it and chart it. That is the part of my job I love because then you can really help people. Now that would become the foundation for solving the mill money trail problem. Since we did not know all the vested interest parties in the chain, I was worried about being blocked. So, whatever I came up with could not be blocked. I had 1,000 lists of formats, vehicles, approaches and thought about it and what I could do that would uncover the truth and not be blocked for a year. I would lay on the floor with Kumiko on my belly and talk to her.
One day, about a year into my research and analysis, it hit me. It had to be a documentary. It was the only format/vehicle that allows for the tracking and tracing or truth and no one could block it. Then, picking the right Director and company was going to be the most critical decision. I specifically wanted a Director/company that was not tied to animal welfare in any way; someone who was even in their tone, incredibly talented at uncovering information and weaving facts together but in away that is not horrific or graphic or outrageous. Chris Grimes won awards for his documentary "A Second Knock At The Door". It dealt with friendly fire in the military. I spend a lot of time helping veterans too, so it just seemed like we were meant to work together. Because he is not an animal welfare company, he had to his own research before accepting this mission. I absolutely think he is a genius at his craft. He wants to make real and meaningful change, is a Masters of Public Policy from Northwestern, has no inherent bias of any kind and is the very best partner I could ever have asked for to make this film with. It really has been one of the most perfect teamwork opportunities of my life and for which I am so grateful.
Your film has been shown across the country and even in other countries to limited audiences. What can you tell us about the release to the rest of the public?
Our local/national/international screenings have been part of a strategy we carefully crafted when the film was completed. We felt like bringing the full money trail truth out to the public in an organic way would have special meaning and impact. We have been able to raise funds for 501c3's and also give them a screening to raise their own awareness in their communities. It has been like weaving a fabric together of everyone who cares about the mill dogs or wants to learn the truth about mills. I call that our "Person By Person" part of The Journey for Change. It has been amazing to meet all of the people associated with all of the rescues/shelters etc and learn about the great work being done. That was the foundation layer of The Journey For Change. Now, we want the most amount of "eyeballs" possible and that is happening! While I can't say a lot right now, we do have our distribution that will bring the film out in every format, to everyone. It is the perfect partner for us. 2017 will be the year of truth for the mill dogs. Our amazing distribution partner will begin communications in the not too distant future but please know everyone will be able to see and/or have the film. I can't wait to have copies in my home.
Recent history has shown that documentary films can have an incredible impact on the public and often bring people to the table to help affect change. What do you hope the release of your film to the public accomplishes?
My original plan has several components/phases. Phase 1 was making the film and getting the truth out. Tactically, for phase 2, I would like to see 1) A rewrite of the Animal Welfare Act, 2) Removal of Companion Animals from the oversight of the USDA and moved to Commerce, to remove the conflict of interest and 3) Move all companion animal legislation from the Agriculture Subcommittee, where it all good animal-helping legislation gets killed. All the conflicts of interest need to be removed. Period. There is bipartisan support for companion animal legislation and it never gets the chance to happen because of the Agriculture conflicts of interest. That is the tactical next part.
Socially, I hope "Two Chris's from Chicago" can inspire everyone to find the part in the film they want to act on or take further. Every single person can help a mill dog. Don't buy one from a pet store; hold a fundraiser for a rescue; foster a mill dog; call your legislators and meet them; if you have money--participate in lobbying: connect with me, if you can help there; don't buy any of the products of the companies in our film; make sure your investment portfolios are socially responsible; support small, local family farms only; share information on social media; know your breeder and make sure it is a real, small family owned legitimate breeder; for all the lawyers--we need your help; pro-bono legal to change legislation is critical; there are a zillion ways to have short term impact, while a long term solution is worked on. We all can have impact. Transparency and truth create momentum.
A lot of people will be surprised at some of the key players who have opposed attempts to reform the commercial dog breeding industry. Who do you consider the most virulent opponents of reform?
Every single component of the money trail has its own accountability. No one is more or less culpable if they are participating in the exploitation of dogs for profit. I would argue though, that people who block legislative help for sentient beings, because of money they receive, have a special place in the bad-guy list. The USDA talks about "self reporting" in our film. The USDA should have self reported their conflict of interest and moved companion animal oversight to another group/dept. Commerce, for instance. They know that their actions and lack of actions are at the top of all of this and yet, don't seem to mind. My brain could not wrap around that. It just couldn't.
