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In the 1973 film Serpico, Al Pacino plays a New York cop who's too honest to be liked by his on-the-take colleagues. He's clearly going to need a friend. On the street in front of his apartment are two teenagers with Old English sheepdog puppies for sale from a box. Serpico could bust them. Instead, he buys a puppy. As he carries it up the front steps to his apartment, now suddenly a home, his face shows that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The impulse buying of a pet is the way that puppy retailers stay in business. They count on love at first sight, which makes it difficult for buyers to walk away. Once customers have seen "their" dog, they're sold. Details become less important. Caution may be thrown into the wind. This phenomenon is useful to dog rescuers, also. Says rescuer Elizabeth Sescilla, "If you can get a picture of a dog online, there's a 90 percent chance you'll get a home for it. People see a certain face, and they can't resist." It's ironic that this human tendency of compassion and affection is one of the chief supports of the horrors known as pet mills.
Pet mills are places in which pets, mostly dogs, are bred in wretched conditions. They are destined primarily for the booming retail market, with a small percentage headed to research laboratories. "Consumer demand for purebred puppies, more than any other factor, perpetuates the misery of puppy mills," declares the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Pet mills range from bad to worse. The worst ones inflict abuse cruel enough to defy imagination. For example, Annie was a breeding female in a pet mill before her rescue.
Annie was crippled and unable to stand upright. Her rescuer compared her movement to a crab. . . . Her legs and spine were bowed. Her 7-pound body was riddled with lesions, she had a large number of abscesses on her cheek, her teeth were all rotten, and she had numerous mammary tumors.
In a puppy mill where investigators walked on feces half a foot deep and dogs' hair was so matted that it was hard to tell one end of the animal from the other, rescuers found a shocking example of cruelty. “I think she was a little Shelty, but she had sustained some type of injury and had been left untreated for a long time. So, in order to correct the problem, she had chewed off her own leg.”
Apart from the startling portraits of individual dogs, overall conditions in pet mills are astonishing. An investigator from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has found many situations similar to this one of
Timid dogs were terrorized by their more aggressive cagemates, who often prevented them from eating and drinking. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all were the old mother dogs who had gone mad from confinement and loneliness. These poor dogs circled frantically in their small cages and paced ceaselessly back and forth - their only way of coping with their despair.
The moment you read such stories, you probably wonder how they happen, how they keep happening and how they can be stopped. If so, you're in good company. More and more people are getting the facts on pet mills and are calling for a change.
If you're currently considering buying a puppy, you want to know how to avoid puppy mill animals. You want to preclude the heartache and expense of acquiring a sick pet, and you don't want to inadvertently "perpetuate the misery of puppy mills." The quick answer is the simple message put out by advocacy groups: Never buy a puppy from a pet store. To be more careful, neither should you purchase a puppy through a newspaper ad unless you examine the kennel in which the puppy was bred. Buy instead from a reputable small breeder, despite the hoops you'll have to jump through, or adopt from a shelter. Avoid impulse buying. One writer puts it well: Examine the dog as carefully as you would your oldest daughter's first date.
As we take a closer look at what's going on with pet mills, we'll gain some insight into the above caveats. We can divide breeders into three groups: First, are the suppliers to pet stores – the worst-case pet mills – who operate outside of the law and with wanton disregard for the comfort and long-term health of their animals. Some are huge operations bending little rules and some are little operations bending huge rules. Some contain both evils. Any way you look at it, they're illegal and almost beyond comprehension. Second are the commercial breeders, called dealers by the USDA because they peddle animals wholesale, operating under the regulation and supervision (once in a blue moon) of the federal government. Some are better and some are worse. One estimate places the average number of dogs per breeder at 65-75, although some breeders keep thousands of animals. Adherence to federal guidelines (more or less) ensures that the worst horrors are not perpetrated on their animals. The trick is to sell a quantity of dogs at prices that grossly undercut traditional breeders while not actually running far afoul of regulations. There are quite a few regulations surrounding the care of dogs, all the way from cage size to veterinary care. Let's say that commercial breeders don't care as much as they should. When you're in business, it doesn't matter if it's paperclips or puppies, you're in business to make a profit. Commercial breeders either sell dogs on their premises or via the Internet, or they sell dogs to others, such as pet stores, to retail. Third are the so-called reputable, or responsible, small breeders, also called hobby breeders. They are amateurs – extremely skilled enthusiasts who focus on the prosperity of the breed rather than on their own success. We'll call them traditional breeders, because they are from the old school that saw its heyday from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. They retail dogs from their premises or via the Internet. They do not sell to pet stores. They do not allow their dogs to be sold to people who sell to pet stores. Traditional breeders have not formed a "unified voice," but breed clubs are everywhere. Most clubs require members to agree to a code of ethics that stipulates no wholesaling.
