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Anatomy of a puppy mill raid

The details are depressingly similar—sick, suffering dogs languishing in row after row of wire cages—but closing each puppy mill down is a struggle all its own for The HSUS and its partners.

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2013

He was hungry in the weeks before the rescue—always hungry. The food they brought was never enough. Not for him and the other dog in the small chain-link kennel. Day by day, he grew weaker, thinner, though a thick coat of matted fur hid his ribs. Day by day, he waited, nearly forgotten, in the warren of miserable pens and cages in Callie Abel’s yard in Johnston, S.C. The Labrador-poodle mix was way too old to sell. His condition might have raised suspicions if he had been passed on to a rescue. So he wasted away.

When rain fell, the kennel’s dirt floor turned to mud. When sun shone, the dirt turned to dust. For relief from the heat, the dog dug into the dirt, but fleas bit him constantly. Sometimes Abel or a helper brought fresh water. Sometimes not. Then the liquid left in the sawed-off barrel turned green with algae. He was thirsty, but couldn’t drink it.

Abel’s website gave this place a pretty name—Calabel Farms—and a nice story: “I have been a dog lover basically since birth. … My focus is on matching wonderful pets with loving homes.” From the fence by the road, all that could be seen were trees, Abel’s double-wide trailer, and more fences. Behind the façade, though, lay a puppy mill with more than 200 dogs: mothers and puppies kept in rabbit hutches, females bearing litter after litter until their health failed. A shelter would have had four or five people working full-time to care for these dogs (never mind the nine horses and 48 chickens and other birds also on the property). Abel was trying to do it largely by herself.

At one time, Abel, 54, was an animal control officer. She had been married to a veterinarian. She should have known the care dogs require. But she couldn’t or wouldn’t provide it.To save money, Abel supplemented dog food with deer scraps from a local processing plant. She did her own veterinary work, though she’s not a veterinarian (her ex-husband supplied prescriptions). Perhaps she took some puppies for the required shots, but she failed to treat most of the dogs for fleas or heartworm. She was having a hard time taking care of herself. Her home was filthy and packed with clutter, her yard strewn with junk.

Sometimes dogs died on their own. Sometimes they were put down. Abel burned the bodies in a small pit steps from her door. When there were a lot of dead dogs, she buried them near the edge of her property in a hole dug with a backhoe.

She left notes on the backs of envelopes for her current husband: “Jack—this is yesterday’s coffee—in this cup—Also please take 2 large dead dogs today Thanks Love U”; “Hope you feel better today. Can U take dead pup in box on drum by shed with motorcycle—also one in here by heater if dead.”

Neighbors complained about barking and foul odors and fleas. In 2009, an animal control officer visited, but the dogs he saw appeared to have food and water. None were dead or dying, and—like many rural animal control facilities—he didn’t have the means to rescue that many animals. The sheriff ’s office knew the situation wasn’t right, but they didn’t know what to do about it. In 2005, Abel had evaded charges in nearby Aiken County of keeping dogs in unsanitary conditions. She moved to Edgefield County and kept selling puppies online for $200 to $500 apiece.

“Designer dogs,” she called them. She photographed puppies using a makeshift home studio and brightly colored cloths as backdrops, captioning the pictures with cute comments written as though in the dogs’ words. On her website, she invited people to visit her farm, but in reality, the dogs were driven or flown to customers. The only people who got past the “No Trespassing” signs were her ex-husband, her current husband, her two sons, a hired helper, and a local woman Abel met at an auction where she brought puppies to sell.Abel had been passing the woman older dogs she no longer wanted—females who have failed to breed or care for a previous litter, 3- to 4-month-old male puppies who have grown too big to easily ship to buyers. She eventually let the woman into her yard. The woman told a local rescuer what she’d seen, and in May 2012, that rescuer called The HSUS puppy mill tip line.

Her message went to Ashley Mauceri, manager of animal cruelty response for the Animal Rescue Team. In July, at Mauceri’s instruction, the auction acquaintance took seven small dogs from Abel to a vet. The animals had matted fur, rotting teeth, fleas, and ears filled with dark fluid. It was the evidence The HSUS needed.

