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How much is that doggie in the window? The true cost of puppy mills

Submitted Image: Carla's dog, Escobar

Years after her 15-year-old rescue dog, a beagle, passed away, Carla Uchuya had been dreaming of getting a French bulldog.

This year, on Valentine’s Day, Carla’s boyfriend took her to a pet store -- where she fell in love with a French bulldog puppy. She was leery of pet stores, having heard horrible stories of puppy mills and shady store practices.

But the store, in New York where Carla lives, provided her with paperwork showing the breeder’s USDA license number, and multiple assurances.

“She says that they only work with reputable home breeders, and they are bound by New York laws,” Carla said.

Carla recalled the cages where the 40 or so puppies were being sold looked really cramped for the dogs, but the store was large, with a lot of customers and nice merchandise on the shelves.

After waiting so many years for a French Bulldog, and seeing the puppy in person, she knew she couldn’t leave him there.

“I felt really good that I was getting him, but I also felt very guilty at the same time,” said Carla. “It was mixed feelings, like I don’t want to support this pet store because I don’t think the dogs are in very good condition here, but at the same time I don’t want to leave this dog here.”

At a post-purchase vet examination, her puppy tested positive for worms, and had to be treated, at the pet store’s expense.

“When I first got him too he was very skinny, you could see his ribs,” said Carla. “He used to throw up a lot too, and after I got him that slowly went away.”

She also describes heavy tear-staining, which also gradually got better.

A few months after the purchase, the suspicion that something wasn’t right with Escobar -- her name for her new pup -- still lingered.

“One thing stood out to me, and it just kept kind of bothering me that was in his paperwork -- the name of his mom and his dad,” said Carla.

According to her puppy registration papers, the French bulldog sire and dam’s names were Hill Top Pirate Johnny and Circle B Cheyenne.

“The reason they stood out was because they’re not normal names that a person would give their dogs and it kind of bothered me and it stuck in my mind, so finally one day I decided to look up and put in Google the name of the breeder -- Diana Stephenson, Missouri.”

What she found left her shocked, upset, and angry.


A STATE OF CHANGE

Carla, like countless other prospective puppy owners, walked into a pet store thousands of miles removed from where the animals were bred. And, like countless other puppies, Escobar came from one of the nation’s most prolific puppy-producing states -- Missouri.

Bob Baker is the executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation.

He remembers how bad the industry was 37 years ago, when first starting out as an investigator.

“When I was first hired and they said you need to address this puppy mill issue, start working on legislation, I felt that we really needed more hard evidence of what the problem was,” Baker said. “One of the feelings was, was this was just a few isolated problems and that overall the industry is good, so the first thing I decided to do was go out and visit these facilities and of course no one would let me in. So I went and I took a job selling kennel equipment, just as a way to get into these facilities to see what they were like.”

Baker started in 1981, visiting 294 facilities in the next 18 months.

“What I found was that there not only was a serious problem, but that it was pervasive throughout the entire industry, and it was even much worse than what I had imagined. I could tell horror story after horror story,” Baker recalled of his days as an investigator. “I had breeders who were taking their nonproductive dogs and shooting them and skinning them and feeding them to the other dogs. That happened up in north Missouri. I remember there was a breeder I went to, I saw a wheelbarrow and it had 26 dead puppies in it. So I said to him, ‘What are these?’ He said, ‘Oh I’m just going through the whelping barn now and taking out the dead ones.'”

The former stock broker says the drive for big business first pushed farmers into the puppy breeding industry -- and then pushed them to the extreme.

“They realized that the first rule of marketing is you have to attract people into your store,” Baker said. “And they realized what better way of attracting people into your store than putting cute little puppies in the store window.”

It’s the pet stores that still today have very little oversight.

Jessica Blome served as an assistant Missouri attorney general for six years.

From 2011 to 2013, she was the leader of Missouri’s Canine Cruelty Prevention Unit -- implementing the statewide enforcement effort.

