Freelance Writer
Factory Animals: Some are born there, some never make it out; exploring the puppy mill business
12.04.08 | 1 Comment
Category: Animal Activism

The dog pawing the bars at the pet store is undoubtedly a cutie. As a youngster, it was always fun to browse the store and giggle at the adorable pets for sale, hoping our parents would say, “OK, we can have him.” You didn’t think about where they came from. You didn’t think about the fact that the cunnin’ Shitzu or Cocker Spaniel unfortunately represented and perpetuated a massive, lucrative, cruel pet trade. Neither did our parents. Then, we didn’t know much about where these pets came from. Like with marshmallows, we’re largely ignorant to their origin.

As the ASPCA reports on its Web site, “that cute little puppy most likely came from a large-scale, substandard commercial breeding operation, commonly known as a puppy mill. Puppy mills usually house dogs in overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. The breeding stocks at puppy mills (possibly your new puppy’s mom and dad) are bred as often as possible in order to increase profits. Unlike your lucky puppy, the mom and dad will probably never make it out of the mill.”

The standards are changing, but not enough. Not enough to stop the flow of purchases that fuels this problem, and not enough to shut down the countless puppy mills that supply these stores or many “kennels” that are really just pet stores with attractive masks.

The puppy mill (as well as mills that breed birds and other smaller animals) problem is a frustrating and seemingly insurmountable one at times, but there’s no giving up; too many animals will suffer as a result. “While many people are aware of the existence of puppy mills,” said Monica Engebretson, project director of Animal Protection Institute, based in Sacramento, California, “few people realize that birds, reptiles and other animals are also frequently produced in mill-type situations where many, many animals are kept in barren cages, and under horrible conditions in order to churn out animals for the pet trade.”

“One doesn’t need to be an animal rights extremist to be horrified by this sort of treatment,” echoed Leigh Grady, who runs the Sterling Animal Shelter. “To treat living beings so crassly, so objectify them as ‘things’ and see only their financial worth is morally wrong.”

The mills, graphically explored in a variety of high-profile investigations for TV and newspaper coverage, are indeed that horrific. With a remarkable number of animals jammed into small crates, devoid of socialization and loving treatment, the mother dogs are usually bred their entire life in captivity, sitting in their own filth and unable to run – or “live.”

Deborah Howard is president of the highly visible Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), a national animal welfare organization dedicated to protecting companion animals that has a strong focus on researching and investigating pet stores, puppy mills and breeding facilities. As it states on the Web site, “since 1995, CAPS’ focus has been on the USDA’s failure to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) as it pertains to commercial dog breeders and brokers. In order to document AWA violations, CAPS investigates federally licensed facilities in the Midwest (more than 100 since 1997).”

“Puppy mills still exist because there is still a demand,” says Howard. “People buy on impulse. There are payment plans.”

She started her crusade in 1989 after wandering into an Atlanta franchise of the Massachusetts-based Doctor Pet Center, which had more than 300 stores across the country. “First of all,” says Howard, “I was appalled by the conditions. I saw a lot of sick puppies there, and it wasn’t’ too clean, so I decided to find out where they got the puppies from and then I found out about puppy mills.”

Backed by her background in public relations and a law degree, she dug further into the puppy mill business. Her findings fed an ongoing passion to stop them.

She’s not alone. Large animal rights organizations are devoting a lot of energy and funds toward this issue. Stephanie Shain, who is the director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States, directs the Stop Puppy Mills campaign for the HSUS. Involved in all aspects of the work on mills, it includes supporting legislation to better regulate factory style breeding, working on a billboard campaign, educating puppy buyers and working with grassroots activists.

“There are so many issues facing animals today,” said Shain, “and so many abuses that could be prevented if more people knew about them. I think what makes the effort to stopping puppy mills so important and unique is that it is the systematic abuse of animals who are one of the most beloved in our country. The same people who spend hundreds of dollars on clothes or beds or leashes for their best friend may also have supported a business that looks at neglect of animals as business as usual.”

