National

Jan 11, 2010 11:10 AM by Associated Press

Activists go undercover to thwart puppy mills

Megan Anderson's nerves are shot. But she presses ahead - the dogs need her.

She pulls into the driveway of Scarlet-Maple Farm Kennel. She tells the adolescent boy who greets her that she's looking for puppies to give to her nephews for Christmas.

It's a lie. A necessary one, Anderson thinks, but a lie nonetheless. That's why she's jittery. Will the boy swallow her story? How about the Amish man with the long gray beard, straw hat and plain dress - the kennel's owner? Will he discover her ruse and chase her away?

She hopes not. If all goes well, Anderson will leave with at least one dog, maybe more - and perhaps with evidence that could help put this kennel out of business for good.

Over the past four years, Anderson - who works for Main Line Animal Rescue, a shelter outside of Philadelphia - has managed to coax some of Pennsylvania's largest commercial breeding kennels to part with their unwanted canines, usually females past their reproductive prime or young males they couldn't sell.

Main Line's founder, Bill Smith, would like to shut down Scarlet-Maple Farm Kennel and others like it. Smith and other animal welfare activists pushed for a new state law - regarded as the toughest in the nation - designed to end the inhumane treatment of breeding dogs in the large commercial kennels popularly known as puppy mills. Kennel owners say the law is unnecessary and too expensive to comply with, and that it is eliminating many good breeders along with the few bad apples.

After listening to Anderson's tale, the boy disappears into the kennel, leaving her to wait outside in the November chill.

She knows the drill. Large operations like Scarlet-Maple rarely allow prospective buyers inside. They don't want the public seeing how their breeding dogs live.

It's no wonder.

State regulators say the smell of a high-volume puppy mill is unforgettable, an overwhelming stench of urine and feces. Ammonia fumes burn the nose and eyes. The simultaneous barking of hundreds of dogs creates a wall of sound that makes it hard to think, let alone converse.

Puppy mill dogs spend most of their working lives inside cramped wire cages, stacked one atop the other. They get little grooming, veterinary care or attention of any kind.

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Lacking a bone or toy to occupy their time, some dogs go into a frenzy every time they see a human. Other dogs circle endlessly. Still others just sit there, staring, like a "warm statue," says Jessie Smith, special deputy secretary of dog law enforcement at the state Department of Agriculture.

"They don't really seem to be there," she says - they lack "that dog joy" of a family pet.

Breeders often act as their own vets, performing delicate surgical procedures - docking tails, "debarking" dogs by hacking at the vocal cords, performing Caesarean sections on pregnant females. The lack of medical training can have disastrous results. Main Line recently took in a critically ill boxer with a mummified puppy in her belly, the apparent result of a botched Caesarean. She was rushed to the veterinary hospital with bleeding and a severe infection.

The physical wounds, horrific as they may be, are treatable. Tougher to heal are the psychological ones. Bill Smith says the volunteers at Main Line spend weeks or even months working with rescued dogs so they can be adopted.

"Every day it must be so difficult for them to try new things, especially when they're 7 or 8 years old and they've spent their entire lives in a box in a dark barn," says Smith, 48, an affable but intense man who doesn't seem to have an off switch. "And they don't know that we're not going to hurt them. They don't know what it's like to walk on grass or to be held."

All of this has contributed to Pennsylvania's sordid reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East Coast (other states with severe puppy mill problems include Missouri and Oklahoma). It's an image that state lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell, the owner of two rescued golden retrievers - including one from Main Line - are working to shed.

Three years ago, Rendell hired Jessie Smith - then a deputy state attorney general - to revamp the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, an agency within the agriculture department that had come under fire for lax enforcement of kennel regulations. He also appointed a special dog law prosecutor and hired new kennel inspectors.

Most significantly, Rendell signed off on strict health and safety standards for large breeding operations. Key provisions that went into effect in October required large-scale breeders to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring and provide unfettered access to exercise. The new law also banned cage stacking, instituted twice-a-year vet checks, and mandated new ventilation and cleanliness standards.

No longer would tens of thousands of dogs be kept in "deplorable, barbaric, inhumane, cruel, and draconian conditions," vowed the law's prime House sponsor, Rep. James Casorio. No longer would kennel owners be able to operate on their own dogs.

And no longer would they be able to kill the dogs they didn't want or need. That provision was added to the bill after two brothers shot 80 of their kennel dogs rather than comply with a warden's order to get some of them treated by a vet for flea bites. Rendell called the mass shooting an atrocity.

Between the new legislation, the bad economy, and heightened public awareness - the state has established a tip line, and Bill Smith persuaded Oprah Winfrey to do a show on puppy mills - pressure is building on multiple fronts against people like Daniel Esh, the owner of Scarlet-Maple.

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