“There’s no national rule for pet stores. Going to a pet store is never the correct answer if you’re concerned about the welfare of animals,” Blome said. “Unless the store is telling you on the door of where the puppy or cat is being held, that this animal came from a rescue, those animals you’re buying at pet stores have been bred in usually large facilities.”

“People think the more they pay, the better quality of the dog, and it’s just the opposite,” Baker said. “They’re getting the cheapest dog that can produce puppies available. But this is how the normal operation is, what’s the minimum cost and effort I can put into raising dogs to make a profit, because their whole motive is profit oriented.”

Something Carla, who paid $3,500 for her puppy, found out the hard way.

“Don’t believe what they tell you, and don’t believe what they show you,” Carla advised.

OPERATING UNDER THE RADAR

The breeder that Carla bought her dog from, Diana Stephenson, was listed on Horrible Hundred lists by the Humane Society of the United States, which features some of the worst puppy mills across the country, for serious animal health violations.

Carla called the USDA to inquire about Diana Stephenson’s license. They told her that it had been suspended, and she was not a federal or state licensed breeder. Carla then notified the ASPCA, that she had been sold a dog who appeared to have been obtained from a breeder selling without a license.

According to court records from 2011 that KTVO obtained through the Humane Society of the United States, Diana and her husband Charles were ordered to give up all their dogs and to refrain from obtaining dogs for breeding or selling for eight years.

The Stephensons currently appear to be in the process of having a case brought against them by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office for violating their agreement from 2011.

KTVO attempted to get in contact with the Stephensons by phone, and then went to the address listed for their breeding operation.

Immediately visible at the front of the property were four dogs, a three-legged small breed, a German Shepard, and two French Bulldogs who were housed in an outdoor kennel.

PROBLEMS WITH PET STORES

Carla says she’s outraged at the pet store where she got her puppy.

“I don’t know of a way that you can honestly believe that the puppy did come from a home breeder, because the only reason why I found out that my puppy came from these circumstances was because his breeder was such a huge case and made it to the news,” Carla described. “But if she hadn’t made it to the news, I would have had no way of knowing.”

Baker says pet stores can be a shield for bad breeders to hide behind.

“Many times when I would go out acting like I was interested in buying a dog, I would ask these breeders why they’re not selling directly to the consumers, why are they going through middlemen, and they say, ‘Oh I don’t want to deal with complaints, let the pet store handle it,’ and that’s why they’re hidden away,” Baker said.

Some pet stores, including PetSmart and PetSense, have an “adopt don’t shop” policy.

Kirksville PetSense Store Manager Lucy Bowe says the store acts as additional foster homes for the homeless pets.

“A lot of people are very pleasantly surprised when we tell them that it’s just an adoption site, that we’re just here for Field of Dreams and trying to get these little guys homes,” Bowe said.

Experts, like American Kennel Club Executive Secretary Gina DiNardo, advise not to make buying a dog an impulse purchase, saying instead, “Do your research! Go to dog shows and talk to people who are involved with the breed you are interested in.”

The big issue though: doing your research is nearly impossible.

In February, all inspection reports were taken down from the USDA’s website.

“They previously posted three years’ worth of data for every single licensed facility in the country, and that wasn’t just puppy mills -- that included exhibitors like zoos, and research facilities where animals are used in experiments. And the Trump administration in one fell swoop took all that information and has yet so far refused to put it back up despite a huge public outcry,” Blome said.

“Not only is the public not able to look up data from animals they hope to buy, but people who are monitoring those facilities to make sure they’re in compliance can’t do their job and help the government enforce the act, so it’s just a whole plethora of issues that has arisen as a result of the Trump administration’s terrible, terrible, short sighted decision to put a dark black blackout over information about animals, and the way animals are treated in this country.

“With the United States Department of Agriculture, if you file a public records request, it will take months if not years. I am still receiving requests for continuance, voluntary continuance, of deadlines for requests that I submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture two years ago.”

