The Campaign Against Puppy Mills
In 1993, LIFE asked Pulitzer Prize- winning photojournalist J. Ross Baughman to visit a puppy mill in South Dakota. His photographs depicted the horrors of puppy mills and the abject misery suffered by breeding dogs confined under the worst living conditions imaginable. 1 Love 4 Animals received permission to use Mr. Baughman's photos along with the original article as it appeared in LIFE Magazine. Sadly the photos you see here could reflect the abuse suffered by many dogs in substandard kennels throughout the United States today, a quarter of a century after these images first appeared on the pages of LIFE Magazine.
Federal laws require cages in federally licensed breeding facilities to be a mere 6" longer than the dogs' bodies. Puppy mill dogs are often exposed to temperature extremes, denied veterinary care and proper exercise, and spend their lives standing on painful wire flooring. According to federal laws (USDA/APHIS) and the laws in many individual states, dogs are considered agricultural products.
Employees of the USDA and the State Departments of Agriculture (in states charged with licensing and inspecting dog breeding operations) are often reluctant or put in the difficult position of prosecuting farmers operating substandard breeding kennels - the very people they are paid to promote. Until the business of mass producing puppies no longer falls under the auspices of our agricultural agencies, suffering and cruelty will continue to abound.
J. Ross Baughman's book Angle describes conditions in the puppy mills he visited as part of his assignment for LIFE Magazine in 1993.
"As “Not Fit for a Dog” proves, however, puppy mills still exist in the United States. Indeed, there are more of them now than 26 years ago. The conditions are no better and may even be worse. But today's puppy mills are not dealing in pets stolen from us; they are raising dogs for us to buy. And the regulatory agencies charged with preventing animal cruelty have been unable – or, some say, unwilling – to do anything about it. It will be interesting to see what LIFE readers have to say about that."
So I concentrate on puppy mills, those rural enterprises that crank out supposedly purebred dogs to satisfy a booming consumer demand. Our access will come from Robert Baker, a special investigator from the Humane Society (HSUS), and he always likes to gather his evidence personally, and catch violators red-handed. Baker uses a variety of records to trace the cargo-loads of puppies back to the Midwestern farms where they are born and raised.
LIFE's editors worry, just as they have done with a whole string of my stories, that we will have to answer very expensive lawsuits in order to publish it. Nonetheless, they are determined to see what the conditions are at a few different breeders. We consider doing it with straight long-distance surveillance work, but unfortunately, many of the puppy mills keep the dogs indoors continuously. We don’t want to resort to the HSUS case files, even though they have some truly nightmarish, awful images. The problem is that the quality is too often of a poor, snapshot variety. We also don’t want to become the clearing house for evidentiary police photography on our toughest stories.
We also want to see what conditions are like before a raid takes place. With all those hurdles to overcome, how will we be able to gather meaningful pictures? Is there any way that a camera can be welcomed by these puppy mill operators?
Photography is so common, so universal, that people involved with the worst kind of misbehavior – even going so far as criminal conduct – accept and use photography for their own purposes. We know that during World War II, the only photography documenting conditions in the concentration camps, prison camps, labor camps or death camps came from the guards themselves.
We can’t plan on getting a job at such a breeder’s farm, the way that freelance investigators got hired on at the Food Lion meat department and later sold their report to CBS’s 60 Minutes. Instead, we decide to show up as potential customers. It's a tactic used all the time by Agent Baker.
“I’m thinking about buying a puppy to surprise my dad on his birthday.” “Come right on in. Take a look around.” “Do you mind if I take a picture to show to my sister? She’s the one who’s gonna end up taking care of this dog.” “Go right ahead. Help yourself.”
I am introduced as his neighbor, just along for the ride. Ninety percent of the dogs sold at your local mall come from one of the estimated five thousand puppy mills. It is claimed that this is the only way to satisfy the multi-million dollar pet store chains.
