He was born and spent all of his seven years in a cage barely big enough for him to stand. Judging by the damage his tiny legs, it was made of wire and had an open floor. The crowded cell he shared with too many others was part of a noisy, fetid prison that was freezing cold in the winter and broiling hot in the summer.
He received no attention. The only human interaction he has was being pulled out of his cell, used for the purpose he was meant for, and thrown back in until he was needed again. He lived his years hurting, sick, starving, scared and yearning for some kind of affection. To those who imprisoned and abused him, he was just a component, a tool, a step in a money making machine. He was to be used and be given nothing more in return than what was needed to keep him useful. When his usefulness ran out, he would be destroyed.
If I was describing a child in Asia being forced to make tennis shoes for HugeCorp International, there would be a hue and cry. We will not stand for the weak and powerless to be used and oppressed by the rich and powerful. It would cause all decent people to join together and fight this grave violation of human rights.
Boycotts would be called for, celebrities would make speeches and international committees would be convened. Pressure would be brought to bear from all angles until HugeCorp apologized and pledged to require its suppliers to be fair and humane. It would do it as a matter of survival.
Boots is not a child. He is something even smaller and weaker. He is a Chihuahua. He was used in a puppy mill as a breeding dog. He was a four legged baby being tortured and enslaved,. He was nothing more than a means for the mill operator and the pet distributor to make money.
My Lil Pal Boots
I work at the Atlanta Human Society as an adoption volunteer. My job is to give the dogs the things they need beyond the
safety, comfort, food and health care the shelter provides. I have some 20 years of experience in dog evaluation, training and behavior. I don’t know if it is that or the similarities of our natures, but dogs and I seem to have a special bond.
We are a large shelter with excellent resources, so we are able to take in and place a lot of dogs. We do this while not having to euthanize for space. Most of our dogs do not come from individuals. They come from other shelters that are out of room, they have been left homeless by disaster or they have been rescued from dog fighting rings. However, the bulk of them come from puppy mills.
On the occasion that a puppy mill is raided by the authorities, the dogs have to go somewhere. The emphasis of these canine death camps is on numbers. Add that to the fact that they are in rural areas, the local facilities just don’t have the room. So we and other shelters take the rescued animals in.
I went in to help out for a few hours at the shelter. I saw Boots cowering in the back of his cage, shaking and terrified. I could tell without even reading the kennel card that he was a puppy mill dog. It was more than the permanent signs of neglect and his obvious fear. It was something in his eyes, that resigned “what horrible thing is going to happen to me next?” look.
When it comes to puppy mills, the puppies themselves are the lucky ones. They are only there until they are old enough to sell then off they go to Petland or other retailers. The mill operators don’t make money if the pups aren’t salable so they do enough to make them appear healthy and sound. It is not until a few months after they have been purchased that the owners discover the hidden defects caused by indiscriminate breeding. This often includes generations of inbreeding.
The adults have it far worse. As a result of the ravages I spoke of, they end up having serious health issues. Living in the wire cages causes injuries to their feet and legs. Their coats become so filthy and matted that the skin underneath ulcerates. Their teeth fall out from malnutrition. Their eyes become infected. Because of the crowded and savage conditions, the dogs often suffer injuries inflicted by others including having their ears chewed off.
The females truly have to endure the worst of the horrors. They are bred every time they come into heat. Having litter after litter ravages their bodies.
We had a female in the shelter who had come from another rescue. Like Boots, she had been imprisoned for seven years. Because she was used as a puppy machine, she had an umbilical hernia that needed to be surgically repaired. Her vagina was so grossly distended that potential adopters found it difficult to determine her gender. She had to have two teeth pulled. I took her outside for some people who wanted to look at her. When I placed her on the grass, she stood there. I realized that she had never been outside or seen grass. She had probably never been out of a cage. She did not know what she was supposed to do.
That little girl ended up going home with a great family. I am sure she now spends her evening in the La-Z-Boy, on her master’s lap as they both snooze through whatever is on TV.
I was going to see to it that Boots ended up on his own throne in a house with nice people.
I am large, intimidating and rarely intimidated. I am not afraid of anything or anyone (my girlfriend aside). I am smart , strong and very self-sufficient. So, of course, a five pound Chihuahua had me wrapped around his paw in about five seconds
There were practicalities involved. No one was going to even look at a terrified little dog cringing in the back of kennel, let alone adopt him. He was so afraid he was shedding; he was a hair blizzard. So I made it my job to show Boots the humane side of humanity. Hopefully I could gain his trust and make him the dog he truly was.
