Dreaming the Possible Dream
A new book takes aim at a wide range of cruelties to animals—and provides a roadmap for moving beyond them
In his new book, The Bond: Our Kinship With Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, takes a broad look at the origins of the human-animal bond and the severing of that bond in the industrial era, and goes on to present a compelling vision for creating economies free from the harsh exploitation of animals. The Bond tackles issues ranging from factory farming to the ongoing cruelties of the Canadian seal hunt to the challenge of ending pet homelessness and euthanasia.
In the excerpt below, Pacelle writes about one of the ongoing difficulties facing both pets and the animal shelters that care for them: the inherent cruelties and misleading marketing of pets born in puppy mills. "If another 20 percent of pet owners acquired their next dog from a shelter—or a total of 45 percent of all people with dogs—we would solve the problem, and every healthy dog would in time find a home. With a decent marketing campaign and some money behind it, along with a lot of hard work, there is no reason we cannot get there by 2020," Pacelle writes. But one of the challenges in getting there, he notes, is taking on the industries that are more concerned about profits than animals' lives.
The major national organizations, including HSUS, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Maddie's Fund, and others, have set a great goal: to end the euthanasia of healthy dogs and cats in America by the year 2020. A lot of people on the ground believe we can get there, and I am one of them. One statistic in particular supports this conviction. Right now, slightly less than 25 percent of all dogs in American households come from shelters or rescue groups. That means that roughly three out of every four dogs come from other sources—from pet stores, puppy mills, small-scale breeders, or friends adopting out a litter. There's still a stigma associated with shelters, the vague, sometimes snobbish, and always uninformed view that something is wrong with shelter animals. In America, of all places—the country of the second chance—you wouldn't expect to find that attitude, but somehow it survives. And the result is that millions of loyal, loving, and perfectly healthy animals—dogs and cats down on their luck after their owners moved, got divorced, or lost their jobs or homes—wind up at shelters through no fault of their own.
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As disappointing as that 25 percent statistic might be, it also shows us the way out of the problem. It's a simple matter of arithmetic for shelters—all that's needed is a modest increase in adoption to end euthanasia of healthy pets altogether. If another 20 percent of pet owners acquired their next dog from a shelter—or a total of 45 percent of all people with dogs—we would solve the problem, and every healthy dog would in time find a home. With a decent marketing campaign and some money behind it, along with a lot of hard work, there is no reason we cannot get there by 2020, or even sooner.
Factory Farms for Dogs: The Tragedy of Puppy Mills
Not only are there many misconceptions about shelter animals and their fitness for adoption—there are all sorts of illusions and articles of faith about dogs from pet stores and puppy mills. And sometimes even the best-intentioned people, with a great and sincere love for animals, have no idea where the animals they buy have really come from.
When I was a teenager, my uncle Stan, my mother's brother and a man with a wonderful heart for animals, bought a West Highland terrier for our family from a local pet store. He thought West Highlands were adorable, which they are, and he purchased other Westies for several of my aunts and uncles. We named our little dog Randi and pointed with pride to the papers from the American Kennel Club (AKC) vouching for her purebred status and Heartland lineage. Somehow it only made it seem more exciting that she had come to us all the way from Kansas. Only later in life did I realize that Randi was almost certainly from a puppy mill and that her AKC papers provided no assurances of proper care whatsoever. If Dorothy's Toto had been in Kansas in more recent times, he would have almost certainly started life in a small, overcrowded cage, exposed to the elements, like lots of other toy and terrier breeds at puppy mills.
When Uncle Stan first dropped her off at our home, Randi would dash into a bathroom and hide behind the toilet, with her ears down and her eyes wide. She was shy and fearful, undoubtedly the consequence of little or no socialization as a puppy. Early on, bolting out of some protective corner, she would often engage in manic behavior, running around the house until exhausted. Eventually, we worked through these initial problems, and she was a fabulous companion. She greeted me every day when I came home from school, and I was always so excited to see her.
Even so, there were still physical problems that proved more difficult to overcome. Randi had skin problems and other allergies, and she was plagued with them throughout her life. She constantly chewed on her skin and had severe hot spots that we tried to medicate. She looked both funny and ridiculous wearing an Elizabethan collar, but that was the only way to inhibit her self-destructive behavior. We managed that problem, too, and she had a very good life with us, until she passed away at about fourteen years old.
Today as I look back upon it, I wonder about the choices we made as a family. Here we were—a family that loved animals—yet we had no idea we had supported a puppy-mill operation by patronizing a pet store. We had obtained a dog bred and born fifteen hundred miles away, but there was a city animal shelter less than a quarter mile from our home—you could actually see it from our front door. There, we could have also gotten a great dog. Randi was a dear companion and we loved her with all of our hearts. But another friend, whom we never met, was waiting for us right around the corner.
I have learned, during my time at HSUS, that for those who want purebreds, shelters have them too—about a quarter of the animals they take in are "pedigree" dogs. And now, on Petfinder.com, you can search for just about any dog you want. Local shelters and rescue groups post available animals, and you can find the perfect companion.
