“Growing up, I always heard never to buy a puppy from a pet store, but I never truly understood why. They seemed just as entitled to live in a loving home as any other dog. I would walk by these stores and being drawn in by “that puppy in the window.” I felt as if I had to go in to save them. Now, I understand I am a pet store’s dream; I am their livelihood. They know just how to get me, by appealing to my compassionate side and somehow making me believe that I would be rescuing any animal that I purchased from an uncertain future.”
— Jane Seymour, Hoboken, New Jersey
Virtually all of the puppies sold in storefront pet shops come from puppy mills — or, as they say in the industry, “high-volume kennels.” Thus, the corner pet store has become a place where customers unwittingly support a business that churns out puppies for quick cash.
Puppy mills, loosely defined, are breeders who regularly supply dogs to laboratories, animal brokers or pet shops. Some are outdoor breeding farms that mass-produce puppies for commercial purposes. They might have somewhere in the range of 200 neglected dogs in backyard cages. Friends of Animals followed the story of one puppy born in such a place. Lola was ten weeks old when purchased in a pet store in New Jersey.
The salespeople seemed confident: None of their puppies came from a puppy mill, they said; after all, birth in a puppy mill would mean major health problems. Unlike other pet stores, said the young clerk brightly, our store does regular check-ups on our breeders to make sure our puppies come from healthy, loving homes. Here are her papers: This puppy is “top-notch, AKC-certified, USDA-inspected” and “from a line of pedigree champions.”
Lola’s new owner, Jane, brought Lola home from the Paramus Mall in the midst of a bustling holiday shopping trip. By New Year’s Day, the top-notch baby bulldog would receive over $1000 in veterinary care and seven different pharmaceutical prescriptions. Lola had so many health problems that she received a “not fit for sale” certificate from the vet. In the spring, during her spay appointment, the vet informed Jane’s family that the lesions Lola had since the day she came home were certain evidence of mange. If the mange couldn’t be conquered with a specially-ordered ointment, Lola would face a regimen of dipping in an organophosphate concentrate — a pesticide which can trigger dangerous side effects. When puppies are born in unhealthy conditions they are often infested and weakened with parasites and viruses, and Lola was no exception.
Breeding papers in hand, Jane made plans to see the place of Lola’s birth, in Coffeyville, Kan. Coffeyville is a heartland town, with immense cattle farms and a few McDonald’s and Wal-Mart chains and some churches scattered along the roadsides. And then there is the barking. As Jane pulled into the breeder’s drive, the sound became almost deafening. The sound of 200 dogs.
The homeowners answered the door and sized up Jane suspiciously. Jane quickly introduced herself as another person interested in breeding. Inside the home, several dogs lived as pets; the dogs outside were the working property. One partner showed Jane the cages, explaining what Jane would need to start a breeding farm. The other partner looked at Jane with a nervous, flushed face, said, “Sorry. You are not allowed to view the kennel in the backyard, as you might be carrying dangerous viruses and this would not comply with USDA regulations.” Jane was nearly overcome by the stench from the backyard.
After some negotiation, the pair opened the doors to the backyard kennels, but instructed Jane to stay by the door. What she saw was unforgettable. Hundreds of dogs crammed in small cages, shivering in the sub-freezing cold, clearly forced to stand and sleep in their excrement. Those of the more profitable breeds had some protection from the frigid air — a pile of hay in their cages. Jane knew that bulldogs have difficulty withstanding weather lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, yet the breeders pointed to the piles of hay as assurance that the dogs were warm.
When the dogs saw the door open, all were awake, jumping, scratching, fighting to be at the front of the cage, to be the next one to get out. And some of them never will, for they exist only to produce more puppies. When they waver at the task, they will be killed. Lola’s brother Jake will be one such breeding dog.
Jane’s hosts had 30 years of experience in the business, evidently enough to be unmoved by the suffering in their own back yard. Jane showed them a photo of Lola, and described the puppy’s growing list of medical problems. “Lola must have contracted those viruses during transportation,” rebutted the breeder, who admitted that puppies are often deprived of food, water, or ventilation in old, boarded-up buses, cages stacked wall to wall inside, with dogs in transit up to 3 days. The breeder reminisced sadly with her partner about letting the last puppies go. Then she said, “The ones that can’t reproduce ain’t worth a thing.”
Thousands of these breeding operations currently exist in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the duty to inspect licensed kennels regularly to ensure that they adhere to minimum standards of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which requires breeders to provide minimum standards of housing, care, and medical treatment. But nothing in the welfare legislation does anything to change people’s minds about the idea that puppies are merchandise — and, like any other form of merchandise, are considered disposable if they don’t match up to the buyer’s expectations.