Howard and CAPS have been involved in a multitude of media investigations, jumpstarted by an undercover investigation for 20/20, as well as a number of pet shop protests throughout the US and Canada in close to 40 cities in 1990. Her grassroots efforts and PR work now make her a popular source for media coverage, namely a two-part feature on “Dateline” in 2000 that had the second most responded to story in the history of the TV show. “We got so many emails,” said Howard, “that it took me three weeks, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, to answer them. People love animal stories. They are really affected by them.”

Now, CAPS is shooting its arrow at the USDA, which in charge of inspecting the federally licensed facilities in two classes: A and B. The A dealers are the actual breeders and puppy mills. The B dealers are the brokers who sell the dogs to the pet stores. Working with a law firm in DC, CAPS has a bevy of lawyers working pro bono lobbying in an effort to change the standards by which the USDA operates. “Sometimes, we go in a day after an inspector goes in [from the USDA],” said Howard, “and has said there are no violations and we find plenty. And sometimes, even when they find one, they don’t go back to see if corrections have been made.”

Shain adds, “It is important to understand that these standards [that the USDA ensures] require the bare minimum to keep these animals ‘healthy.’” These requirements include the size of the cage, that animals should have food free of bugs, that they are provided water and veterinary care. There are no laws that ensure that the dogs ever be taken out of their cages or given attention or affection. “The dogs are treated like little breeding machines,” said Shain. “Additionally, enforcement is pretty poor. There are about 100 inspectors nationwide and about 4,000 breeding operations. Those 100 inspectors are also charged with inspecting animal research facilities, circuses and other exhibits that involve wild animals. The math isn’t complicated.”

The puppy mill industry is well funded, and Shain reports those mills are working harder than ever to ensure that its way of treating dogs is protected. Conversely, every effort is being made, mightily, by those who want to protect these animals, but like the puppy mills in question, it is like throwing tomatoes at a well-armed bully with a lot of friends. “No decent breeder would ever keep his or her dogs the way puppy mills do,” says Shain, “in cages for their entire lives, churning out puppies as fast as they are physically able, and much to their physical detriment.”

Additionally, the USDA has never required dealers that sell animals directly to the public to apply for licenses, regardless of its size. The Animal Welfare Act excludes retail pet stores from its minimum requirements. It’s the USDA’s position that these dealers are retail pet stores. What does that mean? Well, someone could keep hundreds of dogs in cages and bypass the licensing procedure (however lame that procedure is) because they sell directly to the public. More and more, Shain says, this selling is being done on the Internet. There are thousands of puppy mills operating that no one is even looking at. The current laws are insufficient, argue people such as Shain. Like animal cruelty laws in most states, they don’t do the job.

So one would ask – why the lax attitude? Why does this look-the-other-way approach seem to be prevalent regarding the laws that supposedly “protect” these puppy mill animals? “They are looking at agricultural interest,” said Howard. “They think of dogs as livestock, and it’s a very bureaucratic agency.” CAPS meets with the agency occasionally, namely with Dr. Chester Gibson, the deputy of APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees animal care). They made progress when they connected with the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, who was appalled at the situation and called in Dr. Gibson for action. “Very little was done,” said Howard. “It’s really hard to shut these places down because, first of all, they are federally licensed, and local authorities don’t want to get involved. Almost all of these places are in rural locations in small tight-knit communities where breeders know the authorities. The USDA just doesn’t do anything. We can present evidence to them. They say, ‘Yes, we are interested in seeing evidence.’ But now, they claim they cannot tell us what happened [with the evidence].”

Now, says Howard, concerned citizens are forced push its requests on these violations via the Freedom of Information Act, a tedious and often fruitless endeavor.