Last year in the United States, the pet industry, including pet-related products, produced a gross revenue of $34 billion. All of the candy and all of the toys sold last year in the U.S. added together didn't equal $34 billion. The pet industry is the nation's seventh-largest retail segment. Pet retailers normally expect a healthy 50% mark-up. Producers of the dogs' accessories, their toys, their food and their health care - U.S. veterinarians made $17 billion last year - are constituencies strongly invested in the growing percent of GDP (gross domestic product) spent on pets. The commercial dog breeding industry is an integral part of this lucrative market. It will not slink away with its tail between its legs. It's big. It's feisty. And it has friends.
While advocacy groups work to change our ideas of fashionable pets, we have deeper reasons for acquiring registered puppies. The arrival of a puppy is a special memory for many of us, and we want our children to share the experience. We want the best for our families. We routinely pay upwards of $2,000 – sometimes as much as $4,000 – for purebred puppies from an assembly line, then open both hearts and wallets to pamper new family members. Business people are alert to our weakness for fancy furry companions. They're giving us what we want, regulated and supported by the government. Unfortunately, when it comes to maintaining the value of the stock, paperclips and puppies are wildly different. Conscientious animal husbandry is more complex than it looks from the window of a venture capitalist's office.
Puppy mills are . . . breeders who do one or more of the following:
a) Fail to follow acceptable standards of breeding,
The above not-to-do list sounds remarkably similar to the practices of traditional breeders. It's a matter of intent and extent. Commercial breeders must adhere to federal guidelines which mandate human contact and exercise for dogs once a day. Traditional breeders raise dogs as an active part of the family. While commercial breeders are concerned with avoiding, where possible, the introduction of flagrant hereditary defects, traditional breeders are concerned with improving bloodlines. Commercial establishments have their animals looked over by a veterinarian. Traditionally-bred animals receive the best of care. In each of the seven areas listed by PIJAC, the practices of traditional breeders so far exceed standards that their costs are enormous. Thus, their label of "hobby breeders." Treating the dogs with genuine consideration while safeguarding the breed lines is expected to soak up all of the profit.
Commercial breeders who are operating within the law adhere to a web of federal, state and municipal regulations. Over the years, the US Congress has responded to public pressure for compassion by enacting laws governing animal care by wholesale dealers, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA,1966) and its Amendments (1970, 1976, 1985, 1990). State cruelty and consumer protection laws also govern practices from when to water the dogs to what guarantees to offer. The extent to which commercial breeders cut corners on these requirements in order to cut costs is hotly contested between industry representatives and advocacy groups. There are some commercial breeders whose policies exceed legislated standards.
Quality care can be hard to define. An SPCA group recently gushed publicly over the gift of an air-conditioned truck for use in relocating seized puppy mill animals. This custom-made vehicle shared features – stainless-steel cages, air-conditioning, automatic watering - with Hunte Corporation vehicles, those that animal advocates say cause hardship for dogs. Many rides in advocate vehicles, including the famed Underdog Railroad, are not nearly so climate-controlled. Maybe it's the love that matters. If you were a puppy, would you rather ride in a hot car with a friend or in a temperate, sterile environment with cages full of other frightened animals and no one you could trust?
Traditional breeders lay claim to trustworthiness. They have very demanding contracts between themselves and customers. While breeders engage to be perpetually responsible for the animal if its new owner fails, buyers must accede to conditions designed to protect the animal's quality of life and the integrity of the breed. Potential buyers are closely examined for their bona fides as loving guardians. They are required to keep the breeder posted on the dog’s progress, often including photos. They may have to agree to sterilize the dog and take it to obedience class. They must agree not to relinquish the dog to a third party without giving the breeder an opportunity to intervene.