On the morning of Sept. 11, a sheriff ’s car led a convoy of SUVs, a truck for hauling horses, and two tractor trailers down Holmes Pond Road in Johnston. Inside rode members of the HSUS Animal Rescue Team, HSUS South Carolina director Kimberly Kelly, trained volunteers from 14 states, and staff from the Humane Society of Charlotte (North Carolina). Mauceri, the incident commander, was hopeful but nervous: The week before, someone in the sheriff ’s office, trying to reassure a woman who called about the condition of a dog from Calabel Farms, revealed a raid was about to take place. Had word reached Abel?

But when deputies arrived, Abel was still there. If she’d tried to clean up, it wasn’t apparent. Deputies served a warrant as she stepped out of the trailer. She argued with the officers, and before the convoy had even parked, she was arrested and taken to jail.

IT WASN’T THE BIGGEST of the HSUS-assisted puppy mill cases in 2012, or the most dramatic. But it was one more methodical step toward putting the estimated 10,000 puppy mills in the U.S. out of business. Thanks to partnering shelters and rescues, every dog seized went to a real home, after their health problems were meticulously documented to build a case against Abel and to push for reform—in Edgefield County and the nation as a whole.

“When you see it on the news, it looks like two minutes ago we got the complaint, and we’re fully deployed on the ground and pulling animals,” says Tia Pope, manager of puppy mill response for the Animal Rescue Team. “But it takes emails and conversations and visits and videos and almost launching a political campaign—when it’s all said and done, it takes a search warrant. And each one we do, we equip the locals, we recruit volunteers. We empower people to take care of their own backyard.”

The puppies look really cute. But the puppies are only here for six weeks. … The dirty little secret is what their mom and dad are going through.”

As the team swept the property, Mauceri and Adam Parascandola, director of animal cruelty response, picked their way through the jumble of objects piled in the yard—rusty jumper cables, a colander, milk crates, a carpet cleaner, kid’s bicycles, a rototiller—and entered the trailer through a side porch cluttered with empty dog food bags and half-assembled cages. Inside, more clutter: the bottom of a crock-pot, the base of a coffeemaker, bags of spices spilling across the stove, and big containers of instant oatmeal, hot dog buns, peanut butter, and syrup. Dirty dishes filled the kitchen sink and beyond. Fly strips were coated with insects.

“I don’t see how a person can live in a place like this,” said a sheriff ’s deputy.In the living room, a parrot perched in a cage encrusted with droppings. Further back, a desk was spread with drugs, syringes, IV bags, pills, powders, medicated shampoos, unopened dog toothbrushes—Abel’s vet station. In a corner was the studio where Abel concocted the images she used to sell dogs: a table with rusty metal legs, draped with a dusty blue quilt and set with doll-sized wicker chairs. Nearby, there was a puppy in a cage. Parascandola assigned that animal and Abel’s three small household dogs codes, H1-01 to H1-04—the start of the inventory of the animals.

Outside, team members surveyed some 60 enclosures. Dogs were barking, yipping, growling. Horses grazed around a 3-by-5-foot pile of ash and charred, splintered bones, on grass littered with deer vertebrae and scapulas. Along two sides of the backyard were rows of chain-link kennels like the kind that held the Labradoodle. Along another side was a row of rabbit hutches with slatted metal floors and puddles of urine and feces below.

Field rescue responder Troy Snell crawled into a hutch and a nursing pug-beagle mix emerged from the darkness of a box at the back, slowly, tentatively. The puggle’s nails had grown so long her feet were splayed. She seemed to have forgotten how to walk. Hidden behind a tall fence lay a score of smaller rabbit hutches tightly packed together. Chickens, ducks, guinea hens, and geese roamed the cesspools beneath. Flies swarmed. State Sen. Jake Knotts, in a white shirt and tie and gray pinstriped pants, trod through the squalor. There at Kelly’s invitation to see the results of South Carolina’s lax laws, Knotts was floored. “This is something else, ain’t it? Something you just can’t believe unless you see it.” He approached a hutch with a black and white terrier puppy. The puppy’s mother shivers in the doorway. “Ain’t nobody going to bother your puppies,” Knott assured her. “They’re going to wash you and give you a home.”

One by one, senior field rescue responder Rowdy Shaw emptied the small hutches, gently wrangling trembling mothers, holding them by the scruffs of their necks so they wouldn’t nip. When he reached the kennels, Shaw searched out bigger dogs in igloo houses or holes they’d dug beneath. Many were scared and darted away, teeth bared. Keeping a safe distance, Shaw lassoed them with a leash, then wrapped a second leash around their jaws as a muzzle so he could pick them up. Eventually, they calmed in his embrace.

