The Puppy Mill Problem: Where They Persist and Why | NBC New York
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The Puppy Mill Problem: Where They Persist and Why

Progress is being made in closing down substandard breeders



    Toronto Star via Getty Images
    Two Shih Tzus that were rescued from a puppy mill cuddle in their cage in Toronto, Canada, in February 2013.

    When Melva Langford’s Broken Spoke Kennels in Whitewright, Texas, was inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year, one Italian greyhound was found dead. Other dogs were living in a mix of mud, urine and feces, according to a federal report.

    State inspectors discovered two emaciated Labradors, their ribs protruding, at Larry Rummel’s STP Kennel in Larue, Texas, and fined him $4,375.

    And at Jolene Martin’s kennel in Seneca Falls, New York, one matted dog had feces trapped in its fur, another had no teeth and a third had pressure sores developing on its back legs, according to the USDA.

    These are some of the breeders on the Humane Society's "Horrible Hundred" list, a yearly tally of problem puppy mills in the United States. Four years after its first report, the Humane Society continues to find horrendous conditions across the country — animals with open, festering wounds, puppies left outside in frigid temperatures and C-sections performed on dogs in a dirty shed.

    "We've got to get rid of these puppy mills that are mass producing dogs in filth and misery," said John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign.

    Puppy mill dogs are typically kept in overcrowded and unsanitary kennels, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. To maximize profits, female dogs are bred repeatedly with little time to recover between litters and are killed when they can no longer reproduce. Puppies often arrive at pet shops or in new homes with diseases ranging from parasites to pneumonia, the ASPCA said.

    "A lot of people don’t know that when they go into a pet store, they're probably buying a puppy whose mother lives in a cage in a puppy mill," Goodwin said. "And when they order a dog online sight unseen, there's a good chance that they're buying from a puppy mill. The key is to either adopt through a shelter or a rescue, or if you’re going to purchase a dog from a breeder, insist on seeing how the mother dog lives."

    Reputable dealers, who want to screen potential buyers to make sure their puppies are going to good homes, do not sell their dogs in stores, the ASPCA said.

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    There could be up to 10,000 puppy mills in the U.S., although an accurate count is difficult because breeders often operate out of view and with no oversight, according to the ASPCA. Some 1.8 million puppies are born in such conditions each year, according to estimates.

    Many puppy mills are in the Midwest, especially in rural areas where family farms have been devastated by industrial agriculture. Some farmers have turned to breeding dogs to make a living.

    "Unfortunately, they started raising dogs in the same sort of factory farm climate that was created by the people who had put them out of livestock farming," Goodwin said. "These are factory farms, it's just that they're factory farming dogs."

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    With 30 kennels, Missouri tops the Humane Society's list for the fourth year in a row, followed by Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

    Missouri is centrally located and has more individual farms than any state except Texas, almost 100,000, according to Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. In the 1980s, most dogs were raised in chicken coops because the chicken business had been taken over by conglomerates. In the 1990s, the same situation occurred with hogs.

    "It’s just been really hard to tackle," Baker said. "Most of these places are hidden away so most people don't see them."

    Buyers get their dogs from pet stores or well-designed websites and do not know how the dogs are raised, he explained.

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    Missouri has made progress in eliminating more than half its puppy mills — from 2,000 kennels in 2011 to 800 now, Baker said.

    The drop was a result of the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, passed in 2011, which increased the standards of care and, for the first time, gave the state's attorney general the power to prosecute kennels, he said. As part of the legislation, a special unit has been established in the attorney general’s office, the governor appropriated an additional $1.3 million and the number of inspectors was increased from seven to 18.

    "We still have a lot more to do, but I think we're making progress and I'm very pleased that we're moving in the right direction anyway," he said.

    The state now requires that dogs have continuous access to water and the outdoors, hands-on veterinary exams, and improved floors and space requirements that are double and will eventually be triple the federal standard, according to Sarah Alsager, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

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    "In addition to ensuring that commercial breeders are licensed and inspected, the program has also made it a priority to ensure that facilities with violations are inspected more often, and facilities with substantial and ongoing violations are closed," she said.


