She was a timid thing, a tiny Chihuahua whose swollen belly was packed with five pups waiting to enter the world. Cradling this fragile, trembling mom-to-be in my arms, I carried her around the well-lit yet somewhat cramped quarters known as the “back wing” of the Humane Society of Skagit Valley adoption center.
A rare uncovered window positioned at eye level sparked a sudden idea—I’d brighten her day with a glimpse of the outside world. But the pup failed to show excitement. In fact, she registered nothing at all. At that moment, I embraced the stark truth: An unwitting rescue from a life of dark, unspeakable cruelty, this dog—estimated to be three years old—had no idea what a window was, nor was it likely that she had ever set foot outdoors.
The petite Chihuahua and her two-dozen shelter mates were among hundreds of dogs seized in January from an alleged “puppy mill” ring operating in northwestern Washington state. The rest were farmed out to other shelters and foster homes. Malnourished and suffering from infection, almost all required immediate medical attention. Some didn’t survive.
Like others moved by such news accounts, I broke my years-long streak of avoiding the dismal atmosphere of animal shelters. I put on my big-girl pants and signed on to volunteer as a caretaker. I also resurrected the investigative aspect of my extinct career as a newspaper reporter. I needed to do more, but also to know more, and to tell what I knew.
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Dogs in Limbo
The scope was astounding. Animal care costs for the two counties in which the operation was located—Skagit and Snohomish—skyrocketed within a week, reaching into tens of thousands of dollars. Already underfunded, overworked shelters found themselves deluged. Legal ownership of most of the dogs remained with defendants, who were facing multiple counts of felony animal abuse. Nonetheless, they refused to surrender their “property,” turning the dogs into de facto wards of the state and running up tabs with county coffers and nonprofit rescue agencies that would otherwise adopt them out.
The refugees I saw were, I suspect, the cream of the crop—the healthiest and least traumatized of the bunch. They’d been bathed, groomed and treated to manicures that brought their nails down to a manageable length. Nonetheless, visible signs of their plight were heartbreaking. Most cowered at the approach of caring humans who wanted only to help them. Some less timid dogs, starved for attention and desperate to be held, charged workers entering their pens. None was properly socialized.
This is the world of breeding for bucks, an insidious industry in which jaw-dropping sums of money are made through trafficking the offspring of dogs crammed together in cages and bred until they can no longer stand. Adult dogs are used as procreative vessels, and puppies are pawned off to pet shops and resellers who position themselves as small-time “hobby” breeders. Proprietors of these canine factories operate on the sly, locating mostly in remote areas hidden from the prying eyes of law enforcement officials.
Doing the Right Thing
Friends’ eyes are a different story. Brandon Hatch never thought he’d turn in his lifelong buddy to child welfare officials, but after walking in on a gruesome scene, he faced a moral dilemma. Hatch knew his friend was involved in breeding dogs. But what he saw on his last visit tormented him: 160 dogs stacked up in cages that were caked with feces and dripping with urine. The stench was overwhelming, Hatch told me, but it was the excrement on a nearby bed that left him no choice but to summon authorities.
“I knew there were children sometimes sleeping there,” he said. “In all honesty? It hurt to do what I did, but it was the right thing to do.” (Read more at PuppyJustice.com, Hatch’s blog.)
Agents inspected, then promptly called law enforcement. An ensuing raid led to searches of three residences in two counties, and the seizure of almost 600 malnourished, diseased dogs with a wide range of medical ailments, including spinal deformities, dangerous bacterial infections and—in a few cases—dental deterioration so severe that the afflicted dogs’ jaws had dissolved.
What Hatch uncovered was an unlicensed, mostly unattended, large-scale breeding operation—a “puppy mill,” in the vernacular of animal advocates, law enforcement officials and concerned legislators who for years have made attempts to shut them down.
Emily Diaz, an animal control officer in Skagit County, has seen her share of horror. Most of her cases are smaller in scale and “walk the fence,” as she puts it, between behavior in need of adjustment and actionable abuse. I asked Diaz to recount her emotions as she processed the dogs removed from that property.
