by Nicole Rivard
There’s a reason author Kim Kavin, in her book The Dog Merchants, juxtaposed a chapter about dog auctions in Missouri that enrich breeders and one about the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
“It’s just fact. When you strip away the pageantry, you’re basically looking at the same exact thing,” said Kavin, who published the book in 2016.
When you turn a dog show into a mass-media event, she explains, it becomes the biggest marketing asset for all of the worst commercial breeders, no matter how good the intentions of the people in the show who tend to think of themselves as breeders who care.
She is not worried that that notion makes people uncomfortable. She’s also not concerned about creating a nationwide conversation about what the definition of animal rescue in America is these days, an issue making people uneasy.
There is an influx of so-called legitimate non-profit dog rescuers and shelters—those that attend conferences and get awards from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Humane Society of the United States—frequenting dog auctions and paying extremely high prices to breeders.
And there are also breeders creating non-profit “rescues” to get around city and state ordinances that prevent pet stores from sourcing dogs from puppy mills.
None of these groups meet Friends of Animals’ definition of rescue. Kavin’s May 2018 Washington Post expose (“Dog Rescuers, Flush With Donations, Buy Animals From the Breeders They Scorn”) documented buyers at the auctions who were affiliated with 86 rescue and advocacy groups and shelters throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Since 2009, the groups have spent $2.68 million buying 5,761 dogs and puppies from breeders at the nation’s two government-regulated dog auctions. An effort that non-profit animal rescuers began more than a decade ago to buy dogs for $5 or $10 a piece from commercial breeders has become a nationwide shadow market that today sees some rescuers, fueled by internet fundraising, paying breeders $5,000 or more for a single dog, according to Kavin’s article.
“It’s not what we traditionally thought of as rescue in the United States of America, but it is going by that name and we have to have a conversation about it,” Kavin said in an interview with Friends of Animals. “It is very clearly becoming muddled. The notion of shutting illegally operating breeders down, taking the dogs, getting them homes and calling it rescue—that is no longer the only thing that the term ‘puppy mill rescue’ encompasses in this country.”
There are about 2,600 commercial puppy operators in the central U.S. large enough to require licensing by the federal government. The biggest distributor of puppies, Hunte Corporation, moves some 45,000 puppies a year.
Kavin’s Washington Post article, which came out after her book, stoked some backlash. Kitty Block, CEO of HSUS, tried to downplay the expose in a blog.
“The folks pointing their fingers at small problems within animal rescue, or the transport of animals from state to state or from country to country, are pursuing a strategy of gas lighting the public, trying to distract and divide,” she wrote.
FoA disagrees and finds that downright irresponsible.
Animal advocacy groups should not be putting their heads in the sand when almost $3 million is going to breeders from so-called rescuers in this country. The public should know that what’s happening in puppy mills in the U.S. is not changing at all—the only thing changing is what’s being called rescue. And that’s unacceptable because it’s only creating new markets for commercial breeders.
FEEDING THE MONSTER
Kavin spent a day at America’s biggest legal dog auction, Southwest Auction Service in Wheaton, Missouri.
“You walk into that building and watch 300 dogs get auctioned to the highest bidder—it’s hard to eat for a few days,” Kavin said. “If you are a person who comes from a rescue mentality, and you walk in with the mindset that these are all dogs in need of ‘saving,’ you are a sitting duck with a pile of cash.”
During her 18 months of research, Kavin says she came across two sets of people now involved in rescue.
“You have people who follow philosophy that there’s right and wrong—you don’t give money to breeders who might be treating dogs badly, period,” she said. “Then you have the school of thought—the greatest good for the greatest number, which is, ‘Yeah, we are giving them $500 for a dog, but we got the dog out of the cage when it was five years old. And we can give it another five years of good life.’
“When they say they are helping that individual dog that may be true, the question is at what cost. Are you ok with the price? It’s a very hard question to answer,” Kavin said.
It’s not a hard question to answer for Laurette Richin, executive director of Long Island Bulldog Rescue (LIBR), where FoA’s office dogs Papa and Sammy came from. FoA also provides thousands of dollars in grant money annually to LIBR for spay-neuter procedures.
As northeast coordinator of the Bulldog Club of America Rescue Network, she has cut ties with rescue operations that purchase dogs at auctions.