Howard says soon, they are headed to Washington (for the eighth time) to lobby for a congressional oversight hearing, hoping to instigate the Governmental Accountability Office to launch an investigation of their own. “It’s a way of looking at government management to get them to look at the USDA,” says Howard, who is opposed to breeding in general – reputable or not. “Why would you want to contribute to the pet overpopulation. It really bothers me.” I hate to see animals killed, and millions of them lack homes. I don’t understand this obsession. Why do people have to have puppies? They grow up so fast. I love mixed breeds. A rescue dog usually is better because they know you did something special for them. I don’t understand why people need to buy a purebred dog.”

Being affected and reacting in a proactive way are two different things. Even those with the kindest of hearts can be unaware of where an animal may come from that is at a kennel or pet store. Either that, or they repress the knowledge and convince themselves that it is ok.

And actually, Massachusetts is not a puppy mill state. We don’t technically have any here. Most, experts say, operate in the Midwest. Pennsylvania, particularly Lancaster County, is also known for puppy mills. “They have really bad facilities for the most part,” says Howard. “There are a lot of Amish bred puppies. We’ve investigated a number of facilities in Lancaster, and Holmes County in Ohio. Holmes is actually a lot worse.” There are mills located in Oklahoma and New York, as well. The problem is mushrooming as some operate with 20-30 dogs in cages in a garage, unloading the pups through the Internet or ads.

The puppy mills are not in this state, but the puppies bred there definitely are. In fact, says Howard, more than 90 percent of the puppies in pet stores come from mills. One of the “tricks” these stores use on customers is to argue that they are a “USDA licensed facility.” We’ve covered that one. That means you are buying from a puppy mill. “Pet Land really twists the truth,” says Howard. “I’ve seen a lot of their paperwork. They don’t list the broker’s name. They only list the breeder. They want you to think they buy directly from the breeders. That’s why your puppy costs so much; there are several layers involved.” Howard has CAPS members who work undercover at pet shops and says many are given training manuals to educate the worker on what to say to the customer who asks, “do these puppies come from puppy mills?”

In Massachusetts, where a “puppy lemon law” does exist (but is weakly enforced and little known), there are numerous offenders. Essentially, if it is a pet store, chances are you should stay away. And many kennels position themselves as responsible rescues or breeders, but in essence are pet stores in disguise. Laughlin Kennels in Oxford, for instance, last year went through a nasty dispute with Cathy Denaris and Tina Mastrototaro, who say the kennel adopted to them a very sick puppy. The two, who had to adopt the puppy to another family because they couldn’t chase the medical costs, maintain a campaign online and in local papers to warn others of Laughlin. While people such as Shain are reluctant to name names (though others will – just poke around the Internet), the bottom line is that when looking for a new puppy, never buy one unless you see with your own eyes where this dog came from, and that it is humane.

“Many people think that if they don’t have a puppy mill down the street,” says Shain, “then they don’t have a puppy mill problem. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Puppy mills deliberately operate far from the public eye. Walk in to your local pet store and ask to see the paperwork that comes with the puppies. What you will likely see is that the puppies have been shipped across the US – and just a few weeks of age – to be sold in that swanky pet store.”

Holly Sternberg is the founder of, which is both the name of a Web site and a group based in Washington DC determined to end the sale of animals in pet stores: that includes puppies, kittens, rabbits, birds, ferrets, hamsters and all over living creatures. With energy directed at large conglomerates such as Debby’s Pet Land, the group runs an extensive list of companies to boycott on its site – including Massachusetts – that are padded with customer testimonials urging others to resist buying from these stores.

Sternberg became involved in animal protection in 1980, after her image of the US being animal-friendly was shattered while working on her BA in Neurobiology and Animal Behavior at Cornell. “We feel that animals should not be treated as merchandise,” says Sternberg. “Some of these animals, such as birds, are still wild, and should not be kept in captivity at all. We let people know about the horrible ongoing homeless animal crisis and encourage them to help stop the killing by adopting their animals from shelters and rescue groups.” (Note: Sternberg does not imply that bird owners should just open a window and let their pet free. She is arguing that birds should not be captured in the wild and forced into captivity, or bred into captivity, as their complex behavior demands that they fly and flock – a subject for a later issue of Pets!)