    The Humane Society has accused the American Kennel Club of working to maintain the status quo. The AKC registers many dogs that are raised in puppy mills and gets a fee from each, Goodwin said.

    "The AKC should be part of the solution," he said. "They should work with us to grow the pool of responsible breeders. But instead they are digging in their heels and opposing bills from state to state that are very moderate and just phase out the worst elements of puppy mills."

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    The AKC refutes the charge. It does not oppose laws or regulations and expects dog owners to understand and obey them, the club said in a statement.

    "We do, however, oppose many legislative proposals each year that would harm dog ownership, the rights of responsible dog owners and the wellbeing of dogs," the AKC said. "We also support many that advance the wellbeing of dogs."

    When it does oppose a measure, the AKC provides alternatives, it said. And it supports bills to protect dogs from cruelty and improve the oversight of retail pet stores and rescue organizations.

    The AKC conducts thousands of inspections every year of breeders who register their litters with the club and does not condone the substandard care of "puppy mills," it said. Any breeder who refuses an inspection is prohibited from using the club's services.

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    "If we find anyone engaging in behavior that is detrimental to the health of any dog, we report them to the local authorities," it said.


    The Humane Society's "Horrible Hundred of 2016," which includes many repeat offenders, is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but to expose conditions prevalent among disreputable dog breeders and brokers, the Humane Society said.

    Langford — who on says, "At our place we strive hard to provide you with a healthy, happy puppy" — did not return a call requesting comment about the condition at her kennels. The USDA report notes moldy feed, greyhounds fighting through their cages, dog enclosures in poor repair and a Shih Tzu with fur that was knotted even after being groomed.

    At Rummel's STP Kennel, inspectors also found three full-sized, pregnant Labradors housed in plastic "pet taxi" carriers, according to a report from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. A veterinarian had not examined the dogs at the kennel since July 2013, the report said.

    Rummel, asked for his response to being included on the Humane Society list, said he did not have one, then insulted the organization. "They're full of s— too," he said.

    At Martin's kennel, in addition to the dogs in need of veterinary care, at least 20 feeders had feces in the food and a layer of grime on top. The inspector was told the dogs had put the feces there, according to the report. Martin also did not return a call seeking comment.


    The USDA enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966 and most recently amended in 2008, which sets basic standards for animals bred for sale.

    The Humane Society and other animal welfare groups have criticized the standards for being so minimal that licensed dealers can keep hundreds of dogs in small, stacked cages with no exercise as long as they are provided with basic provisions such as food and water. They want breeders to be required to provide more space for the dogs, regular exercise, better veterinary care and the removal of wire floors in the animals' cages.

    The USDA did revoke the licenses of a few dealers who showed repeated problems in caring for their animals, the Humane Society notes. More than two dozen of the problem puppy mills identified in its last few reports have closed. But the Humane Society says many puppy mills are never inspected at all and others are protected by inspectors who fail to record violations accurately.

    An internal audit at the USDA in 2010 indeed found that its own enforcement process was ineffective against problem breeders and dealers. Its inspectors took little or no action against most violators, relying instead on educating them about the regulations, a strategy that seems not to have worked. The audit noted that from 2006 through 2008, when 4,250 violators were re-inspected, 2,416 had repeatedly violated the Animal Welfare Act.

    In addition, the USDA inspection service leveled minimal fines even after Congress had tripled the maximum penalties allowed. It reduced the fines awarded to encourage violators to pay rather than demand a hearing, the audit said.

    Some large breeders circumvented regulations entirely by selling animals over the Internet, the audit found.

    Since that audit, the inspection service has made "great strides," said USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa.

    It created standard procedures for all inspectors to follow, hired a kennel specialist and sought stiffer sanctions in cases involving problematic breeders or dealers, Espinosa said. It revised the definition of retail pet store to ensure that animals sold over the Internet and by phone- and mail-based businesses are better monitored for overall health and humane treatment, she said.

    More than 53,000 pets were adopted through the 2016 Clear the Shelters campaign, a nationwide push to place deserving animals in forever homes. Join the conversation on social media using #ClearTheShelters.