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