The USDA, on June 16, posted an explanation, saying the lack of information was due to a “comprehensive review of the information on its website.” It posted inspection reports from April 22 to May 19, 2017.

The surest way to know if a breeder was abusive? Visit the place the dog came from.

“They’ll have really nice websites and look really fancy, but they have no idea how those dogs are raised, so they must, must, if they’re going to buy from a breeder, they must go out and visit that breeder, and if the breeder doesn’t let you in, then walk away,” Baker said.

“It’s important to visit a prospective breeder and meet at least one of the puppy’s parents,” DiNardo agreed. “This will give you an idea of what’s in store in terms of temperament and appearance.”

“That’s one of the best ways you can evaluate how the animals are being cared for is to visit the facility and look around and see what you see,” said Dr. Cia Johnson, director of the Animal Welfare Division of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Ask to see the sire and dam, and look at how, the condition they’re in, and how they react to the owners and to you being there, are they friendly, do they shy away, does everybody look clean, do they look crowded, or do they have plenty of space, do they have shelter to get into from the weather, do they seem happy and active -- those sorts of things.”

A prime example of how tough it is to sniff out a responsible breeder -- President of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, Kevin Beauchamp, who runs Beauchamp’s Puppy World outside Lebanon, Mo.

According to the organization’s website, he runs the "Elite Kennel Program."

To be a part of it, a breeder must volunteer at least 24 hours for the pet industry, attend MPBA chapter meetings, and be state and USDA licensed, among other qualifications.

But this year’s list of Horrible Hundred breeders paints a different picture of Beauchamp.

According to the list, and according to records KTVO obtained through The Humane Society of the United States from the USDA and Missouri Department of Agriculture, Beauchamp has official warnings for failing to meet minimum requirements for basic care, and just last February, was charged with violating the federal Animal Welfare Act.

I called Beauchamp and told him we’d be coming to Lebanon, and would like to meet with him about a story on puppy mills. But before I could get another word out, he explained that even the term "puppy mills" was derogatory, and was comparable to “using the ‘N’ word.”

When we got to the address listed on the inspection reports for his dog breeding facility, Beauchamp confronted us about what we were doing there, and called police.


A few days later, Beauchamp responded to a follow-up email, saying he would be glad to meet with his attorney present. He did not respond to set up a time or place.

The entire written correspondence with Beauchamp can be seen below.

Beauchamp attached his last USDA inspection report, which had no violations.

Beauchamp also explained that USDA laws are less strict than Missouri laws.

A LAW CHANGE THAT TRANSFORMED THE INDUSTRY

The law in Missouri was changed in 2011, which those involved in the industry say made a world of difference.

“Our regulations prior to our new law in Missouri and our current USDA regulations are pretty much survival standards," Baker said. “If those are enforced, those animals will survive, but certainly no one would consider them humane. For example, the USDA requires that the cage only has to be six inches longer than the dog itself, so you’re talking about that dog living in that cage for its entire life.”

Baker remembers what it was like before the law was enacted.

“This breeder, for an unknown reason, was taking his unproductive breeding stock and putting them in a pen and never feeding them, and when the inspector showed up, these dogs were cannibalizing each other,” Baker said. “When the inspector went to the local prosecutor, they refused to prosecute.”

Baker says a state’s code book can be filled with legislation, but if there’s no way to enforce the laws, then there’s hardly any reason to have them.

“Many times, the breeders were laughing in the inspectors' faces because when they were writing them up they knew there would be no consequences," Baker remembered. "Now, they know there are consequences."

As part of the new Canine Cruelty Prevention Act, a special provision that allowed the Missouri Attorney General’s office to prosecute substandard breeders changed the industry.

“I can’t describe what a key change this was to be able to take breeders to court over violations of the act,” Blome said. “Just being able to enforce it was a huge, huge benefit to the animal and I only had to prosecute about 41 cases, and through those deterrent efforts and through shutting down facilities through the use of the law and our new authority, by the time I left there were only 1,400 puppy mills left in the state.