One of my hands is about the same size as Boots. Imagine the terror he felt as this giant monstrosity reached in to wrest him from his home. I did not have to imagine it. He peed all over me.
Our first session did not go all that well. I held him a bit longer but he was so terrified that I was making things worse. So I cleaned him off and put him back in his cage. All the dogs get a treat when I put them back. It takes the sting out but it also makes going back in desirable by rewarding them for it.
The war against puppy mills seems to be insurmountable. The Humane Society of the United States is fighting the public side of the battle with press and by promoting legislation and enforcement. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does investigation and works with authorities to shut the mills down. Local organizations like the Atlanta Humane Society provide sanctuary as well as a beneficial alternative to pet stores for people who want a pet in their lives. And there are untold thousands of volunteers who get in there and get peed on for the sake of the victims of the mills.
On the other side is the Goliath of money. It is fairly east money for the mill operator. Find a corrugated shack, throw up cages made of 2X4’s and chicken wire, buy the cheapest food you can find in bulk, get a few dogs and you are in business.
Petland, other pet stores, online and even roadside sellers can realize a nice pay day. Since sales are almost pure profit for the mill operator, the seller can get the puppies fairly cheap, work up some fake papers, and then sell the “purebred” at multiple hundreds of percent markup.
My next session with Boots went a little better. He was still scared when I got him out but, apparently, had taken care of his personal needs. I held him and talked to him as I carried him to the yard. I put him down on the grass…and he promptly rolled over into “please don’t hurt me” pose. I moved a few feet away and sat on the grass. I spoke to him softly and, after a bit, he crawled to me. I petted him and called him “good dog,” then repeated the procedure.
After that, we sat on the bench near the door. I brushed him while those going in and out snickered at the sight of a brute like me doting on a dog the size of a guinea pig. That was okay. The idea was to get him used to people being around aka “socialization.”
I spent my time with him but I did have others who needed my attention. I put Boots back in his cage and gave him one of the silly dog treats shaped like a little steak, which he loves.
Throughout the day as I worked in the small dog area I saw Boots, who used to cringe in fear at the back of his cage, now up at the front barking and jumping like the rest of them. I would walk by and talk to him and he would respond excitedly. Yet, when someone else approached, it was back to the corner to cringe. I realized what was going on.
Aside from the behemoth of money, another huge battle to overcome in the war against puppy mills is the one against ignorance. People go to Petland or some other store and see those cute little puppies. They know nothing about dogs or where the pet stores get them. They just know they are cute.
Somehow the public has gotten some very twisted notions about dogs. Like the idea that purebred dogs are inherently better than “mutts.” More granularly, that having “papers” make a dog superior. Unless you have a specific need or purpose for the dog, mutts are just as good as pedigreed dogs. All “papers” provide is an ersatz certification that allows those who breed dogs to charge higher prices for pups. With the AKC’s lax, almost non-existent process of assuring registrations are valid, most of the “papers” used to justify charging five times the price for a dog are about as real as Pamela Anderson’s breasts.
Yet believing that getting screwed for five times what a dog is worth because it has fake papers who’s value is 0 to anyone but a professional breeder, people continue to go to Petland and other pet shops to be raped in the wallet.
They get Spot home and he does not fall over dead in a month so Petland or whatever pet shop is off the hook. As Spot gets older, his purchaser notices he seems to be mentally off. His legs may not be developing right or his eyes may cloud up. The hidden genetic defects caused by the indiscriminate “for profit” breeding programs start showing up.
Neither Petland, other per dealers, nor the puppy mill operator is not going to care. They got their money. Hey, caveat emptor.
Spot starts drooling on the carpets, can’t go out to poop or has a physical problem that is going to cause hundreds of dollars to fix. So guess where Spot ends up. That’s right, in a shelter. If he is adoptable he just took a space another dog could have had. If he is not adoptable “No-kill” shelters will not take him. Spot is going to end up being euthanized. Which the polite way of saying he is going to be killed.
Puppy mills not only put this type of direct pressure on shelters, they cause indirect problems as well. Every time someone buys a puppy mill dog from Petland, that means a dog in a shelter, possibly on death row, will not get a home.
Don’t buy anything from Petland, other pet stores, online pet sellers or other dealers.
Boots was doing better overall but he had become attached to me. He needed to get to the point where he was friendly to, or at least not afraid of, anyone. So I pulled something else out of my bag of tricks.
