Investigating Puppy Mills

Even top-dollar pet shops purchase dogs from puppy mills, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) charged in a new video report issued this week. The animal welfare group's exposé centered on a hidden-camera investigation of Pets of Bel Air, a chic Los Angeles pet store frequented by celebrities such as Paris Hilton. HSUS officials charge that the store regularly bought puppies from high-volume breeders, and the report showed undercover footage of the conditions at several of them. Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle charges that the nation's pet shops are increasingly doing business with puppy mills. "Contrary to what some believe, the puppy breeding industry has actually gotten even more corrupt in recent years," Pacelle told NEWSWEEK.

A call from NEWSWEEK to the owner of Pets of Bel Air seeking comment was not immediately returned, but a "Dear Customers" statement posted on the store's Web site said staffers were "horrified" by the HSUS report and assured readers that "we would never knowingly buy a dog from a puppy mill; and we are appalled by the possibility that this may have happened."

One of the alleged puppy mills mentioned in the report was RCW Kennels in tiny Elk City, Kan. The report charges that a Kansas state inspector last year found that puppies at RCW were sometimes forced to live in worn-out metal cages that exposed them to sharp edges and that the smell of urine ammonia in one building was "so strong it burned [the inspector's] nose and eyes." During the visit the inspector counted 170 adult dogs and 123 puppies, according to the HSUS report. According to Pacelle, a puppy mill is "any high-volume commercial breeder that sells dogs for profit without providing public access to the breeding site, and breeds female dogs every time they come into heat, which is stressful to the animal's system."

RCW Kennels owner Richard Weaver says he and his wife are shocked and upset by the HSUS investigation. Despite the inclusion of video from the kennel the Weavers have operated for 14 years, Weaver says he had not heard about the probe until they were contacted this week by NEWSWEEK. "I've been in the kennel business a long time. I love every dog, every one of them, and we take good care of them here," says Weaver. "We are not a puppy mill."

An undercover investigator with HSUS who has visited Weaver's kennel and others disagrees. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno, the investigator, who asked for anonymity to protect his/her identity and safety in future operations, said RCW is a "classic example" of a puppy mill. The investigator talked about visits to kennels, pet stores, flea markets and auctions across the nation in search of corrupt puppy peddlers, and decried what he/she calls the rampant nationwide practice of inhumane puppy breeding.

NEWSWEEK: You paid an undercover visit to the RCW Kennels in Elk City, Kan., which is listed on the USHS website as a puppy mill. What did you see there?
Humane Society Investigator:
We weren't there very long, but there were four buildings that were densely populated with dogs, and it smelled horribly, just as the Kansas inspector said. The sound was horrible too, so many dogs that seemed so desperate and frightened. In addition to the four buildings, there were some fenced pens on the ground as well. It was very hodgepodge. It all appeared rather old and rundown. I've seen worse, but it wasn't good.

Richard Weaver, owner of RCW Kennels, insists to NEWSWEEK that he loves every dog in his kennel and that it is not a puppy mill.
They all say that. I went to one where the owner pointed out a little dog to me that she said, "We rescued her from a puppy mill." They just don't see themselves as puppy mills. In a lot of cases these are rural people who have found a way to make money with their property, and in many respects they are otherwise nice, decent people. They just don't look at dogs the way I do. They look at them as commodities and nothing more.

What is it that you're looking for when you go undercover to a puppy mill?
I'm looking for any type of cruelty. Mass breeding is by nature cruel, but I'm looking for untreated injuries, sickness, inadequate housing, cages that are too small, cages that can cut the dogs, cages with no place to go to get out of the elements, no place to rest, no flat resting surface. In some cases all these puppies have is wire to walk on, their entire lives. I look for large numbers of dogs, anything that might indicate that the owners are not caring properly for these animals. I'm also looking for any evidence that they are selling underage dogs, and for lack of ventilation.

Do you bring a hidden camera?
Yes, almost always. But we are very aware of and respect various state laws with regard to shooting undercover, so we make sure we are legal. In some states you can't shoot audio, for example, while in other states you need two-party approval, while in others only one side needs to be aware.

What are some of the most disturbing things you've seen in these puppy mills?
I've seen so many things, from bleeding paws to absolutely filthy dogs, especially the popular breeds with longer hair, like Pomeranians and Yorkies and so forth. But the most disturbing thing for me is the behavior of the dogs. They don't behave like your dog or my dog. They are wary of humans. They want to reach out and want your attention, but they're afraid of you at the same time. There's the endless circling in cages, which indicates that the dog is not well adjusted. It's a consequence of living in a small cage his whole life.

What are the living conditions of the puppies at these places?
Horrible. Some of them live in rabbit hutches with no heat, no air conditioning, no protection from the elements. Sometimes they don't even have a roof over their heads. I'm thinking right now about the puppies in Oklahoma, with the ice storm they're having. There are dogs right now in puppy mills there that are shivering and huddling close together, trying to stay warm. But as long as they are alive, and producing more puppies, the people running these places don't care about the suffering.

How long have you worked for the Humane Society as an undercover investigator?
I've been here about a year and a half. I was an investigative news producer in the television news business, and I'm an animal lover who has always been interested in animal-related issues.

How many puppy mills have you visited?
I've been to about 25 of them, mostly in the more puppy-mill-intensive areas, such as the Midwest and the East. But they are everywhere. There are easily more than 10,000 of them now nationwide.

When you witness this treatment, how do you keep your emotions to yourself?
I just try to relate to the owners of these places like I'm one of them. To them it's a business; they're making money selling puppies. If you have a litter of six puppies, you can easily make $500 or so per puppy. That's how they look at it. So I try to focus on the business aspect of it and relate to them in that way. What's really interesting is that every puppy mill I've been to, the owners have a beloved pet, a dog that lives in their house, one or more or them, that is their baby and who they treat like you and I treat our dogs. Then they'll take me out back and show me the hundreds of puppies in small cages and tell me excitedly how much money they're making.

Do you think the public knows what goes on in these puppy mills?
No. I talk to people all the time who think puppy mills are a thing of the past. People don't understand that if you buy a purebred dog it probably came from a puppy mill … I think the majority of people, if they knew the reality of the puppy industry, they might make different choices.

How can people combat puppy mills?
By getting dogs from shelters instead of pet stores and online. People first need to educate themselves and realize that when you are buying a puppy at a pet store or flea market or auction or on a Web site, you are supporting these cruel puppy mills. People need to write letters to editors and contact their politicians and show their concern. The laws and standards have to be changed. It actually all comes down to consumers. People really should know better.

How do you deal with the emotions of your work?
By going home and looking at my dog, And then I think about how most of the dogs in this world have such different lives. The disparity. So many dogs are just throwaway used creatures, and nobody cares whether they are comfortable, healthy, happy. And here's my dog, who I give the electric blanket to all day on my bed. The thing is, we've created these creatures to satisfy us, be it for hunting or companionship. They are so dependant on us, and to exploit and abuse them as we do, yeah, it breaks my heart. It's extremely sad and I'm just doing what I can to inform the public so they can think about saving some dogs instead of perpetuating a cruel industry.

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