“When I kicked one rescue out, which was quite a while ago, maybe five or six years ago, it was spending $5,000 to $7,000 on a pregnant bulldog. I simply said it’s feeding the monster. It’s simply not ethical,” Richin said.
COMMERCIAL BREEDERS PARADING AS RESCUES
Another issue muddying the waters is breeders trying to outsmart city and state ordinances that ban pet stores selling animals from puppy mills. HSUS’ puppy mills campaign has been a force in passing such bans.
One example surfaced in March.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued a California pet store and two purported rescue groups trying to get around California’s law.
The lawsuit alleges that newly formed Bark Adoptions of California “masquerades as a non-profit animal rescue organization even though it actually acquires purebred and designer puppies that are only a few weeks old from puppy mills, including Rescue Pets Iowa Corp.
Similarly, last year the Chicago Tribune identified two Iowa and Missouri breeders who opened non-profit “rescues” to get around the 2015 Chicago ordinance limiting pet shops to selling dogs obtained primarily from government pounds, humane societies and shelters. Among the dogs sent to the city were Siberian husky puppies and designer mixes.
MAKING SURE YOU’RE ON THE SIDE OF LEGITIMATE RESCUES
The good news is smart adoption practices can make a difference. Look for red flags when considering taking home a dog from a rescue or shelter. If you see the term “puppy mill rescue,” ask more questions.
“If the average person sees on Facebook a dog rescued from a puppy mill, they don’t even think to ask the question, ‘Did you actually buy the dog from a breeder, is that what that means?’ They are never going to make that mental leap.”
While Facebook has become a wonderful source of funding for Long Island Bulldog Recue since the social media site added a donate button in 2017, Richin said the bad side is it attracts hysteria mongers—the so-called rescue operators who end up at auctions and line the pockets of breeders.
“People are ready to do anything. All you have to do as a ‘rescuer’ is tell them a dog is going to be killed,” Richin said.
Richin says one way to ensure donations aren’t being used at auctions is transparency.
“When I raise money for something, I have a bill in my hand and I photograph it and put it on Facebook. If I don’t actually post it there, I will certainly email it to you,” she explained.
“When I am raising money for a dog it is going to that dog. And if there is any overage, it goes to the next one, but I have documentation to support every crazy little thing that comes up.”
While it might seem that asking for a rescue’s non-profit tax filings to see how much they might be spending on “purchasing” dogs at auctions is the easiest way to get information, it’s not. Spending on purchasing dogs can be lumped into non-profit tax filings as “rescue expenses.”
Someone just looking at the publicly available filings would have no way to know whether dog purchases were buried on that line of the form or not. Another tip from Richin is to ask the rescues and shelters where most of their dogs come from to ensure they aren’t coming from auctions.
For example, more than 90 percent of her bulldogs are owner surrendered. In addition, people should ask about retention rates. Long Island Bulldog has a 97 percent retention rate.
“I am a nut,” Richin adds with a laugh. “People are annoyed at me a lot of the times, but making the right match is critical. I have like 12,400 applications and I get approximately 350 dogs a year. So, I can afford to be choosey.”
Kavin devoted a whole chapter to what questions to ask before adopting from a rescue or shelter to make sure the organization you are dealing with is not buying from the breeders they scorn. (see sidebar) Kavin warns: “You also have to put your BS detector hat on.”
ALL IS NOT LOST
Kavin was hopeful after she talked to several operators whose first venture into buying at auction was also their last. One called the experience a painful lesson.
“It’s too easy for rescues to be ruled by wanting to save a life at any cost,” she told the Washington Post. So, if you are willing to do your homework, you can find a rescue that falls into the traditional sense of the word, and who will go out of their way to place dogs in loving homes with people equipped for a lifelong commitment.
“I work really hard to do stuff the right way. We are all about transparency. It’s a labor of love…or diagnosable,” Richin said. “But I love these dogs to pieces.”
Don’t forget, if you are considering adopting, spaying and neutering is the the most effective way to combat dog homelessness. Since 1957, FoA has operated a coast-to -coast low-cost spay neuter certificate program for dogs and cats. We’ve made 2.7 million surgeries possible. Visit friendsof animals.org for information