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Puppy Mill Bust

What Hatch uncovered was an unlicensed, mostly unattended, large-scale breeding operation—a “puppy mill,” in the vernacular of animal advocates, law enforcement officials and concerned legislators who for years have made attempts to shut them down.

Emily Diaz, an animal control officer in Skagit County, has seen her share of horror. Most of her cases are smaller in scale and “walk the fence,” as she puts it, between behavior in need of adjustment and actionable abuse. I asked Diaz to recount her emotions as she processed the dogs removed from that property.

Her answer was understandable. “What I was really feeling I probably shouldn’t say.” It’s essential not to let emotions overtake your ability to work effectively, Diaz says. But she never disconnects entirely. “The moment I quit caring is the moment I have to quit my job.”

Don’t look for Diaz to quit her job. She is a warrior working on behalf of the voiceless by attempting to educate rather than impound, and hoping for that one tip from a witness or complainant willing to go on the record as a source so she can build a case for seizure when necessary.

Taking a Legal Approach
As news of the raids sparked a groundswell of outrage and protests in the Seattle area and beyond, Washington state legislators were busy revisiting bills left over from an abbreviated 2008 session that would place stricter controls on breeding operations and permit inspections by animal welfare officials who have reason to suspect noncompliance.

While it sounds aggressive, Washington’s legislation is dwarfed by a new Virginia law that mandates inspections of licensed kennel operations and forbids retailers from selling pets acquired from breeders not licensed by the USDA and subject to that agency’s basic standards of care.

Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, sponsor of Senate Bill 5651, would love to see even stronger legislation passed. But in an economic downturn, she said, few have the appetite to force rural, fiscally struggling counties to perform scheduled inspections. At a minimum, this bill will put breeders on notice: Cross the line into greed-induced, abusive practices and you will be held to account. (At press time, the Senate’s version had passed, but not unanimously.)

Opponents in the legislature worry about over-regulating responsible breeders and kennel owners, one of whom testified before a Senate committee that unannounced inspections were tantamount to a violation of her constitutional rights. Supporters rejected that contention, citing existing laws subjecting food establishments to mandatory, random inspections. Kohl-Welles emphasizes the consumer-protection aspect of her bill. “I understand these are financial endeavors that people have, that they are businesses, and that’s just fine,” she said. “But it also can be very costly to families and to individuals who purchase these dogs. And there is the more intangible impact of heartbreak. How do you measure that?”

Calculating the Costs
By Sydney Cicourel’s measure, the sum is $800—so far. That represents a one-day spay and dental surgery for a five-year-old Papillon named Butter, whom she adopted after authorities seized 111 dogs from an Eastern Washington operation in February.

Cicourel, a lifelong animal lover involved in pet-shop protests and dog rescues, knew the expenses of bringing Butter home would be enormous. Her beloved three-year-old Maltese/Poodle mix, Polly, came from a puppy mill, though that fact only surfaced after she’d spent $4,000 in veterinary bills and discovered that another $3,000 would be necessary to correct orthopedic problems in Polly’s hind legs. As Cicourel has learned, very few survivors of puppy mill environments escape genetic defects.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, considering that operators of these warehouses can take in a staggering amount of revenue. Prosecutors in the Skagit County case allege that its ringleader has netted several million dollars over the last decade.

Like many of those who purchase dogs through newspaper or Internet ads, Cicourel was duped by a seemingly scrupulous breeder. Her goal is to warn off future victims, both human and canine. She urges patience through education.

“You have to be forgiving of people. They don’t want to know ugliness,” she said. “They don’t want the drama, the horror of it.”

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