Other dogs greeted the rescuers like old friends. A terrier mix missing much of her fur narrowed her eyes to slits as she was hoisted, savoring the contact. After a moment, her tail began to wag. A brindle boxer hidden in a kennel overgrown with weeds jumped up on the chain-link fence as the rescuers approached, eager for attention.

Way in back, behind a row of other kennels, Mauceri found the Labradoodle in a kennel with a tethered Labrador. He leaped on her with his big paws. She felt his ribs through his coat and knew what had happened: “It’s kind of like survival of the fittest if she puts a cup of food in with more than one dog. Only the dominant dog gets it.” She lifted the big bundle of dirty brown and white fur in her arms, telling him, “This is what I have been working on for you for three months.”

MOST OF THE DOGS didn’t know how to walk on a leash or wouldn’t go along with rescuers even if they did, so every single one was carried toward the mobile kennels in the rigs. A parade of people holding dogs passed through a tent where veterinarians inspected the animals for outward problems: fleas, fur matted with feces, skin conditions, hair loss, overgrown nails, infected paws, gum disease, tooth decay, emaciation, and fly-strike—tops of ears missing because of so many bites.

Their condition largely depended on where they were in the hierarchy in the cage and their degree of parasites, explained Pamela Keefe, a volunteer with the Humane Society of Charlotte. “The puppies look really cute. But the puppies are only here for six weeks. … The dirty little secret is what their mom and dad are going through.”

The last to be rescued was a wolfhound running in a pack of dogs who had escaped from their kennels. He was placed aboard the second tractor trailer around 5 p.m., and the rig pulled off, on its way to the temporary shelter in a warehouse by the Columbia airport. (PetSmart Charities donated $90,000 for the crates, leashes, collars, and bowls, all of which went to the Edgefield County Sheriff ’s Office after the case.)

A terrier mix missing much of her fur narrowed her eyes to slits as she was hoisted, savoring the contact. After a moment, her tail began to wag.

Over the next two days, dogs were vaccinated, dewormed, and given medications to prevent kennel cough, fleas, and ticks. Vets found all the usual signs of long-term neglect: ear mites, tapeworms, eye infections. Some dogs were placed in isolation because of coughing, ringworm, or what appeared to be mange. The terrier mix with the wagging tail was one of these. There were sores on her side and back where she had chewed her skin.

The Labradoodle had blood in his stool, gum disease, conjunctivitis, overgrown nails, and fleas. He weighed 40 pounds, but should have weighed 60. Veterinarians couldn’t even vaccinate him because his fur was so matted. During his turn at the groomer, fur fell off in heaps, until he was finally revealed, skin stretched over nearly nothing. He had been ever so slowly on his way to dying. Tangled in the fur on the floor were small pieces of metal, perhaps from the kennel fence. They had torn into his skin every time he lay down. His belly was covered with cuts.

Nine days after the rescue, on Sept. 20, Abel pled guilty to seven counts of ill treatment of animals and agreed to give up all her dogs, horses, and fowl, other than her three household dogs and parrot. She was ordered to tear down the outdoor enclosures for dogs and informed she would not be permitted to keep more than three dogs and one bird in the future. She was required to pay $385 in court fees and had to donate hay to Equine Rescue of Aiken for the horses.The punishment could have been more severe, according to Lt. Randy Doran of the Edgefield County Sheriff ’s Office. Each misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 60 days in jail—but he and Mauceri and the judge were thinking about the animals: “If it would have been a major fine, I’m pretty sure she would have gone to a jury trial. We were more concerned about getting the dogs taken away from her.” And Abel lost a lot more than $385. She now has a criminal record. If she brings another dog on her property, she’ll have to spend seven months in jail. And she can’t get back the dogs she once profited from. Mauceri was delighted at the outcome.