Despite a general disdain for puppy mills, the public has unwittingly allowed this industry to grow and expand, especially in the last two decades. With the rise in pet keeping, puppy-mill operators have capitalized on that interest—supplying pet stores with adorable puppies and, now quite commonly, marketing directly to the public through deceptive websites. When you fall for these marketing efforts, you consign the parent dogs to a lifetime of breeding in confinement, and you enrich the mill owner, who will just churn out another maltreated dog for the pet trade. It is the cruelty my uncle Stan supported with the purchase of Randi without even knowing it.
Cracking Down on Cruelty
The HSUS assists police and local humane authorities throughout the country in their efforts to enforce the law. One puppy mill we raided in 2008 in Tennessee—Pine Bluff Kennels—was an Internet seller with a beautiful website with pastoral images. "We have a small farm . . . about 90 acres," read the site. "We love the setting and so do our animals as they have plenty of room to run and play without being a bother to our neighbors." In reality, the owner never let anybody come to the "small farm" and instead shipped dogs by air to customers or sold puppies in parking lots or at flea markets.
After working with an informant and raiding the location with sheriff's deputies, we found something quite different than the website described. We found 450 dogs, almost all the smaller breeds, in raised, crowded, squalid hutches and makeshift kennels in an overgrown field and hidden back in the woods. Another 250 dogs, mothers and puppies, were in the filthiest trailer you could imagine. None of them was being properly fed, and 90 percent had no access to water. Puppy mills attach nice-sounding names to their facilities to give the appearance of quality care, like a hellhole we raided in Pennsylvania called "Almost Heaven." These operations are factory farms for dogs, and the dogs produced are a cash crop—the business model being to produce the most dogs at the lowest cost. But factory farms for food animals are standardized operations, with the same confinement systems used from one location to another. At puppy mills, the arrangements are improvised, with many variations on the confinement theme.
At one particularly sickening mill in Quebec that we shut down, the couple operating the mill occupied a perfectly respectable living space, with two or three pet dogs living on the ground floor and the second floor in great shape. But in the basement, they had 110 dogs living in an ammonia-filled room that required our workers to conduct their operation with gas masks. These dogs were living in that environment day after day. We even found two puppies inside a closet, in a large Tupperware tote with holes in the top, which meant those dogs were living in total darkness most if not all of the time.
The dogs who have it worst in the puppy-mill industry are the breeding females. The mother dogs are conscripted to serve as breeding machines, producing litter after litter. The puppies are sold at eight weeks, but a mother may stay for eight years or more, sometimes even being sold at auction once a mill decides she's no longer valuable. Puppy millers have applied an agricultural model to companion animal production, and the results are similar scenes of squalor, privation, and cruelty. We estimate that there are more than ten thousand puppy mills in the nation, with Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and Arkansas being the top producers and worst offenders. In Virginia, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed seventeen licensed commercial breeders, but we found nearly a thousand—exposing the enormous gaps in the current federal inspections program. Most puppy mills today are not inspected at all, either by state or federal regulators. In all, two to four million puppies are churned out by mills each year.
Gentle Ben's New Life
In 2009, on the morning of one raid in Arkansas, our animal rescue team followed sheriff's deputies down the long dirt road leading to a man they intended to arrest. They knew they were close when the unmistakable stench of animal filth filled the country air. What they saw was a familiar scene at puppy mills: hundreds of dogs confined to rusty wire cages, wallowing in their own waste, in various states of mental and physical disrepair. Many of them had matted fur, urine burns on their paws, and any number of other ailments. The house itself had all the telltale signs of an improperly kept breeding facility, complete with stacks of American Kennel Club registration papers—and an owner who suffered from compulsive hoarding, a common psychological disorder among irresponsible animal keepers. Hoarding is an odd rupture of the human-animal bond, in which people who purport to care about animals actually neglect them and inflict terrible harm.
Inside that house in Arkansas were another hundred dogs confined to more wire cages. Their cages were stacked on top of a urine-soaked carpet and surrounded by waist-high piles of sales records and books. Rescuers, wearing breathing masks to walk through this swamp of filth, found a litter of day-old pups, all barely moving except the runt, who lay seemingly lifeless on fouled newspapers. It was hard to believe that anyone would want to buy these dogs to begin with, but once these little ones were cleaned up, an unsuspecting buyer would have no idea of the hell the poor creatures had gone through in the weeks and months before.
Housed in the center aisle in two rows of kennels was the most pitiable sight: a massive, 130-pound, aging Akita who seemed to be blind and deaf. The ten-year-old dog had lived out his entire existence in this small "alley" with a concrete floor. At many places, he would have been killed or auctioned off. But this puppy-mill operator had the collector's mind-set, and that spared him from death but not misery.
Many dogs left to endure such an existence would be aggressive, so he was approached with extra caution. But this big guy was as gentle as a lamb. When finally coaxed from the rear of his pen, he walked as far as the door, and then stopped abruptly, too scared to leave the prison that had been the only thing he had ever known. Our staff then took him to be examined and fed a proper meal, and for the first time in his life, he was given a name: Gentle Ben.
Although veterinarians eventually had to remove Ben's sightless eyes, due to extreme pain, he's doing very well in his new life. He was taken in by Akita Rescue of Western New York and has now found a permanent, loving home where he's spoiled every day. In his time, Ben has experienced the worst instincts of humanity, and the best. Ben's a happy old guy, and he sure deserves it.
Wayne Pacelle is President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.