What do you think the most important things are that the dog-loving public can do to help our society bring an end to puppy mills?
The first is to not buy any dogs in pet stores. There are amazing dogs in shelters and rescues. And make sure your dog is spayed/neutered. If you want a breeder dog, make sure your breeder is a real, legitimate breeder. They want you to come over to their homes, where you will meet the parents and see where the dogs are being birthed and live until you get yours. Never ever buy a dog over the internet. Our film has a great case study about that. Educate others as you learn. We are in the process of making Puppy By Puppy, which is the kids version of Dog By Dog and will be made available to educational venues for free. Kids want dogs but they don't support cruelty. This film will help those generations learn and once they know the truth, the kids will automatically do the right things.
I first heard about a new film called "The Dog Lover" about a week ago. I had seen something about it on a website and heard about a review by Bailing out Benji, but did not have the time to really delve into the topic. On the surface, the film looks to be a feel good story of a woman who champions the cause of animal welfare for dogs and triumphs over evil. I checked in with a couple of contacts who told me that the film was pretty much "pro mill." When my husband picked up a copy and brought it home, I told myself I would do my best to remain neutral about it when we watched it. I tried, really I did. If you plan to see the film, you may want to stop reading here so I don't spoil the plot for you. I don't go into much detail, but I do touch on some of the story line.
The Dog Lover is a film which purports to be based on a true story. It is not. There are very few actual facts in the movie and the rest of the plot is tossed together for effect. The film was produced by a group called Protect the Harvest which is led by oil giant Forrest Lucas. The name of the organization alone tells you a lot. You can do some simple searches to see that their mission is. I will not link to the organization here.
But back to the movie. The premise of the film is pretty simple. A woman who works for a large animal welfare organization and who thinks all dog breeding is morally wrong agrees to go undercover working as an intern for a breeder of hunting dogs. She is sure she will find evidence to help shut down what she was told is a "puppy mill." The breeding operation is not what she expected, she ends up liking the breeders and decides that they have been falsely targeted by her employer. Rather than act on her knowledge, she hangs around to get friendly with a boy she likes, only to have law enforcement authorities sweep in to seize the dogs. Many of the dogs get sick only after having been taken from the breeder and a lot of them die. The breeder is later vindicated in legal proceedings and proclaims that he is glad his reputation has been restored.
For me, this movie just really served no purpose and it may only serve to confuse the dog-loving American public. I'm not so much hung up on the fact that the movie claims to be based on a true story when it really is not. I am hung up on what our take away from the film is supposed to be.
In The Dog Lover, everyone loses.
The HSUS loses. In the film, the lead character works for the United Animal Protection Agency. In real life, this case involved the Humane Society of the United States. I am no fan of the HSUS as an organization and I have never shied away from being critical of how they spend their millions. I see them as a self-perpetuating money collection agency which brings in money by playing with the hearts of the American public. The HSUS loses in this film because it is made out to the the bad guy and exposed for being hypocritical. I'm okay with that. It is deserved criticism. It was about 5 years ago that the HSUS did a "raid" on a property not far from where I live. The dogs became known of simply as "The Alabama 44." The short story is that HSUS seized 44 dogs from a rural property under the guise of taking them from deplorable conditions and without the knowledge of local law enforcement officials. The dogs were dispersed to a variety of locations. Some were destroyed in gas chambers in another state, some were destroyed locally, having been deemed "unadoptable," and many were never accounted for.
The dog breeder loses. The breeder in the film is just that: a breeder. Although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, the reality is that breeding dogs is perfectly legal in our society even if the conditions in which the dogs are allowed to be housed would make us all sick. The film shows dogs who are fed, have clean water, receive veterinary care, live in pens which allow room for movement and the dogs are socialized. If the reality of the dogs' care and living conditions was anything like what is portrayed in the film, I honestly am not that critical of it. That may not be popular to say. I am well aware that many of the people who breed dogs would otherwise be engaged in some other type of livestock or farming industry and that for them, breeding dogs is the source of their livelihood. It is all they know. I know there are responsible breeders and I know that not every breeding operation is a puppy mill. I long for the day when all, large commercial dog breeding operations end but I really see that as being the responsibility of us as consumers. If we want them to stop breeding dogs, we need to stop buying them whether we are individuals or call ourselves rescuers. In the film, the dogs are taken from the breeder even though they are shown as being well cared for. It is only after the dogs are taken from the breeder that they get sick and a number of them die.
