by Sunny Weber, President
There are four usual ways puppy mill proprietors divest themselves of puppies they have bred. They are: selling directly to pet stores, advertising on the internet, selling to a broker, and selling at auctions.
The first way a mill breeder can unload puppies is to sell directly to their regular clients of pet stores. These storefronts are usually fairly local–within the same state and/or in drivable distances for the mill owner. Crates of puppies are loaded into vehicles such as SUVs, vans, open bed trucks, closed trucks, or for large facilities–larger shipping trucks. However, interstate shipping does occur as many states lack regulatory oversight and enforcement of any relative laws is lax.
The journey for the hapless live cargo is rough, hot, cold, bumpy, crowded, and often without food, water, or decent sanitation or ventilation. Many die on route. When they arrive at the pet store they are contracted to, puppies are placed in cages in the store. Although small, these cages are usually cleaner (for public viewing) than the ones the puppies have come from at the mill breeder (in secret, unviewed locations). Usually the dogs are cleaned up for better salability. Sometimes they are vetted through a veterinarian who is paid by the store to provide health certificates, whether they are accurate or not.
The most fortunate pups are bought soon and taken home by owners who provide more room, better nutrition, and love. The merely lucky ones may have only minor or no illnesses or physical impairments. If they do have problems, their new devoted owners provide appropriate veterinary care.
The unlucky ones languish in the pet store cages past their crucial socialization periods of optimal puppy brain development (12 weeks). They may eventually be bought at discounted prices or may become sicker or more physically disabled due to long-term confinement. The extremely unlucky may die–in the pet store or in a new home. Many are returned to the pet store for refunds due to the typical illnesses, behavior issues due to trauma or bad breeding, and/or impairments puppy mill youngsters suffer from. When the puppies are returned they may be “culled” (killed).
Some are sold again by the pet store owner to unscrupulous buyers who use them for nefarious reasons (e.g.: “bait” for fighting dog training, research laboratories, or to amateur backyard breeders, who later supply the store) to recoup some of their financial investment. It is rare that a breeder will take back puppies once they are sold to pet stores, even if store owners seek reimbursement.
The advent of easy access to online sales markets has provided enormous advantages to breeders, both reputable and disreputable. Puppies are fluffed, wrapped in ribbons, and photographed for posting in all kinds of online sales outlets such as Craigslist, EBay, PupListings.com, and uncountable other sites. These sites have exploded during the Covid-19 Pandemic when isolated humans craved company. Some sites specialize in puppy sales, but most sell everything from cars to golf clubs. There is no regulatory agency that provides quality control or guarantees–of the puppy or for buyers’ money. Scams abound.
If they are placed via internet sales, puppies remain the helpless victims of the variable wheel of fortune–for good or for bad. Breeders rarely investigate or screen internet buyers and once they receive their money, wash their hands of further responsibility. Transport from seller to buyer is haphazard and unsafe. Direct sales from breeder to buyer via the internet is impossible for advocate groups to follow, or for illegalities to be traced by law enforcement—even if the jurisdiction has humane treatment laws.
Brokers are the middlemen or women who purchase dogs from commercial mill breeders. In the continuous search for larger markets, more money, and less accountability, many commercial breeders hire brokers to ferry their products to national and international sales. Puppies are sold by breeders to brokers at extremely young ages; usually 4-5 weeks old–immediately before or after weaning so they are still “cute” when they hit the market. Brokers buy at one price from the breeder and sell to the end buyer (via the internet or directly to a wide distribution of pet storefronts) for huge profits. Often, brokers take large numbers of puppies from the breeder, cram them into tiny cages and ship them via land or air to a central warehouse for later distribution. The puppies who survive are examined by paid-off veterinarians who certify their health and qualify them for sale, sight unseen, to internet retail buyers.
Wholesale dog breeders are termed Class A dealers with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, with low federal government funding, most of which is geared towards inspection and regulation of animals produced for food consumption, multitudes of secret commercial dog breeders abound. In fact, the largest producer of puppy mill dogs is the Amish community who are exempt from USDA oversight. They are considered a “closed society” and claim religious freedom from federal and local government jurisdiction. The conditions found by undercover investigators have found deplorable conditions in their kennels, and people whose main concern is money, not moral or compassionate care for the living beings they indiscriminately produce.
Brokers should be licensed by the USDA, which supposedly enforces the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which dictates minimum standards of animal treatment–again mostly geared to farm animals, not dogs. Because the end buyer purchases from the USDA certified broker, puppies from non-USDA regulated mills are funneled through easily. Brokers can slip through the regulatory cracks as well.