By contrast, commercial breeders’ moral responsibility for their animals generally ends at the moment of purchase. Their health guarantees are often the minimum required by law and can be tricky to navigate. For commercial operations to provide a return on investment, they must employ economies of scale and drastically reduce overall expenses. This necessarily affects the dogs' quality of life and the health of the breed. On the other hand, they ask very little of their customers other than their credit card numbers. Convenience, along with low cost, brings shoppers to the doors of commercial breeders.
Traditional and commercial breeders differ widely in adherence to best breed practices. Traditional breeders are vigorously unkind when referring to the lax breeding standards of large, profitable operations. They reserve their most scathing remarks for those creating and furthering the new crosses, such as Labradoodles and Cock-a-Poos. Purveyors of trendy mixes rebuff their animated adversaries with egalitarian arguments and otherwise ignore them as thoroughly as they would Chicken Little.
It's not possible to recognize all of the HSUS-defined pet mills if you're expecting shadowy operators that slip away into darkness. Most claim to be extremely proud of their set-ups. They are boldly present on the Internet. Businesses such as National Breeders Association and Hunte Corporation (broker and retailer), reviled by advocates, have real and virtual storefronts which are not hidden, but quite the opposite. They want our dollars, and they're putting their best faces forward. Public alertness to the pet mill situation has necessitated some changes for them in the way they do business. Sounding very much like the voice of experience, an officer of Hunte Corp. committed in a media interview to turn in any breeder not abiding by the law.
If we clearly have educated you on this is not a proper way to do whatever it is that they're doing, and you don't kind of get on board with what we're doing, then obviously we've got a situation where you don't care, and ... [it's] almost next to impossible for us to be able to make much change, then absolutely, that would be somebody that we would at that point basically say, here's somebody that doesn't belong in our industry.
An explosion of media attention and increased vigilance in regard to cruelty laws has dragged previously unexamined operations into the spotlight. Now companies post their health guarantees online, along with the all-important photos of the dogs and offers of easy terms and installment plans.
Havens invites the public to view his breeding achievements for themselves, but regretfully doesn't allow visitors to the main kennels for fear of contamination and terrorism, concerns of large breeders. By contrast, Dr. Teresa, co-owner of Animal Health and Healing and a former HSUS Director of Veterinary Services, recommends:
Try to find a small breeder that does this out of their home, that welcomes you into their home, where you can see the environment where these animals live, where they're bred, where they sleep, where they eat, what they eat, what are their medical records. All that should be open to the consumer.
All of Puppy Haven Kennels puppies "are handled each day so they'll be 'socialized'." His dogs live with their pack families because they prefer it that way. "They are happy in homes but if they had their pick they would leave the people and be with a pack or family of dogs most of the time." These dogs are not destined for lives in packs. They're destined for lives in human homes. Some extreme advocates claim that we shouldn't indulge in companion animals. As long as we continue to have pets, they must be adapted to human households early and thoroughly. Bad early socialization often results in years of difficult relationships between dogs and people.
A cursory glance at Puppy Haven's health guarantee chills the heart. Its list of requirements and conditions is staggering. Even the limited allowable health claims must be reconfirmed by a veterinarian of Puppy Haven's choosing. If your situation changes and you can't keep the dog, Puppy Haven can't take it back. That's a far cry from a traditional breeder's commitment of ultimate responsibility for the animal throughout its lifetime. Puppy Haven's guarantee also specifically excludes compensation for the emotional suffering caused by a sick pet. Buyers may speculate on how often that issue has come up at Puppy Haven.
Puppy Haven’s dogs come not only with a guarantee, but with registration papers. All of Havens' breeding stock is AKC registered. He doesn't interbreed mixes because "Hybrids Will Not Breed 'True'." The crossbreeds he sells cannot be AKC-registered, but plenty of other organizations are stepping up to fill the gap. These include the United Kennel Club (UKC), the Universal Kennel Club and the American Pet Registry International (APRI), in all of which Havens is a member in good standing. He provides papers for all of his dogs. Wallace Havens is clearly someone passionately devoted to animals who believes that he's doing right by them. "We make sure our dogs are the happiest we know of. I'm sure they produce much better when they're happy and content." For shopper convenience and confidence, Havens lists a quantity of pet stores where his dogs can be purchased. The list includes Petland, constantly accused of abusing animals for profit and the target of an advocacy campaign to stop it. Could this breeder conceivably be the kind that Charles Schulz had in mind when he created Snoopy at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm?