The dog lover loses. I am sure that there are people who work for large national animal welfare organizations like the HSUS, ASPCA or even PETA who are simply ethics-driven. For them, this is an issue of morality and they likely count themselves fortunate to be paid to do a job they love. The tide is beginning to turn on these organizations as the donating public learns more about how their money is being spent in the name of animal welfare and often not in ways of which they approve. In the film. the conditions found by the dog lover are nothing like she expected. Instead of breaking off her undercover investigation and reporting back to the powers that be that they are focused on the wrong location, she stays on board and then tries to do damage control later. Shame on her. You can believe in a cause all day long, but with that comes responsibility to think for yourself and not just blindly follow those who possess incredible power.
And the worst part.
The dogs lose. I think the thing that struck me most about this film was the lack of focus where it should have been: on the dogs. Regardless of whether you think every breeder runs a mill or if you think all dog breeding is wrong or your loathe the HSUS, I would like to think all of us would be focused on the well-being of the dogs we produce by the millions and which we then, as a society, destroy by the millions. In this film, dogs are bred, dogs are seized, dogs get sick, dogs die and in the end, no one really seems too broken up about that result. Although the breeder portrayed in the film says at the end that he's glad his name has been cleared, nothing at all is said about the fact that the entire process resulted in unnecessary death.
If you really want to see an educational or empowering film about the dog breeding industry, find an opportunity to see Dog by Dog at a city near you or get your own copy once it is available for purchase. You can see excellent trailers for the film here. You can also pick up a copy of I Breathe which covers the topic of commercial dog breeding and which includes the story of Lily, the dog who inspired National Mill Dog Rescue.
When I first decided to move my advocacy to an actual website with content, as opposed to just having a Youtube channel, my plan was to expose people who care for animals to some subjects they might not otherwise know about. I considered myself pretty informed on “animal issues” a decade ago but I just wasn’t. There are a host of serious issues related to companion animals in our country that are just not on the “public radar,” for lack of a better description. Most people who care for and spend their lives with companion animals are focused on what affects them personally and don’t spend much time thinking about issues outside of their own household or community. One of the first issues I learned about years ago was about puppy mills.
Most Americans have heard the phrase puppy mill and don’t give it a whole lot of thought. I want you to think about what it means because whether you know it or not, puppy mills affect us all, even people who don’t consider themselves “animal people.”
Puppy mills are commercial dog breeding operations where dogs are produced in large numbers for profit and with little or no regard for the “breeder stock.” As I have written about before, this is big business in America. Whether a mill has hundreds of dogs or a handful of dogs, they are infusing dogs into the market and into American homes by the millions each year. The products pretty much sell themselves. Puppies are cute and it is easy for us to either not think about where they came from or not care about it.
At the same time that mills are producing millions of dogs a year and making big money off of our love affair with the canine species, millions of dogs are being destroyed in our “animal shelters” each year using our tax dollars. You may think those dogs are sick or damaged in some way. You may even think that they simply cannot be saved because we just have too many of them. The reality is that the vast majority of dogs destroyed in shelters every day are perfectly healthy and treatable and there are homes for those dogs. They are destroyed because that’s what we have been doing in America for about 150 years and it’s just easier to keep doing it than to stop and ask “why?” More and more no kill communities are being created across the country with each passing month and year, but most shelters in most cities are places where animals essentially go to die using our money and while we are blamed for that process. The mind set is that if we were just more responsible, if we cared more, if we spayed and neutered more, if we did not treat our pets as disposable, etc., the animals would not have to die.
It is not a coincidence that millions of dogs are bred in mills and then millions of dogs die in our shelters. Millers, both large and small, put millions of products in front of us which we find incredibly hard to resist and we keep buying them. As long as we keep buying them, millers will keep producing them. And as long as millers keep producing dogs by the million, we will continue to destroy dogs in our shelters who have been overlooked or stereotyped, simply because they are unfortunate enough to have landed in our sheltering system. Yes, there are people who surrender animals to shelters and who should never have an animal in the first place. But not every animal entering a shelter is there due to someone’s callousness or irresponsibility. Pets get lost, people die, people get sick, houses burn down, people lose jobs and people often to not make the best decisions about their animals when life gets really hard and they aren’t thinking clearly. Every shelter animal deserves to be treated as an individual and to be given an opportunity for a new life. To do otherwise blames the animal for the failings of our society and of us as individuals.