Ironically, the USDA provides business loans to the very businesses they should be regulating. For example, according to the investigators at www.prisonersofgreed.org, the USDA has provided millions of dollars in loans to the Hunte Corporation, the largest dog broker in the country. The loans from the USDA to companies such as Hunte were secured by “accounts receivable and inventory”–dogs. The USDA gave taxpayer monies to the very businesses it is charged with overseeing. According to an investigative report in The Dog Press, by 2000 the USDA had loaned Hunte Corp. over $4 million dollars.
The Hunte Corporation had sales in the United States, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Japan. The company distributed puppies through retail chains such as Petland. When the Missouri Department of Natural Resources made a complaint-driven investigation of a Hunte kennel facility in 2003, they discovered “trenches of dead canines” on the premises. In August of 2006, a tractor trailer from the Hunte Corporation delivering puppies to New England pet stores, caught fire in Lowell Massachusetts, after a thousand mile trip from Goodman, Missouri. By the time the fire department arrived, the flames had killed all sixty puppies. Another truck caught fire in 2007 with 94 puppies on board.
Hunte also paid a $56,632 civil penalty after prosecution to settle charges the company illegally sold an insecticide meant for use on cows and pigs as a flea and tick treatment for dogs. Hunte repackaged and relabeled the insecticide, Prolate/Lintox-HD, and sold it under the name Paramite.
A Trifecta of Greed
In March of 2009, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other consumers filed a class action lawsuit against Petland and the Hunte Corporation. Petland, Inc. is said to have recruited a franchisee to open a storefront in the Indianapolis area. The agreement required a Petland franchisee to purchase puppies from Hunte. More than one half of the first 60-65 puppies delivered were ill with parvo, pneumonia, upper respiratory infections and ringworm.
In 2001 a secret Hunte/American Kennel Club (AKC) meeting was uncovered by The Dog Press (digital news for dog breeders, trainers, purebred dog show judges, and exhibitors). The meeting brought together the world’s largest puppy broker and AKC, the world’s largest purebred dog registry. The result was the High Volume Breeder Committee (HVB). Together, they whitewashed the public image of puppy mills and launched a huge campaign to push dogs “with papers” through pet stores such as Petland. Prices were exorbitant and oversight invisible.
Reputable breeders and AKC show members rose up in protest. AKC registrations went from over 1,500,000 in 1992 to 870,192 in 2006. Despite the precipitous drop in income, the AKC moved forward in its deflected financial goals. It increased registration fees and funded the development of a pet shop puppy inventory software program called PRIME. Hunte’s massive trucking distribution to the Petland pet shop chain led to the AKC’s development of the program.
According to The Dog Press, “PRIME was copyrighted in early 2009. The cost (paid to an outside firm) must have been staggering. Development quietly took place despite the AKC’s complete rejection of pet shops and retail sales. Dedicated dog breeders immediately rebelled because PRIME robs the buyer and the puppy from knowledgeable, caring support. The pet shop doesn’t care about that puppy ‘after the sale.’ Neither does the puppy mill breeder and obviously, neither does AKC, ‘the dog’s champion.’ A win-win for all, except the ignorant buyer and the helpless puppy.”
When puppy mills go out of business, by breeder choice, raids by law enforcement, or otherwise, all property is auctioned, including the “stock.” Hundreds of dogs are shipped to auctions where they are presented to other commercial breeders who are in the market for more dogs to breed.
Some dogs are consignment sales, providing the breeder with another option to the pet store and broker. Dogs given by commercial breeders to auctions are the “used up” or severely afflicted dogs they no longer want to use to produce puppies. They do not expect high prices but in lieu of killing them, are willing to settle for smaller compensation. Whatever monies they can get, they use to buy younger breeding stock.
Auctioneers do usually inform potential buyers of a dog’s infirmities in a perfunctory way. One investigator from prisonersofgreed.org found a male puppy whose “umbilical cord had wrapped around one foot and shut off circulation and the foot came off.” The auctioneer “said you could still use him to breed.” Another female had a dislocated jaw. The auctioneer cheerfully announced she too, could be bred because, “that’s not where puppies come from.”
Veterinarians are on site at auctions to sign health certificates as well. They are paid to certify broken, depressed, handicapped, elderly, and horribly disfigured dogs for sale as breeding stock.
People seeking pets do not attend auctions. Few know these nightmares exist.
There are also the “bottom feeders” of dog sales called bunchers. These wholesalers collect dogs any way they can: auctions, breeder liquidations, “free to good home” ads, and unadoptable dogs inscrutable shelters provide. Also gathered are stolen pet dogs–provided by mafia-like conglomerates that raid unsecured residential areas for docile pet dogs.
Bunchers warehouse their victims in crates and cages then sell them when orders for bulk numbers of dogs come in. Bulk buyers include research laboratories and underground illegal dog fighting/gambling syndicates.