Puppy Havens Kennels considers itself to be among the best commercial breeding operations in the world. Yet even the worst pet mills operate successfully in a loop of breeders, brokers, retailers and consumers who are not alert to, or not moved by, the suffering involved. In Missouri, a state with a huge pet mill problem, it is estimated that there are as many underground operations as there are legitimate USDA-licensed breeders. Small, movable pet mills inflict untold damage on animals. HSUS Veterinary Director Dr. Donald Bridges paints a compelling picture of their genesis.
A person gets a cute little puppy and then ... we've just finished their vaccinations and so forth and of course that's the time to spay and neuter them. "Oh, I'd like to have a litter of puppies, and besides I paid $300 for this one." It doesn't work that way. It's very, very difficult to make money raising puppies. But that's the mentality that we have to overcome. And it's those people that ... if you don't cut short when you get to that point, ten years down the road are one of these unlicensed puppy mills [in which] you find all these horrendous situations.
The consequences of mixing ignorance with greed and applying the result to live beings are shocking to an increasingly aware public. The HSUS lists some recent cases:
Enforcement is lagging behind public sentiment. It has been noted how insufficient the USDA's resources are to deal with this problem. State and local authorities have the same inadequate resources. Moreover, in the case of Missouri, a 2001 review by the state auditor made it apparent that state inspectors were failing to note violations that federal inspectors subsequently uncovered. This failure was judged to be due to state inspectors having close ties to the industry, and heads rolled. However, a follow-up report by the auditor in 2004 revealed that
Across the country, SPCAs are stepping up their surprise inspections and animal rights groups are stepping up their surprise attacks to fill the enforcement void. They have earned accusations of vigilantism, not only by breeders who, rightly or wrongly, feel violated, but by media exposés such as ABC's 20/20. Animal advocates are sometimes seen to be acting with the same passionate arrogance that occurs in agencies mandated to protect children. Victims incapable of speaking for themselves draw forth the most dedicated and determined champions.
Legitimate advocates are an important safeguard for companion animals when governments don't fulfill their responsibilities. If they occasionally overstep the bounds, they provide one of the few safety nets that abused animals can expect. There are darker elements in the advocacy story, however. Advocates sometimes have difficulty doing on a limited budget what commercial breeders can't do on a big budget, that is, take good care of the animals. A 2000 raid by the SPCA of a rescue operation in Tulsa discovered 300 suffering dogs and cats, many deemed to be in such pain that a veterinarian euthanized them on the spot. In this incident, a good agency with dedicated and well-liked leaders became overwhelmed. "Animals that weren't left to roam [the property] were contained, three and four animals each, in portable pet carriers." Food and water was not adequate. A spokesperson for the rescue group asserted that these animals had been "rescued from certain death" by her agency. This point was validated both by the vet who killed animals at the scene and by the SPCA officer who said that half of the animals had mange that made them unacceptable to shelters and that would result in their euthanasia.
Sprinkled among legitimate advocates are people known as hoarders. They are the pet mills of the animal advocacy movement. They pretend to themselves and to others that they are the saviors of condemned innocents. They acquire countless animals without sufficient regard for their care. Previously abused animals sometimes make long, highly coordinated journeys with human volunteers in order to arrive in conditions that resemble the most offensive violations of illegal breeders. A PETA publication mentions them in the same breath with pet mills. For example, a previously abused dog named Paddy made a thousand-mile journey to live with "a well-known environmentalist and animal rescuer in Orange County." Paddy was greeted at the end of trip by
As if all of these challenges to dog health weren't enough, there's more. A growing international trade in purebreds and fancy mixes has been making use of jurisdictional loopholes to circumvent safeguards. For instance, Ireland, which has no wholesale breeder legislation, steadily exports purebreds to the United States. International experts rank Ireland as Europe's number one country for puppy mills. Its reputation for unquenched cruelty to dogs rivals that of the US. Breeders of both countries are linked in commerce.
