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.
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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