Karen works in bulldog rescue in Connecticut. Karen meets a lot of young families — people who think bulldogs are cute, but probably over their budgets. “Breed rescue people are the wrong people to call for a puppy,” she says. “Puppies don’t need rescuing.” Karen first became attracted to bulldogs at the age of seven. “My father was in the Navy, and we were stationed at a base where a bulldog was a mascot.” Karen would eventually assist in bulldog rescue, and take over for a retired rescuer.
“One of my dogs, who will be 10 in July, was one of my first rescues. He had been abused by a young couple who shouldn’t have had a dog, and didn’t have a clue about how to raise a puppy. This dog has overcome 80 percent of his issues. He’s loving, sweet, and has gained self-esteem. When I first got him he was afraid of people he didn’t know.”
Rescue groups may not buy dogs, says Karen, referring to “the rescue guidelines.” Karen adds, “Puppy mills have auctions and sell dogs off, and I’d love to be able to get them, but I can’t buy them.”
In 1999, a puppy mill was raided in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Karen and others from rescue groups accompanied officials, entered an unheated barn and found various types of dogs, including 23 frightened bulldogs. A veterinarian who examined the dogs found that all of them had problems: a mother with sutures an inch apart; injuries of the eyes, ears, skin, and knee tendons. The confiscated dogs became property of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and moved into foster care. After the case against the puppy mill was settled, and $10,000 in veterinary bills later, the dogs got homes — except one who died before the case was settled.
In reality, state and federal regulations aren’t enough to protect dogs and puppies in puppy mills, who live in tight, fenced, unsanitary spaces and sometimes starve to death.
Bad suturing is a common element of neglect, for the mothers are valued only as producers, not products. Because we have intentionally bred bulldogs to have broad heads and broad shoulders, the dogs’ mothers cannot deliver them naturally. Birth is risky to the mothers and the puppies, and some will die under the anaesthesia. Many commercial breeders will deliver puppies through kitchen table-top Caesarians, then place them into the wire mesh crates Jane saw in Kansas. Some puppies will “die on the wire” — meaning they will die of overheating on the wire mesh. They often don’t get vet care at all, let alone air conditioning, explains Karen. Some dogs released from puppy mills do nothing but spin in circles because they were in such confined conditions they did nothing else. The pads of some dogs’ feet grow together after standing on wire cages for a long period of time and the toenails of others grew back into their feet.
Karen dismisses the authority of AKC papers, explaining that the American Kennel Club’s only assurance in the matter is that two purebreds have bred. Many rescue groups are also breeders. Those breeders have outdoor kennels or a heated building, or basement kennels. Then there are backyard breeders — cheap at $1,500 for a bulldog, in contrast to the pet shop prices of $2,400 to over $5,000. But with bulldogs the risks are great: Caesarean sections cost between $2,000 and $4,000; and some births produce only one puppy. Bigger businesses are better prepared to weather the losses. Pet shops deal with the return of dogs in much the same way businesses deal with product returns generally. An unwanted purchase, says Karen, is likely to be killed and written off as a business loss, or sent back to the puppy mill for killing.
Another option is to recycle the unwanted dog into another home, and that is where Karen comes in. Karen acclimates bulldogs by giving them a period of foster care, and keeps a waiting list of approved homes. The application form requires an owned home; adopters experienced with bulldogs are preferred. The reasons people relinquish bulldogs, Karen explains, tend to form a pattern: people often buy bulldogs on impulse. Some do not know how much care the dogs need: cleaning the folds in their faces, watching their eyes for tearing — because their eyes tend to be overly dry — and checking their eyelashes to make sure they not turning in. Bulldogs suffer acutely in hot weather, which causes their palates to swell, dangerously blocking the trachea. One person was expecting a baby and decided she really didn’t want to deal with the puppy. She said the puppy was willful, and soiled the crate.
Karen has also purchased bulldogs. “I love the breed. They’re individuals, selective about who they like, gregarious, happy, and friendly dogs.”
Sandy does bulldog rescue work in Missouri. “There are people who sell whole litters of puppies to puppy mills,” Sandy says. Show breeders, who promote the idea of buying from private “hobby” breeders only, are not supposed to sell to puppy mills, Sandy reports; but sometimes they do. “I end up with the bulldogs that puppy mills turn into shelters, or dump alongside the road. When the shelters receive these bulldogs they call me.” The males are usually in better shape, Sandy explains, because better nutrition is thought to keep their sperm count up, resulting in more puppies. Mothers will give birth three to four times before they are worn out.
