Hundreds rescued in puppy mill raid

In Carroll County, Virginia, more than 500 dogs were spared the fate of spending another harsh winter outdoors. In the fall of 2007, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), along with shelters up and down the eastern seaboard, rescued them in what is the state’s biggest puppy mill bust ever.

The rescue is the second of its kind in the state in recent weeks. On October 14, 2007, Best Friends Animal Society, of Kanab, Utah, pulled 179 dogs and puppies from a breeder operating without in a permit in Bland County, Virginia.

The rescues were each part of a larger effort–spearheaded by leading animal welfare agencies, such as HSUS and Best Friends–to expose the mistreatment and squalid conditions rampant in puppy mills across the country.

Stepped up attack on puppy mills

Nikki Sharp, Campaign Manager of Best Friends, says that her organization has made the puppy mill issue a top priority.

“Our mission has always been to care for homeless animals,” she says. “So we started looking at the reasons for homelessness. We found many dogs are surrendered or abandoned when they develop health problems–a direct result of irresponsible breeding and horrendous conditions in puppy mills.”

Her organization, and others, are seeing increasing public support for their dramatic actions. One reason for the growing interest in animal welfare issues are high-profile animal abuse cases, like former NFL star Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring. “His actions have put animal welfare issues very much on the public radar,” says Lisa Beal, Campaigns Director of Last Chance for Animals, an animal protection group based in Los Angeles.

Cruel conditions

The Carroll County rescue came on the heels of Best Friends’ Bland County October, 2007, rescue. After a fire the previous spring claimed the lives of 200 dogs at a puppy mill operating without a permit, Best Friends stepped in to make recommendations for a safer, more humane facility.

“We recommended basic things, like shelter during the coldest months of the year,” said Sharp. Local officials agreed that the proposed changes needed to be instituted before issuing the breeder a permit to operate. But rather than comply with recommendations, the mill owners attempted to relocate the operation to a neighboring county. Denied a permit there as well, they were finally forced to shut down.

Sharp says that this strategy of exposing the cruelty–and then demanding change–is effective. “We uncover the horrors going on at the mills and work with officials to insist that they comply with basic regulations for humane treatment,” she says. “If they can’t, they’re shut down.”

There are plenty of horrors to be uncovered. Many dogs raised in mills never know life outside their cages, which are often filthy and too small to even stand up in, let alone move around. And many die of hypothermia, malnourishment, and even fight wounds resulting from living in such close quarters. Not only are they medically neglected, these breeder dogs are forced to continue having puppies.

Unregulated and out of control

A major obstacle in trying to expose conditions, force breeding facilities to become more humane, and prosecute violators is that there are no federal regulations in place. Major advocacy organizations like Best Friends, HSUS, and Last Chance for Animals must rely on assistance from local shelters and grassroots public efforts to expose and shut down the mills while they tackle the huge task of creating legislation at the state or national level.

In most areas, local officials are too busy, too powerless, or too strapped for resources to deal with the work of shutting down a puppy mill. The reality is that the process involves legal proceedings, financial and human resources, and shelter space to house the dogs while they’re held as evidence before being re-homed.

With shelters and county administrators overburdened as it is, the idea of going through the effort to shut down a single mill is daunting. Many times, says Beal, an owner is simply fined and the operation continues.

What you can do to help

HSUS Outreach Director Stephanie Shain maintains there are ways individuals can help. In addition to donating money, time, or supplies to local shelters, she advises never buying a dog from a pet store or from a breeder online–there are just too many unknowns about how these puppies are bred.

Instead, go to an animal rescue group or adopt from a shelter. If you’re intent on buying a purebred puppy, make sure you pick a reputable, humane breeder. “The toughest part of all this is that so many dog lovers are unknowingly supporting puppy mills,” she says. “Buying a puppy from a pet store just sends money right back into the pockets of irresponsible or inhumane breeders.”

Even before you do that, make sure you know what you’re getting into when you get a dog–it’s a much bigger commitment than many realize. “Paris Hilton has popularized the dog as a fashion accessory,” says Lisa Beal, of Last Chance for Animals. “The number of toy breeds surrendered to shelters has gone up a staggering amount as people realize that a living creature requires more care than a bracelet.”

For more information on puppy mills–and what you can do to help combat the problem–go to stoppuppymills.org and banpuppymills.com.

November 12, 2007