TACOMA–Why did the Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County fire one 15-year employee on May 25, 2006, and suspend another without pay for three days, for mistakenly euthanizing five Labrador-mix puppies?
Why did Joseph P. “Jo Jo the Dog Man” O’Neill, 70, die alone of a heart attack on June 22, 2005 aboard a train in Poland, after 40-odd years of rounding up surplus puppies in rural Ohio for sale in New Jersey?
Why are puppies suddenly the hottest animal commodity crossing the Mexican border, supplanting the traffic in parrots?
After a decade of rumors about an impending puppy shortage, mostly disregarded by animal advocates as breeder propaganda, the U.S. and western Europe are experiencing a puppy scarcity so severe that even some young dogs considered utterly unadoptable just a few years ago are quickly finding homes.
Breeders and brokers, like the notorious O’Neill, are finding profit in strategies that formerly would have looked like economic suicide, including deliberately breeding small mongrels and importing dogs from overseas.
With the penalty for smuggling a puppy much lower than the penalty for smuggling a parrot, while the rewards may be comparable, street dog pups in Mexican border towns are, if not scarce, at least fewer than at any time anyone remembers.
As well as seeking a human “coyote” [people-smuggler] to take them into the U.S., would-be migrant workers are seeking non-human peros to sell as their grubstake for getting started in the U.S..
For two weeks preceding Christmas 2005 the Border Puppy Task Force, formed by 14 California animal welfare and law enforcement agencies, tried to get a sense of the size of the puppy traffic.
“Agents at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings” in southern California “ordered vehicles carrying anything with ‘feathers, fleas, fur or fangs’ to a separate area for more thorough inspections,” reported Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat. “The searches turned up 362 puppies under 3 months old, 155 between three and six months, and 1,061 adult dogs,” for a total of 1,579 animals in 1,157 vehicles.
“It’s unclear exactly how many of those dogs were smuggled,” Spagat continued. “It’s legal to ferry dogs if they are declared at the border and they have rabies shots and health records–but Captain Aaron Reyes, director of operations at the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority in Los Angeles County, said the ‘vast majority’ of those under three months were probably contraband. About half the puppies between three and six months old were likely smuggled, he said.
“Typically small breeds like poodles and Chihuahuas,” Spagat wrote, “the puppies are believed to be purchased in Mexico for between $50 and $150, then sold at street corners, parking lots and flea markets in Southern California for between $300 and $1,000 each.”
The Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County may have had little choice but to fire someone after the mistaken euthanasia case hit the news. Discussion of the case among online dog rescuers was fast and furious. Most commentators were sure they could have saved those puppies, had they been offered the chance.
Before e-mail, those messages might have been telephone calls. Outrage might have simmered locally, but probably would not have spread beyond the community.
Today, word of such cases circles the globe in under 24 hours. A local error can become an international incident–and astute shelter directors know they must respond to the online buzz, because the people buzzing are collectively a network of tens of thousands, whose e-mailed descriptions and photos of animals often help to find homes for the hardest cases.
More than a third and perhaps half of all adoptions nationally are Internet-assisted, including about 3.2 million adoptions (about 11.5% of the total) achieved through PetSmart Charities’ Luv-A-Pet boutiques in Petsmart stores. When the fostering and adoption volunteers who make that record possible become irate because puppies were killed who could have been saved, assuaging their anger becomes priority #1.
Shelters took mistaken euthanasia seriously even when shelter killing was at a peak 30 to 40 years ago. Saving animals who could be saved was what kept donors giving and kept workers on the job.
Yet as recently as 15 years ago, a case like the one in Tacoma would rarely have been a mistake. Conventional shelter management belief was that large, dark mixed-breed puppies had almost no chance to be reclaimed or adopted. Pet overpopulation was still equated with surplus litters. Found litters and owner-surrendered litters of large mixed-breed pups were often killed immediately, to keep cage space open for dogs who might have had better prospects amd required less care.
“The 7-week-old mixed-breed puppies were euthanized less than six hours after a Good Samaritan neighbor took them to the shelter,” reported Kris Sherman of the Tacoma News-Tribune. “Greg Stillwell, the puppies’ owner, said they somehow escaped from his Point Defiance-area home. He learned they’d been taken to the shelter when he returned home from work, but by the time he got there first thing Saturday, they were gone.”
By law, the humane society was supposed to have kept the pups for at least 48 hours. Shelter policy is to hold all animals for at least 72 hours.