Observing other terrified dogs that came to us from puppy mills, I noticed that if a woman, more specifically a younger woman, interacted with them, it caused an almost miraculous change. They became more outgoing, less fearful and more social in a matter of minutes. This all translates into more adoptable.
A chance would have it, there was a group of volunteers from Georgia Tech doing work around the shelter. Many of them young ladies. Coincidentally, a couple of them were working right where Boots and I needed to go through. It would have been rude to walk by without stopping to talk with them. I was shocked when they asked if they could hold Boots. Well, they were helping us out so I could hardly say no.
When I put him back after that, he was immediately up front demanding attention just like his colleagues. He was still a little reticent when his cage was opened and someone reached in, it probably triggered some horrific memories. But when he was out and being held, he seemed unsure but he was certainly not peeing all over everything.
Petland lies. They know where the puppies come from and what the conditions are there. The potential buyers who do have the presence of mind to ask are told that Petland has the highest standards for their breeders and have a close relationship with them. About two minutes of research allowed me to find that the Petland nearest to my home has a “close” relationship with a breeder 900 miles away who has been cited with multiple code violations.
We are working on it, but there are no laws against puppy mills. The proprietors of these canine concentration camps can only be cited on code violations or animal cruelty charges, neither of which carry much weight. At least not enough to close them down. The weak penalties that do exist are the “cost of doing business.” If things somehow get bad, puppy millers follow the model of the meth industry and simply move to the next shack and set up business there.
Boots has made great strides He is really warming up to people now. Several of my colleagues have jumped on the Boots bandwagon and are giving him special TLC. You will regularly see little Boots being carried around by someone doing their work at the shelter.
When I left at the end of my last shift, I saw a lady, a potential adopter, holding Boots and talking to a counselor about him. Did he get a home? I hope so but I don’t know. The important thing is that he seems to have learned he is out of hell. He is getting the love and care he never received and, as a result, he is more likely to be adopted. The lady I saw him with may not take him but she was interested in him.
There are well intentioned people out there who see buying a puppy from a mill as “saving it.” They have saved nothing. In fact, they have made things worse. You gave money to the puppy mill operator and improved his profits so now he is going to crank out more puppies.
Which means more horrors for the breeding dogs, more malformed puppies and more dogs in shelters who won’t find new homes or may be killed.
If you feel for these poor creatures that are going through living hell, there are things you can do for them. In fact, it is probably the easiest of causes to fight for
Don’t buy anything from Petland, other pet stores, online pet sellers or other dealers. If you do this and urge everyone you know to do the same, it will hurt them economically. These are the only terms they understand. We can stop this horror. And you will know that you have helped make the world a better place.
You can get your pet supplies from other sources such as Petsmart or Petco who not only don’t sell puppies but allow shelters to hold adoption events. They also host and sponsor low-cost spay and neutering clinics.
If you do want to add a pet to your family, go to a shelter. You will find clean, healthy , friendly dogs kept in very sanitary conditions (you will be reminded a dozen times by people like me to sanitize your hands after handling each dog).
Their health has been evaluated by veterinarians and their behavior by specialists who make sure they are suitable for polite company. They are vaccinated, equipped with an ID microchip, neutered, come with 30 days of free veterinary medical insurance and a goody bag of new dog stuff.
Many, like ours, offer services beyond adoption such as reduced cost veterinary care and dog training classes.
Go ask Petland if you can get a dog that thoroughly evaluated and with all of those extras for $150. Be prepared to experience derisive laughter.
Boots will get adopted, I am sure of it. Getting him from seven years of unimaginable torture to someone’s couch was a journey down a long road. It involved investigators, law enforcement, rescue personnel, veterinarians, shelter staff and volunteers. It took focused and dedicated efforts on my part and my colleagues.
He is just one dog out of the hundreds of from that one raid on just one of the hundreds of puppy mills torturing thousands and thousands of dogs.
There will be another to take his place just as he took someone else’s. And those of use who have chosen to be there for them will pour all we have into healing them. Our success will leave us heartbroken to see them go and happy that they have a good home. Then we will bend our backs and do it again.
It is the best we can do until all the larger efforts can make the rest of society aware of this horror in our midst and, hopefully, the humane nature within decent people everywhere will become the force that puts an end to it.
UPDATE: Boots was chosen as the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Pet of the Week. On September 13, 2009 he went to his new home. For me, this defines “bittersweet.”