“We paid $750 for one of the females at a puppy mill auction,” recalls Sandy. “Auctions are held regularly, although they advertise that the puppy mill is going out of business due to health reasons. They send out flyers. Other puppy mills come to these weekend auctions and bring stock trailers for hauling dogs. I went to an auction that had 22 bulldogs, and our kennel club pooled money to be able to buy as many of the dogs as possible. The auctioneers put one of the females on a table for bidding and called her a good producer. She could hardly stand up. One had a home-made C-section that had ripped open and after we bought her we rushed her to a veterinarian. Bulldogs can originate from terrible situations, but they’re resilient. They can be happy after their life changes.”
Sandy also gets dogs from homes where they are no longer wanted. “The typical excuses involve a boyfriend taking a dislike to a dog or someone expecting a baby who can’t cope with the responsibility of caring for a bulldog.”
Sandy participates in the show circuit, and breeds bulldogs. She declares: “My kennel has heating, air conditioning, outdoor runs, and a radio playing.”
Beverly runs a breed rescue group in Kansas. “We’re loaded with puppy mills. It’s expensive to breed bulldogs. There’s the cost of artificial insemination, C Sections, big vet bills, and sometimes surgery is needed to correct eye lids that roll in. So we see a large broker managing a lot of the commerce: the Hunte Corporation located in Goodman, MO. They house 1,500 to 2,000 puppies. They’re buying puppies from puppy mills, and they sell these puppies to pet stores. But all of this is backed by the AKC and USDA. The Hunte Corporation gives tours to schools.”
The Hunte Corporation touts itself as the largest puppy dealer in the world, with sales in the U.S., Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Japan. The company distributes animals through retail enterprises with various names. Because of competition with other large brokers, the company is secretive about how many puppies the business sells and purchases each year.
The corporation’s operational hub brings the state of Missouri money and jobs. And the state wants to keep it that way. In September 2001, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had approved a $900,000 guaranteed rural development loan to allow the Hunte Corporation to purchase equipment for its McDonald County operations, to restructure its debt, and to provide working capital for expansion. This followed a loan for $3.5 million from the USDA year before. Hunte said sales for the year 2001 would exceed $26 million — up from 1 million a decade earlier.
The corporation, long under scrutiny from the public, now purports to set new, higher standards. Chair Andrew Hunte says:
“The dog breeding industry has suffered a black eye in recent years, but we are out to change that image by putting animals first and ensuring they get the best humane professional treatment. We deal with breeders in several Midwest states who can meet our standards of quality care. We get the puppies at 8 weeks old and they undergo a week of quality care to make sure they are healthy before they are shipped to upscale pet stores around the country.”
Thus the company hopes to overcome the stigma and to support the profit potential of the industry they plan to lead. A guided tour of one of their sites revealed about five workers cleaning floors and checking food and water of yipping puppies in about seven rows of cages, each filled with one or two puppies. Although a reporter in 2000 found no listed violations in the last three USDA inspection reports of the Hunte’s Elkland, MO warehouse, the reporter was barred from photographing the inside of the building, on the grounds of company security and stress on puppies.
The corporation holds an annual festival, with seminars for breeders who provide for the broker; Hunte also encourages them by providing a breeders’ support group. Further encouragement comes in the form of bonuses. An Arkansas Press advertisement naming the Hunte Corporation read: “MERRY CHRISTMAS! $25 Bonus on any puppies sold to us Dec. 4-19. Call us now!”
From the Mill to the Mall
Although millions of dogs die annually in pounds, breeding is a growth industry, with many mall shoppers willing to pay from $750 to $1,800. Maximizing profits from impulse purchases, the Hunte Corporation supplies Woof & Company, which currently operates 11 outlets in Northeastern shopping malls, and is gearing up for a nationwide presence by 2005, catering to an upscale crowd. “We’re not interested in going head-to-head selling dog food,” says Linda Povey, partner at consultancy Kanter International, which created Woof & Co. “We’re a lifestyle store.”
Each puppy comes with a three-year warranty against congenital and hereditary defects. But the vendors want to ensure public acceptance and immunize their project from criticism. A new company name — “Rufus Inc.” — is being presented to the public this year, explains CEO Donald C. Jones, along with a plan to work with animal activists and veterinarians to ensure that the new stores will “enhance the communities where we live and work.” Jones has previously managed retail chains such as The Gap, Target, Ikea, Filenes and Macy’s. “We are thrilled to have Don Jones join Woof & Company,” stated Robert E. Brown, Jr., managing general partner of Meridian General Partners, the chain’s owner. “Woof & Company has aggressive plans to expand its successful concept nationwide…”
The U.S. pet population is booming, and has risen to become a $30 billion-plus industry. The public has the power to reverse the trend, by declining to support such enterprises.