Her answer was understandable. “What I was really feeling I probably shouldn’t say.” It’s essential not to let emotions overtake your ability to work effectively, Diaz says. But she never disconnects entirely. “The moment I quit caring is the moment I have to quit my job.”
Don’t look for Diaz to quit her job. She is a warrior working on behalf of the voiceless by attempting to educate rather than impound, and hoping for that one tip from a witness or complainant willing to go on the record as a source so she can build a case for seizure when necessary.
Taking a Legal Approach
As news of the raids sparked a groundswell of outrage and protests in the Seattle area and beyond, Washington state legislators were busy revisiting bills left over from an abbreviated 2008 session that would place stricter controls on breeding operations and permit inspections by animal welfare officials who have reason to suspect noncompliance.
While it sounds aggressive, Washington’s legislation is dwarfed by a new Virginia law that mandates inspections of licensed kennel operations and forbids retailers from selling pets acquired from breeders not licensed by the USDA and subject to that agency’s basic standards of care.
Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, sponsor of Senate Bill 5651, would love to see even stronger legislation passed. But in an economic downturn, she said, few have the appetite to force rural, fiscally struggling counties to perform scheduled inspections. At a minimum, this bill will put breeders on notice: Cross the line into greed-induced, abusive practices and you will be held to account. (At press time, the Senate’s version had passed, but not unanimously.)
Opponents in the legislature worry about over-regulating responsible breeders and kennel owners, one of whom testified before a Senate committee that unannounced inspections were tantamount to a violation of her constitutional rights. Supporters rejected that contention, citing existing laws subjecting food establishments to mandatory, random inspections. Kohl-Welles emphasizes the consumer-protection aspect of her bill. “I understand these are financial endeavors that people have, that they are businesses, and that’s just fine,” she said. “But it also can be very costly to families and to individuals who purchase these dogs. And there is the more intangible impact of heartbreak. How do you measure that?”
Calculating the Costs
By Sydney Cicourel’s measure, the sum is $800—so far. That represents a one-day spay and dental surgery for a five-year-old Papillon named Butter, whom she adopted after authorities seized 111 dogs from an Eastern Washington operation in February.
Cicourel, a lifelong animal lover involved in pet-shop protests and dog rescues, knew the expenses of bringing Butter home would be enormous. Her beloved three-year-old Maltese/Poodle mix, Polly, came from a puppy mill, though that fact only surfaced after she’d spent $4,000 in veterinary bills and discovered that another $3,000 would be necessary to correct orthopedic problems in Polly’s hind legs. As Cicourel has learned, very few survivors of puppy mill environments escape genetic defects.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, considering that operators of these warehouses can take in a staggering amount of revenue. Prosecutors in the Skagit County case allege that its ringleader has netted several million dollars over the last decade.
Like many of those who purchase dogs through newspaper or Internet ads, Cicourel was duped by a seemingly scrupulous breeder. Her goal is to warn off future victims, both human and canine. She urges patience through education.
“You have to be forgiving of people. They don’t want to know ugliness,” she said. “They don’t want the drama, the horror of it.”
A degree of understanding even toward perpetrators is encouraged by Officer Diaz and Brandon Hatch, both of whom believe few people start out with the intent of inflicting devastating harm on animals. But when commonsense barriers drop and greed takes over, innocent victims are left rotting in their own waste. They are deprived of the most basic sensory stimulation necessary for any living being capable of feeling pain, misery and fear.
Cicourel hopes the high-profile stories in Washington and elsewhere fuel support for continued activism that will eventually stop unnecessary suffering. People who buy or adopt animals as pets are searching for well-tempered companions. Though through an inordinate amount of care and socialization, dogs from puppy mills may become these companions, many fall devastatingly short.
My heart sank listening to Cicourel’s impassioned tale. In the shelter, I’d cared for a select group of relatively fortunate victims snatched from the confines of mass breeders. But it wasn’t hard to get to the place she hinted at—a world of despair she likened to concentration camps.
“They all have this spiritless persona. They’re like ghosts; they look right through you,” Cicourel said. “They’re empty and broken. It’s one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve ever seen.”