The presumption now is that all dogs found at large have a home. Circa 1990, that was not always believed to be true of found mixed-breed pups. Most often they had just been dumped by someone who wanted to “give them a chance” better than their prospects in typical shelters.
Today, most puppies can be saved, regardless of breeding, if they are healthy or can be brought to health. Many shelters have more people willing to foster dogs, of any age, than they have dogs to be fostered.
Most shelters are still coping with too many dogs. But between the success of pet sterilization and electronic adoption promotion, through services such as Pets-911, even large dark mixed breeds are no longer in oversupply as acute as even a few years ago.
The glut in the early 21st century is of pit bull terriers and pit bull mixes, mostly of unknown breeding and training. Though pit bulls and pit mixes make up under 6% of the U.S. dog population, they account for about a fourth of all dog admissions to shelters.
Because pit bulls and pit mixes also account for more than half of all the insurance industry payout for dog attacks, they are essentially uninsurable adoptions in many cities, and still have a euthanasia rate believed to exceed 90%.
But a 90% death rate was the norm for all shelter dogs circa 1980.
Even in that atmosphere, “Jo Jo the Dog Man” O’Neill accurately perceived and exploited a puppy shortage.
Jo Jo the Dog Man
O’Neill, proprietor of J.P. O’Neill Kennels in Princeton, was a dog breeder. But more than a breeder, O’Neill was a seller.
J.P. O’Neill Kennels happened to be at the western end of the most heavily traveled highway corridor crossing central New Jersey east/west before the construction of I-195. At the other end was the first low-cost sterilization clinic in the U.S., opened in Neptune, New Jersey in 1957 by Friends of Animals founder Alice Herrington. Somehow O’Neill became aware, well ahead of most of the pet industry, that many of his clients just wanted inexpensive pups, regardless of breed, and suddenly couldn’t find them in the Neptune area.
The quickest way to turn a profit in dog-selling, O’Neill discovered, was to collect free-to-good-home puppies from rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other nearby states, sell as many as he could in New Jersey while they were still small and cute, then dump unsold surplus at shelters–most often, apparently, the North Shore Animal League, in Port Washington, New York, and the four shelters of the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey.
When asked about his business, O’Neill often alleged that he was a puppy broker for North Shore. This claim created a deep rift for a time between North Shore and the Associated Humane Societies. Eventually North Shore threatened to sue O’Neill.
By the mid-1980s, as the giveaway puppy volume diminished, O’Neill began advertising in rural newspapers, actively seeking pups. He began paying up to $10 each for pups. He drove ever farther to get pups.
O’Neill collected the most pups in the Amish districts of Ohio–but the Amish discovered his markets. Amish families by the dozens gave up Ohio dairy farms during the 1980s, taking advantage of federally subsidized whole-herd buyouts undertaken to stabilize milk prices, and moved to the outer New York and Philadelphia suburbs to breed dogs.
Near the end of O’Neill’s long career in dog-selling, he became aware that dogs of exotic background offered by rescue groups often fetch premium adoption fees, and that western European dealers had for at least a decade been profitably exploiting puppy surpluses in the former Communist nations.
As dog sterilization has gradually caught on in eastern Europe, U.S.-style puppy mills have become established in Poland and Hungary, producing high-priced purebreds cheaply enough that some are commercially imported to the U.S. A landmark of sorts was achieved in early May 2006 when the head prosecutor of Gyor-Moson-Sopron County, Hungary, initiated criminal charges against the 63-year-old owner of a puppy mill in Sopron, where 209 dogs were discovered in conditions of alleged severe neglect after a March 2006 demonstration by local animal activists.
While eastern Europeans are managing to match the worst abuses of U.S. puppy-millers, no one has figured out yet how to efficiently import dogs of ordinary market value for either sale or adoption in the U.S.
The North Shore Animal League America has led the U.S. for decades in developing humane relocation to help dogs and cats find homes. Pioneering high-volume adoption since the late 1960s, North Shore initially placed mostly animals from local pounds, then brought animals from farther afield as the local supply ran out.
By the early 1990s North Shore collected animals from shelters as far away as Alabama in a fleet of air-conditioned vans. The shelters providing the animals, then and now, receive subsidies for sterilization and adoption promotion.
North Share has experimented with similar arrangements involving shelters in China and several other nations, but even though the imported animals have been quickly rehomed, the high cost of air transport has thwarted hopes of expanding the import volume.
Many smaller all-volunteer charities have since the mid-1990s successfully imported animals for adoption from Puerto Rico, Taiwan, and other nations by persuading travelers to take dogs and cats as part of their baggage allowances.