According to Gabriele Pollmier, a US-based breeder who lived in Ireland for ten years and is familiar with the system, "a fairly large number of brokers regularly bring [King Charles Cavaliers] in from Ireland, and sell them here via the Internet or the newspapers to unsuspecting buyers." ... Irish dogs are also used to stock US puppy mills because, unlike dogs that come from reputable breeders, they carry no breed restrictions (a 'neuter' clause). US sources feel some reputable Irish breeders are unknowingly selling dogs to mills and brokers in the US, believing they are for American families.
Similar concerns about legislative loopholes have been raised regarding dogs imported from Mexico and China. US pet mill animals are exported to other countries. Overall, the international trade in puppies is on the rise. Modern communications, specifically the Internet, and relatively cheap transportation costs have combined into a global situation in which dogs are at risk.
There is currently new legislation before Congress which hopes to address the issues of Internet sales and import-export traffic. It is the Pet Animal Welfare Statute (S.1139, H.R.2669), dubbed PAWS, and it seeks to put controls on anyone importing or exporting dogs. It also attempts to plug some gaps in the Animal Welfare Act as it now stands.
PAWS calls for the regulation of the large commercial breeders who sell directly to the public. The legislation would require a USDA license for breeders who breed 7 or more litters of dogs or cats per year. In addition, PAWS would cover importers, Internet sellers and other non-breeder dealers who sell more than 25 dogs or cats per year, strengthen USDA's enforcement authority, and assure USDA access to source records of persons who acquire dogs for resale. Finally, PAWS expands the USDA's authority to seek injunctions against unlicensed dog and cat dealers.
A glaring exclusion to USDA supervision, from the Animal Welfare Act's inception in 1966 to the present, has been pet retailers. These, of course, are the very places that advocates claim to be the cash register of the pet mill problem. The USDA has never sought to regulate pet retailers. Besides claiming to have too much already on its hands, a claim that ought to be respected considering the number of issues that have slipped through its fingers, it argues that the customers of retailers act like an impromptu inspection force. Since they see the venue in which the dogs are kept, they can judge accurately for themselves whether the animals' treatment is humane. Unfortunately, what is presented to customers in the front of the store is not always the same as the dogs' living conditions in the back. People dropping into a store aren't privy to the daily existence of the cute puppy that they must have. Nor do they see the conditions in which the puppies were bred before they came to the store. A review by the Boston Herald of
There have been increasing numbers of pet store whistle-blowers. Employees of pet stores, and sometimes store management, become deeply concerned by the ongoing mistreatment of animals in their care. "They don't care about puppies," said one whistle-blower. "They care about profit." Protests to management go unheeded. Entreaties for veterinary care are brushed aside. Finally, the horrified store employee scoops the suffering animal into his arms and heads for the nearest vet. Frequently, the dog dies at the vet or on the way. Some dogs recover and are rescued. Their happy stories litter the Internet, accompanied by breathtaking before and after photos. More usually, sick store puppies die without fanfare, and the retailer claims a credit from the broker or the wholesaler. A former pet store staffer winced to recall, "I've had dogs die in my lap so many times. We just put them in the freezer. It was disgusting." Dogs that stay healthy long enough to go home to new families often expire there. A parent's dream of a wonderful childhood experience quickly becomes a frightening, expensive nightmare. There are also many ailments resulting from imperfect breeding that show up only years later. Half of the people buying dogs from pet stores say that they wouldn't do it again. The other half of the people had a good experience. That's lucky, because PAWS leaves the retail pet store exemption unchanged unless they handle imported animals.
Until PAWS passes, traditional breeders, who sell animals directly to their new families, are considered exempt. Retail pet stores are exempt. The worst-case pet mills are also exempt if they sell only to the public. That may seem a superfluous consideration since they're illegal under state and municipal cruelty laws. However, if they're brought under the USDA mandate, federal authorities will take responsibility for catching them.
The shift from defining commercial breeders by purpose, i.e. wholesalers but not retailers, to defining commercial breeders by size, i.e. more than 6 litters and 25 dogs sold, falls into line with the HSUS's determination to control larger breeding operations of all kinds. PAWS is not geared to alleviating the swamping of animal shelters, however. Shelters are crowded by the offspring of casual backyard breeders. Pets acquired at low or no cost are the ones who most often need a new friend. The HSUS reports that 25 percent of shelter dogs are purebreds. Three-quarters of the shelter population is left untouched by PAWS. Breeders of upscale dogs may be those who least affect the shelter issue. They are, however, the ones within easy reach of government regulation. This is like the old story of looking in the living room for an earring lost in the bedroom "because that's where the light is on." The bulk of the problem, the dark matter, is the job of public education, which the HSUS is also doing.