According to a 2015 report by the University of Missouri, in 2009, there were 1,664 licensed commercial breeders in the state who sold 265,379 dogs.

In 2013, after the new law was in the process of being implemented, there were 843 licensed commercial breeders that sold 122,319 dogs.

“It’s still more than the next three states combined, so we still have a lot of dog breeders left in the state, but we got rid of so many of the really bad ones and we are making progress,” Baker said.

Although, like Carla found, a major problem still persists, Blome says the worst offenders have largely been weeded out.

“Generally, the people who were killing dogs or whose abuse resulted in dead dogs are out of business,” Blome recalled.

The law also required cage sizes to be increased to three times the size, for dogs to have constant and unfettered access to the outdoors, access to water at all times, increased regulations for how often a dog has to be seen by a veterinarian, among other rules.

“Before, all the inspector could do was order them to be taken for veterinary treatment, and that was no incentive because the inspectors are only out there once a year. So this way if the inspector shows up and there’s a dog that’s sick or injured and if they have no evidence of giving that dog proper veterinary care, they can be cited for that,” Baker said.

The numerous changes could be in part due to a Better Business Bureau report released in 2010.

Baker says the reaction to the report was unlike anything he’s ever seen.

“I’ve been in other industries, and when there is a news story or bad things, they come together and try to fight to get rid of other bad people in our industries, but the dog breeding industry is a major exception,” Baker explained. “In fact the best proof of that is the Better Business Bureau did a study, and they told me it was one of the worst industries ever encountered as far as reconciling complaints.

“They said most of the time if we have a complaint about a business and we call them, they want to satisfy that consumer, they don’t want bad publicity, they don’t want a bad report from the Better Business Bureau. Our report when we contacted these dog breeders they would hang up on us, they would curse us out, they were not receptive at all to working out the complaints of the consumers who purchased sick dogs from them.

“And this is why it’s such a tough industry to clean up when there are not responsible people in the industry willing to step forward. Not to say that there aren’t responsible dog breeders in the industry, but for some reason they’re afraid to step forward, they’re afraid they’re going to get grief from their cohorts and their colleagues in the industry.”

It's an attitude that Baker says still exists today among dog breeders.

“They always go out and defend these bad breeders, which I always find just remarkable,” Baker said. “You would think they would want a good reputation for their industry and would want to drive out these bad breeders.”

But there are bad breeders who still continue to drive out their sick dogs, through various middlemen, to customers, all across the country.

In New York, Carla is using her experience to expose the bad practices of pet stores and illegally operating breeders, with her puppy Escobar right by her side.

“I’m glad I have him now,” she said. “I don’t regret it, but it definitely shouldn’t be able to happen again.”

While it’s clear there are still several issues facing consumers about the puppy mill industry, for Missouri, it’s been a huge step in the right direction.

“When I started doing enforcement work with the Department of Agriculture, the veteran inspector who took over the program for the Department of Agriculture told me that he was seeing dead dogs in kennels, he would inspect days after some breeders had buried animals in their backyard because they all died of treatable illnesses, or from starvation, or because they were bred too often and their placenta ruptured in birth, there’s so many different reasons why mistreatment can lead to the death of an animal, and from 2009 until when I left in 2013, we weren’t seeing dead dogs anymore and to be honest with you, that is a measure of success in my mind,” Blome said.

“I think the average person when they hear about puppy mills would not think so, but it has, it has dramatically improved, that doesn’t mean we have a lot more to do, but it has improved dramatically especially the conditions,” Baker said. “Puppy mills that are being closed down by the authorities now, those were the norm in the 80s and even in the 90s.”

KTVO reached out to several breeders, all across Missouri, who appeared to be some of the better regarded ones in the industry.

But for a variety of reasons, and some completely valid, no one was able to meet on-camera to demonstrate good examples of responsible breeders.

The American Kennel Club recommends visiting the breed’s Parent Club website to find responsible breeders.

The American Kennel Club has a puppy finder website, but advises to still employ responsible pet seeking practices.

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