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Rescuing the Invisible: How Puppies and Their Mothers Escape the Mills

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By Laura Drucker

Every rescued animal has a journey. For Huey, a Cavapoo puppy who found his home last year thanks to Reach Rescue in Mundelein, Illinois, that journey began in a puppy mill.

There are over two million puppies bred in puppy mills every year. Their lives begin in cruelty; in overcrowded, dirty rooms. Rusted cages, stacked on top of one another, contain countless animals all forced to endure a most severe form of suffering.

For as long as they live in the mill, these dogs will not know love, sunlight, or nourishment. Their purpose is to make puppies— those very puppies whose soft fur and impossibly large eyes greet you from so many pet store windows—and their care extends only so far as it facilitates their breeding. Most of the females are bred about twice a year, and many are put to death as soon as they stop being able to produce puppies, usually around age five. Some never survive to see five at all.

These were the circumstances that led to Huey’s birth. As the product of the mill, you could say Huey was lucky—he got out. But life for a mill puppy, even if he does end up with a family, is rarely easy.

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Breeding in the mills is indiscriminate, says Cari Meyers, founder of The Puppy Mill Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that was instrumental in enacting the city’s anti-puppy mill bill and that continues to fight to close mills across the nation. The dogs aren’t purebred, she stresses; they’re inbred. Male dogs are bred with their sisters, with their cousins. This inevitably opens the door to a host of serious problems for the puppies—mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Huey was born with an extrahepatic liver shunt, a blood vessel formed outside his liver. This abnormal connection meant that instead of blood being carried through a portal vein and into his liver where toxins and byproducts could be filtered out, Huey’s blood was bypassing his liver entirely. Common side effects of liver shunts include poor muscle development, stunted growth, seizures, and abnormal behaviors like disorientation and circling.

Huey was not examined before being sold to a dog broker, the middleman who facilitates sales between puppy mills and pet stores or families. He wasn’t examined under the broker’s care either. In a story all too common for mill puppies, the broker sold Huey to a family for thousands of dollars and when they discovered his ailment they simply returned him.

Huey didn't just gain a great family––he gained a great older brother, too.

Huey didn’t just gain a great family––he gained a great older brother, too.

There are no profits to be had in a sick puppy. Most of them are killed, some are dropped off at shelters, and some, like Huey, are given away on Craigslist. That’s where he first caught the eye of Reach Rescue.

“They were giving him away for free,” says Amanda Dziekanski, the shelter’s foster director. “They were saying that he needed surgery and they couldn’t afford it. I messaged them and said, ‘Please, you need to find a rescue to take this dog in. Nobody’s going to take him for free and get him the help that he needs.’ I never heard back.”

The next day, Dziekanski received a call from Waukegan Animal Control. A dog, matching Huey’s description, had been dropped off at the facility. Would Reach be able to take him?

“We put two and two together and realized it was the same dog from Craigslist,” recalls Dziekanski. They took him in immediately.

Rescuing a dog from a puppy mill generally equates to substantial costs for shelters. Vet bills add up fast, especially for an ailing dog who has never had a proper check-up. Common problems include epilepsy, musculoskeletal disorders, kidney disorders, and blood and respiratory disorders. There are also viruses to deal with—parvovirus, distemper, giardia, on top of problems like fleas, ticks, heartworm, and kennel cough. Each mill dog who comes in will likely need treatment for one or more serious health issues. It cost Reach Rescue $6,400 to treat Huey’s liver shunt, an amount they raised online and through their on- site resale shop, Whiskers and Wags. For smaller groups and those without significant fundraising resources, it’s a financial burden too big to shoulder.

“If we can afford it, we’ll do it,” says Patti Bianco, president and co-founder of Reach Rescue. “It’s not fair to them. They’re just cast aside.”

Huey was adopted by his foster family and today he is a happy, healthy, much-loved dog. “Thank goodness he ended up in our care,” Dziekanski says. “It makes you feel bad to think of all the other dogs out there that didn’t get as lucky as he did.”

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For every puppy sold to a broker there is a mother trapped in a cage. It’s a reality that few care to think about when they shell out $1,000 or more to a website or pet store. It is the invisibility of the mothers that allows the system to perpetuate. It is also what fuels the fire of organizations dedicated to their rescue.

In the spring of 2015, 81 dogs and two cats were rescued from a mill operation in St. Anne, Illinois. The mill, which operated under the name Adrian’s Puppy Paradise, had been running in Kankakee County since 2001 out of the home of owners Adrian and Louise Gutierrez. Despite the deplorable conditions, the Gutierrez’s mill had continually passed inspection with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. It was word of mouth that eventually led to the raid.

“We learned through the community,” Meyers says. “People knew there was a puppy mill there. They knew what was going on and for how long. They knew everything about this, and they couldn’t get anybody to do anything.”