Whenever a new breed becomes the latest craze, the call goes out to the puppy mills to start producing more Chihuahuas, or Papillons, or Shih Tzus, Yorkies, Westies, Chows or Pugs. It seems that all the kids are begging for Dalmatians right now.
What would-be buyers don’t realize is that half of all these puppies are bred in conditions very similar to industrial-scale hog and poultry factories. Fifty percent of the little dogs die on the way to the storefront window, most often aboard trucks on the interstate, and many more than they want to imagine are being knowingly sold even though already cursed with deformities and fatal illnesses.
Many of the puppies have been crammed into overcrowded cages and pens that have precious little light, water or ventilation, and are otherwise filled with excrement, spoiled food and dead litters. These conditions also breed parvovirus, parasites, respiratory infections and other diseases. The owners breed young dogs within their own bloodlines, causing or intensifying all kinds of genetic deformities and emotional ailments.
The puppies become no different than other “cash crops” coming from farms, and the price markups are also jaw-dropping. The breeder gets $35 to deliver a weaned pure-bred dog to a broker, who turns around and sells that pup to a chain store for $75, but the customer usually pays $500 to take that same dog home.
The new owners don’t understand how this supposedly pure-bred puppy gets home only to develop gross joint deformities, or after a couple of weeks turn out to be especially stupid or vicious, or only cower in a corner.
Six states have passed “Puppy Lemon Laws” which put the burden on the retailers to sell healthy dogs with solid health and pedigree information.
“People get greedy,” says Frantz Dantzler of the Humane Society. “They sell that first litter and instead of using the money to build good facilities, they buy more breeding stock. They get overextended, and they can’t provide proper care.”
We see stacks of cages where the excrement from the dogs on top drops constantly on the dogs confined below.
On the day of a raid in Mitchell, South Dakota, Officer Baker finds the daughter of a puppy mill owner stuffing something foul into a bucket. When Sheriff Swenson orders her out of the building, she threatens to wipe her excrement-covered palms all over his white shirt. “You wash them on my shirt,” he says, “and it’ll be the last thing you’ll do.” Later he turns to a Humane Society investigator and mutters, “What a pit.”
“Hundreds of these places are just as bad or worse,” comes Baker’s reply. We find a female golden lab who has lost her hind legs, but is kept tied down in the yard and bred continuously. If a dog of a different breed has a chance at her, the resulting puppies are still passed off as pure-bred to unsuspecting buyers.
We find dogs that have been stuck beneath a cyclone fence for days, apparently pinned down there while trying to escape.
The Humane Society gives us a news peg for our story, too. In the past, they filed criminal charges against the breeders, but even upon conviction and a maximum sentence, they can be back at it again in a few years. Now they will try out a new prosecution with civil penalties, and with them can be packaged life-time bans on puppy breeding. The real solution will have to come from the demand side, argues Baker, but that will mean not buying dogs at the big chain pet stores.
“It may mean taking the time to visit an animal shelter, or seek out a responsible breeder. That’s the way we used to do it, and there’s no reason why we can’t go back to it,” says Baker.
The Humane Society takes the example I've set and manages to sneak cameras into many more of their pre-arrest investigations. Photographs taken during the heat of cruelty towards animals make their court cases more vivid and compelling than ever.
Within another fifteen years, the industrial-scale animal farms lash back at the Humane Society, convincing several states to make the simple act of taking pictures on a farm into a whole new kind of crime, especially if it is done without the farmer's permission and for the purposes of an undercover investigation.
In one of the biggest twists I have encountered personally, it turns out that Amish farmers are some of the biggest puppy mill offenders, the reason being that they don’t think of dogs as special companions, but as no different than any other creature on a farm, all meant for humanity to take dominion over, in the spirit of the Book of Genesis. Not only does this run counter to the popular image of the Amish as gentle pacifists, but it is doubly shocking to me since my ancestors were Swiss Anabaptists, some of whom became Mennonites, and others splitting off to the Amish.