There is often the argument of “but I want to save the pet in the store.” But what people need to comprehend, say experts, is that saving that one only kills 100s because it keeps the business alive. With all the lobbying, fighting with the USDA to do its job and trying to shut down pet stores, the answer really lies with the animal buying public. “People need to stop buying the puppies,” says Shain. “It really is that simple.”

Psychologically speaking, people don’t want to believe that the person selling that adorable puppy would lie about where it came from. Furthermore, when the buyer ends up with a sick – or dead – animal, they often are too drained to take legal action. Fighting these companies, and mills, takes so much energy that some have gotten tired of fighting. But thankfully, there are still strong-willed folks on the frontlines.

We are making strides in terms of the public’s knowledge of these places. However, in response to the buyer’s awareness, those who profit from the puppy mill business are developing more savvy tactics to deceive the public. A newer approach is for mills or stores to place ads in community newspapers to give the impression that it is a small, conscientious breeder.

“I am never surprised,” says Shain, “when I talk to someone who has bought a puppy who seemed healthy in the store but who died soon after, and they tell me that the store promised them the puppy came from a good breeder. I have yet to see a case when that is true. In my experience, they have always come from a mass breeding operation. A puppy mill. If you are buying a puppy mill puppy, you are part of the cycle of puppy mill abuse. Your money keeps your puppy’s mom in a cage for her entire life.”

Think about that, and head to a shelter next time.

SIDEBAR: One reporter’s findings

Andrea LePain, investigative producer and co-managing editor for NECN (New England Cable News), spent six months investigating a pet store in Stoughton, MA, called Missy’s Puppyland. The investigation was spawned by several customers complaining to the station that the dogs from the store were sick or genetically defective. Some had incurred thousands of dollars in vet bills.

What she found was surprising, and the result even more surprising.

LePain started her investigation at the Bureau of Animal Health, with which she filed a public records request. It produced a long list of consumer complaints, and Missy’s Puppyland had been cited numerous times for violating state health rules. LePain wanted to check this store for herself. Hidden camera in tow, she noticed some of the dogs for sale to be skinny, timid and unusually lethargic. Others, she adds, had diarrhea, and there was a strong smell of urine permeating the store.

“I went a step further and bought a dog so that I could have it checked out by a vet,” says LePain, “but when I went to pick the dog up, the store owner told me it was too sick to go home with me. So I ended up getting a different dog, and I took that one directly to the vet. The vet found a couple of problems – something with the dog’s eyes and its tail. He also said the puppy was underweight and not breed standard. When he heard I got it from Missy’s, he said he had treated many dogs from that store and had just seen bad health in general.”

Ultimately, LePain confronted the store’s owner, Linda Snow, asking for answers about the problems related to her store. She denied any issues. Interviewing the Bureau of Animal Health produced few answers either. “They basically said all pet stores have problems,” she said, “and they were trying to work with Missy’s rather than shut her down.”

Generally speaking, LePain says people understand what a puppy mill is, and assume that some pet stores get their dogs from such places. However, seeing that cute pup in the store erases this knowledge –at least for the time being. “They can’t resist buying it,” she says, or they feel sorry for the dog and buy it in an effort to – in their minds – rescue it.”

LePain’s story generated dozens of viewers calling or writing to NECN, stating that they were angry that Missy’s – and stores like it – were allowed to stay open. Protests even erupted from the story. Others wrote to the Bureau, trying to urge them to close Missy’s. “To my knowledge, Missy’s is still up and running,” says LePain. “It appears the Bureau issued them a new license this year.”

SIDEBAR TWO: Important Web sites

Confused about where to go, or want to know more about the action being taken regarding puppy mills and the stores who buy from them? There are countless sites focusing on this issue. Do Google all you want, but here are some to click on:

One Response to “Factory Animals: Some are born there, some never make it out; exploring the puppy mill business”

  1. Damien Jedele Says:

    You must take part in a contest for top-of-the-line blogs on the web. I will recommend this website!

Leave a Reply