Raids are the most effective means of rescuing mill dogs, but they’re fraught with complications. Warrants are required, as is the participation of local law enforcement. Sufficient resources must be made available for a triage, including carriers for each animal, plenty of blankets, food, volunteer support, and on-site veterinarians. And there’s the problem that exists—especially in small towns like St. Anne—of keeping the raid a secret.

At the time The Puppy Mill Project first started hearing about the mill in Kankakee County, they knew there were about 150 dogs being kept there, but they didn’t have the facilities or support for a bust. They teamed up with national rescue organization Animal Rescue Corps and eventually Kankakee Animal Control and the local sheriff’s office, collecting the necessary warrant and legal backings. But even the best intentioned people talk. By the time the raid took place, almost half of the animals had disappeared.

“They found out somehow and got rid of a lot of the dogs. Hid them, or whatever they did,” Meyers says. “When we got there, there were only 81 dogs. But that’s 81 dogs saved who are in wonderful homes now.”

It’s this sort of unending optimism that enables those like Meyers to continue their efforts, even in the face of a seemingly insurmountable amount of suffering.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are at least 10,000 puppy mills operating in the country.  Less than 3,000 of these are licensed by the USDA and subject to regulatory inspections, a laughable endeavor in itself, notes Meyers, thanks to a serially insufficient amount of inspectors and lax rules over what constitutes a passable environment.

Spread out among these mills are more than 160,000 breeding dogs facing unbearable cruelty. And while raids like the one in St. Anne are the preferred method for getting them out, they’re not the only route that rescue organizations take.

Some millers hold auctions to sell off dogs who are no longer profitable, a last-ditch effort to make money off an animal before killing them. Rescue groups attend these auctions undercover to purchase dogs directly from the millers. And while the purchased dogs do go on to brighter futures, it’s a controversial method that many cannot endorse.

Says Meyers, “You are supporting the millers. I can’t tell somebody not to buy a puppy mill dog in a pet store if I’m also supporting the auctions. [The rescues] do take these dogs to a better life, but at the cost of the millers breeding more dogs. So next year or five years from now they’re still in business. It facilitates a continuing cycle.”

Dogs are auctioned off for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Rescues must fundraise aggressively, with the end result being that their efforts––while good intentioned and admirable in many ways––go directly toward the entrapment of more helpless animals. It’s a true catch-22.

Other rescues build direct relationships with millers, guarding their connections like secret treasure lest the miller lose trust and stop contacting them. In these situations, millers call rescues directly with animals they no longer want. Organizations are given a timeline to come pick up the dog or dogs, with little patience on the part of the miller.

“I’ve been at National Mill Dog Rescue when it’s happened,” Meyers recalls. “They get a call [from a miller] saying, ‘I’ve got this and this and this, come and get them or I’m going to shoot them by 2 o’clock on Thursday,’ And they do go.” One time, adds Meyers, the rescue workers called to say they were running behind. Instead of waiting, the miller killed the dogs.

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In order to shut down the puppy mill industry, individuals, organizations, law enforcement, and politicians have to work together, culling support and refusing to back down from instances of animal cruelty. More than 200 municipalities, Chicago included, have passed ordinances restricting or banning pet stores from selling commercially-bred animals. While it’s unlikely our current federal administration will make puppy mills a priority, organizations like The Puppy Mill Project are not going to give up.

“So many more people are aware now,” Meyers says. “And everybody wants the same thing. Somehow, someway, we’ve got to educate the people that don’t know.”

There are signs that more support is coming. Meyers says that larger animal organizations are starting to get involved, putting pressure on state legislatures to enact regulations that block the ability of mills to operate. And those who practice responsible breeding are starting to show interest in joining the fight too. When a pet store tells a customer that their dogs come from loving breeders, it is always a lie. Responsible breeders are passionate about the animals they breed, with a desire to protect their lineage, health, and population. This is an important group of people to get involved, since they know the ins-and-outs of the industry and can help crack down on the mills who are threatening their reputation and the breeds they love.

While the war against puppy mills may be far from over, it’s a long way from where it started. Each raid, each puppy or mill dog that is taken in by a rescue, rehabilitated, and adopted out to a loving family, is a battle won against the evils of commercial breeding. And thankfully, those on the front lines are steady in their resolve to never give up on the animals who need them.

Helping shelters rescue puppy mill animals

The minimum cost of basic veterinary care for a rescued mill dog is $500, and can often run much higher. That’s why The Puppy Mill Project created Millie’s Mission. The fund assists shelters and rescue groups by facilitating mill rescues and providing financial assistance for post-rescue care.

To learn more, visit ThePuppyMillProject.org/Facilitating-Rescue

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