I got an email recently from an advocate in New Jersey named Candace Quiles about a dog auction being held in Missouri on August 6, 2016. A miller with a terrible reputation for abuse is auctioning off his “stock” through a company called Southwest Auction Service and Marketing. I was contacted to see if there was something I could do to stop the auction. I cannot. Dog auctions are perfectly legal in our society and they happen all the time. This is what millers do and this is part of the business of puppy milling. Millers breed dogs, auction them off to brokers, individuals or even to rescue groups. Some in the rescue community have been known to pay thousands of dollars for a dog while describing their behavior as “rescue," leaving millers laughing all the way to the bank. Make no mistake. People who mass produce dogs for a living think no more of those dogs than they would any other form of livestock. The USDA is to thank for the mill industry and it is high time that the USDA got out of the business of regulating that industry so we can work to bring an end to them once and for all. Just because farming dogs is easier than farming cotton or soy beans doesn’t make it right. And just because rescuers can come up with 5 grand to "rescue" a dog in an auction doesn't mean they should.* A sale is a sale is a sale.
After I was contacted about the auction, I looked into a little bit even thought I knew I could not stop it. I found the sales list for the auction. If you squint just a little bit and don’t look too closely, you might think this was an auction for used farm equipment or auto parts. It is an auction of living, breathing, feeling, sentient creatures and while those hosting it and attending it may find it perfectly normal business activity, I find it sickening and horrific.
Puppy mills may very well be one of the two greatest public shames in the American society regarding companion animals, the second being our broken animal sheltering system. We consider ourselves animal-friendly. We hold ourselves above other cultures where animals we keep as companions are consumed or bred for fur. But how can we possibly claim moral high ground while mills still flourish in our country and while we still kill dogs by the millions with our collective funds?
Man’s Best Friend. Made in America. Shame on us.
(click on the image to view a pdf copy)
*Position Clarification on Auction Payment for Dogs
I received a comment on this blog from a rescuer related to my position on rescuers who go to auctions. I want to clarify my position in light of her comments to me.
I fully support organizations and even rescuers who work with millers to have mill dogs relinquished to them and which then turn around and work to educate the public toward ending the mill industry. I volunteer for a national organization which does just that. I even support organizations which pay some small, nominal fee to save breeder dogs through direct contact with the miller.
I do not support people who go to auctions and who pay large sums of money for dogs using the label of rescue. I have first-hand accounts from people who have been to auctions and have seen thousands of dollars paid for a single dog. They have seen rescuers buy puppies for huge sums while leaving the parent dogs behind. In some cases, this behavior has driven up the prices. Some millers use shills in order to target those in the rescue community and drive up prices.
Any person or organization which pays large amounts of money for puppies or dogs under the name of rescue is enabling the entire process. You are putting money into the millers' pockets and to them you are no different than a broker or than someone who will take the dogs and sell them to a pet store to then sell to the public. For them, this is not an emotional topic at all. By making it an emotional topic yourself, you are helping them breed and sell more dogs. The plight of mill dogs is heart breaking. But if we behave emotionally about a multi-million dollar industry, we will not change it. If you really want to help mill dogs and end mills, saving dog A, B, C, or D is not having the effect you desire and may very well have the opposite effect.
I do not need to go to an auction to know that buying dogs which come with a huge price tag is not helpful related to ending this industry. Many of my contacts have first hand experience about auctions and their knowledge is good enough for me.
If you think that paying $5,000 for a mill dog to “rescue” that one dog is a noble effort, consider this. You could use that same money to help many more relinquished mill dogs be rehabilitated and find homes while helping to educate the public to stop the industry. And if you didn't pay big money for the sick or injured dogs you see, they may very well be relinquished to an organization which will help them. Some millers rely on rescuers to pay big money for dogs as a result of the very behavior of some in the rescue community.