Research labs use dogs for myriad types of product/medical experimentation. The experiments are often painful and inhumane but exempt from regulation if the hoped for results improve treatments/products for humans. At the end of their service, research dogs are euthanized. On rare occasions, healthy dogs are placed for adoption through legitimate rescues. Kindness Ranch in Wyoming is one such shelter/sanctuary. “The mission of the Kindness Ranch (https://kindnessranch.org) is to provide a sanctuary and place of rehabilitation for animals who have been used in laboratory research.” They “also provide an adoption program for all the animals we can rehabilitate. Those who are too debilitated, old, or ill to be placed in a loving home can remain on the ranch to live out their days.” Unfortunately, sanctuaries, where unwanted animals and birds can live out their lives in human care are rare. Sanctuaries are expensive to operate and are the least numerous of the rescue types.
“Bait dogs” are used to teach other dogs–bred to fight for human entertainment and gambling–how to kill. Killing docile pets, or dogs too ill or handicapped too protect themselves provides “positive reinforcement” for neophyte fighters, before they have to face more experienced and aggressive competitors.
Most clients that bunchers sell in bulk to are hard to track down, especially the fighting rings. They are clandestine and underground–housed in extreme rural areas and run by mafia-type organizations. Investigations into, and regulations of, these entities are largely ignored by law enforcement, unless activists raise awareness.
Who Fights for the Innocents?
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) concedes that no one knows the real numbers of mills, online sales, brokers, shippers, auctions, or bunchers. According to a report in the January 3, 2017 report in Westword Magazine by Paul Solotaroff, “It’s an industry born and raised in shadows. The USDA only licenses a fraction of all kennels, about 2,500 of various sizes, which can range from five adult breed dogs to more than a thousand.
“States also license and inspect kennels, accounting for another 2,500 breed sites that aren’t registered with the feds,” says Kathleen Summers, the director of outreach and research for HSUS’s puppy-mills campaign. “But in rural communities, there are thousands of backyard kennels selling online and evading government regulation.”
Solotaroff continues, “A breeder only needs a federal license if he or she sells the dogs sight unseen, i.e., through a middleman like a pet store or a puppy broker. But if the seller deals directly with the puppy’s buyer, either selling face to face, through classified ads or, increasingly, via pop-up websites, there is little or no oversight of their business. In short, online dog sales is the perfect crime. Courts don’t care about out-of-state victims, and the feds don’t even fine breeders, much less arrest them, for selling sick pups on bogus sites.”
“The USDA has a total of 100 inspectors to inspect thousands of breeders in 50 states,” says former HSUS CEO, Wayne Pacelle. “But they also have to inspect every zoo, circus and lab that uses animals for research testing. We’ve been petitioning them for decades to improve the law – require bigger crates for breed dogs, give them access to outdoor dog runs and much prompter vet care when they’re sick – but they can’t even enforce the bad law (the Animal Care Act of 1966) on their books,” says Pacelle, via Soltaroff’s Rolling Stone article.
Solotaroff wrote, “Other grassroots groups use different tactics to bring down puppy mills. Some take to social media, building Facebook pages around graphic photos and pleas to spread the word. Then there are street warriors who picket pet stores, some with stunning results. Mindi Callison, a young schoolteacher in Ames, Iowa, formed Bailing Out Benji six years ago, and has recruited countless students from Iowa State to protest with her. Callison tells me about a local pet-shop owner who ‘used to have dozens of pups in his window; now he sells two or three a month.’ At first, she got flamed by furious millers. Then, to her shock, a few quietly reached out, asking if she’d take their used-up dogs. ‘This year alone, they’ve given up almost 100, and we don’t pay a cent,’ says Callison. They call her, she says, not out of charity, but to avoid the cost of euthanization.”
Theresa Strader, founder of National Mill Dog Rescue in Payton, Colorado is one of the few trusted by a few puppy mills in the Midwest to faithfully pick up unwanted, used-up dogs. She and a dedicated team of volunteers regularly cruise their route, picking up dogs that mills are ready to hand off. She has been able to establish secretive, but productive relationships. Her discreet travels bring out hundreds of dogs a year. They are transported by her team to her shelter where they are medically triaged, treated, bathed, fed, housed, and rehabilitated physically, emotionally, and behaviorally. They are then placed for adoption with a unique population of adopters—people who “get” the puppy mill survivor’s traumas and lack of socialization.
Strader writes, “Unfortunately, society is to blame for many of the sufferings of animals; the lack of lifelong commitment, the demand for puppies from unknown sources, irresponsible ownership that feeds the gross overpopulation of domestic pets leading to senseless extermination. There are many problems separate and apart from one another in animal welfare. We are doing our part for one of them.”