Traditional breeders, with the HSUS's desired moratorium on all breeding in mind, are understandably reluctant to accept PAWS. They have two fears. The first is that once the bridgehead of definition-by-size is attained, the number specified may progressively shrink until any quantity of litters or dogs sold requires a federal license. Their second fear is that regulations meant for commercial operations and easily met by enterprises such as Hunte Corp. - floor materials impervious to moisture, for instance - will prove unworkable where dogs are raised in people's houses. Put together, these two fears suggest to them that the very situation so far deemed best for dogs, if dogs are to be raised at all - that of a skilled, loving household where puppies are in close contact with people - will be effectively halted. For assistance, breeders are turning to their old friend and mentor, the American Kennel Club (AKC).
Through no choice of its own, the American Kennel Club (AKC) is standing in the center of the dogfight. Formed in the late 19th century by a group of gentleman breeders, its mission was, and is, to define and maintain premiere bloodlines for every recognized breed. It does this through a process of registration. Its thousands of annual competitions attract the best of dogs and reinforce the AKC's leading position. The AKC is the gold standard, "the recognized gate-keeper of an industry without whose 'Seal of Approval' one suffers economic disadvantage," says one breeder. Unfortunately, a good many puppies with AKC papers are assessed to be from someone's idea of a pet mill.
The AKC is in the awkward position of getting a hefty chunk of its revenue from breeders that animal advocates have determined are of unsound character. Turning away suspect breeders from its registry means turning them over to the erupting competition. This erodes the AKC's power base and interferes with its mission to protect bloodlines. Keeping the suspect breeders, now that the issue is coming to light, means inflaming the sensibilities of members and of advocate groups influential with the public. It means repeatedly having its integrity called into question. The AKC conducts inspections (5,000 in 2004) but is not sufficiently vigilant to satisfy protestors. Enforcement is a hot potato that no one wants to hold.
The AKC, having been a perpetual adversary of proposed AWA amendments that define federally-regulated breeders by size, has at last given in. Its PAWS-information release states that without this compromise, things could get worse. "AKC made the determination that choosing to avoid the legislative process entirely would more likely result in an untenable outcome for breeders." The AKC has seen the writing on the wall and has learned how to read. To its members, it says, be calm. "There is no reason to believe that they [the USDA] will pursue a course of action ... adverse to the interests... of relatively small ... residential breeders." In contrast to many of its breed parent clubs who are firmly opposed to the amendment – the Sportsmen’s and Animal Owners’ Voting Alliance estimates that as of December 4, 2005, breed club members opposed to PAWS constitute 65.9% of AKC registrations – the AKC expects the position of small breeders to be strengthened by the new legislation.
The new measure will not affect more than 4 percent of members, the AKC reports. What it will do is to act simultaneously to give retail pet stores and licensed commercial breeders the level playing field they desire with breeders who market directly to consumers via the Internet, and to increase the number of operations falling under USDA scrutiny for humane considerations. That the AKC should find itself in bed with the HSUS on PAWS surprises a lot of people. Both the AKC and HSUS get a reward from the proposed amendment: increased USDA enforcement. The government agrees to live up to its responsibilities to curtail the worst puppy mills. As the PAWS legislation makes its way through Congress, all eyes are focused on it like a model on a runway.
In this bewildering environment of conflicting interests and methods, there is still great hope in the fight against pet mills. All that is required is for people to stop buying dogs that have received inadequate care. This is beginning to happen. Media constantly show video of pet mill raids, graphic depictions of the worst conditions imaginable. Consumers are growingly alert and horrified. Advocacy groups are on the offensive. Governments are responding. People's actions can and do make a difference. From the executive working for legislative change, to the employee who blows the whistle, to the dog buyer who decides to make a responsible choice, everyone is contributing to improving the lives of companion animals.
One mighty venture brought down by people and authorities working together is Woof & Co. As the millennium turned, Woof & Co.'s corporate officers saw a bright new vision of profit: upscale niche stores that would sell mostly puppies. "We're a lifestyle store," said one executive. When their first store opened in the Boston area in 2003, the news was picked up by media all the way to Montreal. Shoppers were enchanted by the store. The executives had big dreams, planning to open 98 upscale puppy stores by 2008. Advocates were alarmed. They knew that Woof & Co. had contracted to get its puppies from Hunte Corporation.