ABEL CALLED HER BUSINESS A FARM. The HSUS identified it as a puppy mill: an operation that sells dogs for money and fails to breed them appropriately or provide adequate housing, shelter, staffing, nutrition, socialization, sanitation, exercise, and veterinary care. That definition was agreed to last year by The HSUS, the ASPCA, the American Pet Products Association, the Pet Industry Distributors Association, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, and retailers Petco and Petland. Puppy mills flourish in 15 states where dog breeders are largely unregulated. In South Carolina, there is no limit on the number of dogs Abel could keep. And since she sold via the Web and not to pet stores, she wasn’t required to be federally licensed and inspected. Ideally, that situation will change now that the USDA has implemented a rule to regulate online puppy sellers. The HSUS pushed for the reform, mobilizing 350,000 supporters to submit comments in favor, and also urged passage of the PUPS Act, which would similarly close the loophole. That bill was reintroduced in Congress in February.)

The HSUS identified it as a puppy mill: an operation that sells dogs for money and fails to breed them appropriately or provide adequate housing, shelter, staffing, nutrition, socialization, sanitation, exercise, and veterinary care.

Last year, after The HSUS began offering a $5,000 reward, the organization received more than 600 leads from its puppy mill tip line (1-877-MILL-TIP), the Web, and state directors. Based on these, staff assisted with rescue operations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Mississippi, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, and Canada, rescuing a total of 1,695 dogs. Whether a tip ultimately results in an HSUS deployment depends on many factors: how relevant, reliable, and recent the information is; whether the case is big or difficult enough to require the organization’s direct involvement; whether the local law enforcement agency wants to proceed with the case; and what charges can be brought under state and local laws. It also depends on the availability of local shelters and rescues to help, and the logistical challenges of transporting, temporarily housing, and then placing scores to hundreds of animals.

There are strategic considerations as well. If HSUS staff and allies are pushing for change in a particular state where regulations are lax, cases can bring media attention and win the support of politicians. That’s what’s happening in North Carolina, home to the American Kennel Club’s operations center, which gets millions of dollars in registration and pedigree fees from puppy mills. The AKC has tried to block reform in North Carolina and across the country.

In the Carolinas and Georgia, the Johnston case got a lot of press. TV reporters came from Greenville and Augusta. Scores of people denounced Abel online. Knotts, the state senator, pledged action—state licensing and inspection requirements for all commercial breeders—but was unseated in the November election. Early this year, a bill was introduced to increase penalties for animal cruelty.

One mind had not changed, however. “What crime am I guilty of committing?” Abel wrote on her website. She told an ABC station that she was a victim of The HSUS, and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union for help (the group turned her down).

The rescued dogs were safe at shelters and rescues in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Two dogs required surgeries for back and bone injuries. Others were spayed or neutered and readied for adoption, getting used to dog food, gaining weight, growing back fur, and opening up to people.

The brindle boxer was among the first to find a home. Last October, the Griebners of Laurel, Md., picked her up at the Washington Animal Rescue League in D.C. Other dogs from Calabel Farms were still huddling at the back of their kennels, too frightened for visitors to handle. But the boxer was ready, her tail stub wagging.

“I wasn’t planning on a boxer,” her new owner Sue Griebner says. “I wasn’t planning on a 2-year-old. I wasn’t planning on one that had had puppies. But there’s something about this dog.” Sue’s daughter Emma named the boxer Bella, after a character in the Twilight series.

The terrier who lost so much hair had a slower recovery. Gary Willoughby, president and CEO of the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare in Aiken, named her Emma. Once on a better diet, with enough vitamins and protein, her reddish fur grew back, but she remained shy. Willoughby fostered her in his home and she began to relax, but on a walk near a shooting range one day, she went crazy at the sound of gunshots. “You could tell she’d heard that before,” he says. “It really scared her.”

And Mauceri’s favorite?

In January, an email arrived from a woman who adopted the Labradoodle. She’s named the dog Roodle, though sometimes she just calls him Handsome. “I imagine you and your coworkers were the first friendly faces Roodle had [ever] encountered,” wrote Blake Marler. “You thanked me for saving his life; I need to thank y’all! … Roodle is the best dog I’ve ever had.”

Attached were photos, ordinary and amazing: Roodle sitting with fluffy fur, curls of unsullied chestnut brown and pure white; Roodle’s relaxed face at the center of a Christmas card; Roodle jumping up on the lower bunk of a bed where Marler’s son, Will, lies, eyes still closed, one arm stretched out to greet his friend.

In Johnston, the kennel where Roodle languished lay in ruins. It would never hold another dog.

About the Author

Karen E. Lange is a senior writer at the Humane Society of the United States.