I have written before about the concept of pets as property and how that can be a good thing in our current social climate as it relates to legal rights. Yes, our animals are precious to us and they are not property in the traditional sense because we consider them priceless. Because my dog is my property, I have legal rights related to him being taken from me by law enforcement authorities, related to him being stolen from me and related to him being destroyed unnecessarily by an animal shelter. Until we change our laws so that I have rights similar to rights related to children, I am fine with him being called my property as long as I can protect him from harm.
The issue of dogs as a commodity, as inventory and as livestock is, however, a completely separate issue for me and it is one which is infuriating. Puppy mills exist today because we created them. The first commercial dog breeding operations came about thanks to a USDA program implemented decades ago to help struggling farmers. Dogs were promoted as a fool proof cash crop. They are easy to produce and the return on the dollar is high compared to other products. Americans love dogs, so what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Dogs began being produced in huge numbers while being housed in conditions we would normally find inadequate for any animal of any species. The commercial dog breeding industry became big business and it still is today, leading to the creation of a number of organizations which focus solely on saving mill dogs and on educating the public about mills. When we talk about puppy mills, that description encompasses a wide range of businesses and places. Some are large breeding operations with hundreds of dogs who produce thousands of dogs each year. Some are more rural operations managed by those in the Amish culture and yet others are simply backyard operations which go on unseen, unheard and out of the public eye. There is also the distribution system, the most notable of which is a distribution facility managed by the Hunte Corporation which takes puppies from breeders and ships them across the country in unmarked trucks to a pet store near you. A large number of the dogs produced commercially are sold to brokers who then sell them to pet stores. Many dogs are simply marketed through the internet using polished looking websites which present the illusion of proper care and cleanliness. Still others are sold through newspaper ads, on street corners and in the parking lots of large chain stores.
Although I am not a fan of breeding dogs, I fully recognized that there is such a thing as a responsible breeder. There are people who breed and then sell dogs while taking excellent care of the parent dogs and while doing all they can to perpetuate breed standards and have healthy puppies for people to buy as family pets or to use in some service capacity. There is a continental divide between a responsible breeder and a puppy mill, no matter the size of the mill. In a mill, the “breeder stock” is housed in unthinkable conditions, often in small wire cages with no flooring. They receive no veterinary care (or very little veterinary care) leading them to develop a host of conditions and diseases. Many have missing eyes from having been sprayed by power washers or tumors from lack of care or nails which have grown so long as to become ingrown. If you were to stop and try to think of a house of horrors for dogs, that would be a puppy mill.
The sad truth as it relates to the mill industry is that all puppies are cute and that we are blinded by the cuteness that we see. Even if we know it’s possible that the cute puppy in the pet store may have come from horrific conditions, we really don’t think about that much because the dog is there and he or she needs a home. I have known of some people who are well aware of the conditions in mills and yet they have rationalized buying a dog from a pet store in order to "save" it or "rescue" it. I have often though that if the puppies came with accurate labels, or were accompanied by a realistic image of the conditions in which their parents live, we would be so appalled we would know better than to buy one, cute or not.
Here’s the thing. Puppy mills thrive because of us. We make them profitable. We create the demand. And they will continue to dot our landscape across our country, keeping canine prisoners in horrific conditions, until we say “enough” and we stop buying what they are selling.
We created mills. We can stop the mills by speaking out against them, by telling everyone we know about them and by simply refusing to purchase dogs which millers see as nothing more than inventory. It is up to us to say, “no. That is not what our culture is about.” We like to think of our country as being animal friendly. The time has long since passed for us to stop patting ourselves on the back for being dog lovers while allowing such an insidious industry to exist in our country and doing nothing to stop it.
Adopt-A-Pet, Inc. is hosting a Puppy Mill Awareness Day event on September 18, 2016, at Buchanan Park in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, often called Puppy Mill Capital of the country. It is a day-long event which will have activities geared specifically toward educating children. The guest speaker is Victoria Stilwell who has written a host of books regarding dogs and who is a dog trainer and television host for a number of series about dogs. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning about puppy mills and how to stop them to consider attending this wonderful event.
I prepared a couple of projects for Carol Araneo-Mayer for her event and am sharing them here. I hope she has a huge turnout and that people come away both educated and empowered. Perhaps if we adults are too complacent to end the mill industry, our children can. Even children know that puppy mills are bad.
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