Woof & Co. acquired a sibling store in the parent company's litter, Maxie Biggz. Stores of both names began to spill out into the eastern states like kibble out of a bag. Advocates grew increasingly active. They employed surprise SPCA inspections to gain evidence of infractions. In a naïve or duplicitous manner, Woof & Co. committed itself to “work with animal activists and veterinarians to ensure that the chain will enhance … communities.” In November 2004, after an inspection of a new Maxie Biggz store, an SPCA inspector groaned, “Legally, there is nothing I can cite [them] on.” Woof & Co. was not surprised.
It's not unusual for them [to visit]. … But we spent $80,000 on a ventilation system. The puppies are exercised and walked on a schedule. There's a water bottle connected to every cage and the water has a nutritional supplement. We have absolutely the best care and environment for puppies.
In December, 2004, the Boston Herald revealed that two of the company’s stores had racked up 27 violations of state regulations in less than two years.
While dreaming of glory and profit, Woof & Co.'s leaders - young executives with the right idea at the right time - weren't ready for what it actually meant to keep dogs. Their business plan had included cutting into the market of breeders by selling puppies cheaper. To achieve this goal, they needed Hunte Corp., a large, reliable supplier of puppies at costs low enough to give them the edge on breeders. As we know, and as Woof & Co. had yet to learn, getting cheap dogs brings expensive problems. Those problems soon began to surface. Customers began to file complaints. Store employees began to take independent actions based on mercy and then to speak out about them.
The employee … said she repeatedly informed managers about the dog but that nothing was done. … The dog, distressed and lethargic, was sitting in a crate in a back room for sick animals …. Its eyes were “blood-red” from irritation and almost shut. … Like three other puppies in the back room, it had no water to drink and was seen licking a water bottle.
Word of mouth ultimately determines the success or failure of a company. In the age of the Internet, it sweeps through communities like an epidemic. Woof & Co. stores were picketed. Sales declined. An unfortunate outbreak of a contagious disease among the animals (go figure) caused temporary store closings. A few of the worst cases of dog abuse resulted in official charges of animal cruelty. In May of 2005, the first trial convicted them in absentia. They didn't show up. In August, Woof & Co. filed for bankruptcy, claiming assets of $1.8 million and debts of $12.7 million. As one headline happily proclaimed, "Woof & Co. Goes Poof."
In a statement blind to irony, the young business executives claimed as their nemesis not the substandard dogs, nor the cruel treatment of them, nor the aggressive advocacy and enforcement. What caused their failure, they said, was that breeders were too successfully applying Internet marketing so that Woof & Co. couldn't compete. As a wise person said, "History teaches us many lessons. Sometimes we learn the wrong ones." It’s disturbing to note that an enterprising young entrepreneur recently received a business-association award for his successful foray into puppy marketing. He uses the Internet.
Woof & Co. is gone, but many others remain. PIJAC estimates that at least 3,500 of 12,000 US pet stores still sell up to 500,000 puppies a year. Some large pet stores have ceased retailing puppies and instead host shelter animals available for adoption. Many pet stores have not yet done so and need a bigger push from consumers. Individual consumers can make choices not to buy a puppy that they believe has not received the best of care. Groups of consumers can boycott to persuade others to share their opinion. Citizens can write to legislators. Organizations can lobby for change. The Internet is a sea of resources for anyone wanting to do something in the struggle to free dogs of the horror of pet mills. Here are some links to help you get started.
In Ottawa, Canada, Wags is a store where dog lovers come for designer coffees with their designer pets. It also does a brisk trade in trendy accessories for the canine consumer. Most of the café’s clientele would undoubtedly not even consider buying their puppy at a pet store. Instead, they are buying into the trend. More and more money spent pleasing our pooches means more profiteers. While we're sipping coffee with our Schnauzer, we need to keep our eyes open.
As for Serpico, the cop who needed a friend, he got lucky. His sheepdog, Molly, turned out to be healthy and happy and stood by him when everyone else let him down. "Sheepdogs have been in our family for generations,” said Serpico, as if that was all he needed to know. But that’s the movies.
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