When motorists on the Pennsylvania Turnpike saw Main Line Animal Rescue’s first anti–puppy mill billboard, they likely thought the group was promoting Lancaster County—until they got to the second line. “Welcome to scenic Lancaster County, home to hundreds of puppy mills,” the billboard read. Bill Smith and his rescue put up the billboard four years ago in February and haven’t stopped since. Although the original billboard no longer stands, the group currently has four up in Pennsylvania and has also displayed billboards in Missouri and Chicago. The latter got Oprah’s attention and caused her to do a special on puppy mills, which aired April 4 last year and featured investigative work by Lisa Ling and Smith.
“We put that [billboard in Chicago] up out of frustration,” Smith says. “We realized dogs were suffering in other states as well. It’s kind of selfish just to worry about the dogs in Pennsylvania. There are so many puppy mills out there.”
Because of The Oprah Winfrey Show puppy-mill episode, MainLineRescue.com and MLAR.org combined received more than 7 million hits. Smith said his rescue received thousands of emails and phone calls as America discovered the horror of puppy mills. “It was great. I know that it had an impact,” he says.
“I was worried for a time that the issue may die down, like so many do, but I don’t think it is going to this time. Too many people know about it. [You know] the old expression, the cat is out of the bag; we said the dog is out of the hutch.”
When Smith uses the term “puppy mill,” he’s referring to mass commercial dog breeders. Dogs are housed in shockingly poor conditions, often living among their own excrement in cages too small for rabbits. Smith says one of the best billboards the group put up shows a Beagle in a dishwasher and reads, “Under the current kennel regulations, an adult Beagle can spend 12 years in a cage the size of your dishwasher and never be let out.” In the Oprah episode, Ling and Smith visited several puppy mills in Pennsylvania and saw the horrid conditions in which dogs are forced to live and breed. Smith has a relationship with many commercial breeders, who give his rescue the dogs they no longer need. He said that after the episode aired, breeders became more paranoid and suspicious, often shouting things like “We love our dogs!” into his chest because they thought he was recording them (even though such recording is illegal in Pennsylvania). “I know it’s having a huge impact because it’s scaring the hell out of them, and they’re cleaning up their kennels,” Smith says. “And also they’re quicker to give us the sicker dogs just to get them out because they’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble.”
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) recently conducted an investigation, which resulted in allegations that Petland pet stores were getting many of the puppies they sell in their stores from puppy mills. “I sent [Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president] an email and said, ‘You raised the bar for all of us.’ Now I have to be more creative and more inventive and come up with something else to top them,” Smith jokes. “But I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that. It’s great what they’re doing.”
Unfortunately, not everyone can go undercover and unveil puppy mills like the HSUS or Lisa Ling, but there are still many ways the public can help out. According to Smith, banding together and forming legislation is a big way the average person can get involved. Pennsylvania passed the “puppy mill bill” in October, partly because so many people were demanding it.
“Find out what your legislator is doing. Find out how they vote on animal issues, not just with puppy mills, but also with dogfighting and all kinds of things,” Smith says. “Find out, educate yourself, then write a letter, send an email. They do listen to that.”
And of course, if you or a friend or family member is thinking of adopting a pet, look to your local shelters and rescues and spread the word about puppy mills. “Putting aside better legislation and better enforcement, I think public awareness is more important than anything else,” Smith says.
For more information, visit MainLineRescue.com.