That works well for individual rescuers who rehome animals just one or two at a time, but not for organizations placing dozens or even hundreds of animals per weekend, who need a reliable supply to keep prospective adopters from going to breeders or stores that sell puppy-mill animals.
Whatever idea O’Neill had for profitably importing puppies from Poland apparently went to his grave with him. Yet few who knew him doubt that he was there because he thought he saw significant easy profits–and as O’Neill was never in the high-end market, he must have seen a way to import dogs less expensively than anyone else.
“His family soon after his death gave up the business,” New Jersey activist Libby Williams said. “Our organization, New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse, was contacted by O’Neill’s wife, a week after he died. Approximately 80 four-to-six-month old mixed-breed puppies were left behind. Mrs. O’Neill offered us 40 puppies,” placed with the help of the Somerset Regional Animal Shelter, “with the remainder going to North Shore. “The era of Jo Jo the Dogman is finally over,” Williams summarized. “Unfortunately, there are many others who are operating the same way.”
However, Jo Jo clones are the least of the worries of the humane community about the effects of unfilled demand for pups. Of much greater concern is the migration of high-volume breeding–“puppy-milling”–from economically struggling parts of the Midwest to the edges of affluent suburbs.
The neighbors are noticing.
“These despicable places, where dogs are bred and raised in unsanitary, crowded and disease-prone conditions, flourish in Pennsylvania, specifically in Lancaster County,” fulminated a Philadelphia Daily News editorial on March 29, 2006. “Known for lush farms and its Amish population, the county and its more than 240 puppy mills have helped make Pennsylvania the puppy mill capitol of the east.
“It’s a shameful reputation,” the Daily News continued. “Puppy mills are not pretty places.”
The Daily News called for “steps from the Legislature, changes in administrative policy, and in regulations. More dog wardens, with greater enforcement power and more responsibilities, are needed. So too are prosecutors whose specific job is to handle these and other related cases.”
The Daily News even envisioned “an animal-control version of a SWAT team that can quickly swoop down on mills and take breeders who are violating the law into custody.” Circa 1990 that would have been radical talk from an animal rights group, let alone mainstream media.
Puppy-millers are also running into fierce resistance in Minnesota, a longtime hub of the industry despite the opposition of several generations of Minnesota politicians, beginning with former U.S. Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the 1950s. Long associated with the Happy Tails kennel in Little Falls, Minnesota, best known for selling a pup named Spike to singer Donny Osmond in 1999, Gary McDuffee expected little opposition when in late 2005 he sought to build a bigger facility in Labelle Prairie Township.
The Morrison County commissioners quickly issued a conditional use permit allowing McDuffee to keep up to 600 dogs on 40 acres, waiving an environmental review.
McDuffee, 52, testified that he had enjoyed an excellent inspection record during his 25 years as a dog breeder, and pledged to have his breeding dogs surgically debarked to avoid disturbing his neighbors.
As of January 25, 2006, when Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Paul Levy described McDuffee’s plans, the visible opponents included Vicki Davis, executive director of the Tri-County Humane Society in St. Cloud; neighbor Roger Nelson, 69, and other neighbors who signed a petition that Nelson circulated; and Prior Lake breeder Joyce Borglund, in business 11 years, who keeps 25 dogs or fewer.
“There is no controversy at all,” McDuffee said of Happy Tails.
Then the Star Tribune article hit the Internet. By January 30, 2006, Morrison County administrator Tim Houle told the Duluth News-Tribune, the volume of complaints was “unlike anything we’ve seen here.”
An online petition attracted 15,000 electronic signatures in just two weeks.
The Star Tribune discovered USDA reports on Happy Tails describing “plastic walls behind the dog runs lined with urine and waste buildup. Some kennels were below standard size; others had exposed, sharp edges. Expired medical drugs were found.”
The Morrison County commissioners sought compromise by suspending approval of any new kennels for one year. They asked the state to regulate breeding kennels. But the commissioners did not rescind the permit granted to McDuffee.
Neighbors sued the county in February 2006 for approving the permit. The Minnesota Federated Humane Societies in March 2006 asked the state Court of Appeals to overturn the permit on grounds that debarking the dogs would constitute cruelty.
Opposing debarking and high-volume breeding is the traditional and virtually unanimous position of the humane community–but these are relatively difficult issues to legislatively deal with, because they involve either local or state jurisdictions. Thus each political battle must be fought at least 50 times, often against deeply entrenched local interests, to fully reform or at least regulate current practice.
Federal legislation, once achieved, applies to all 50 states, and there is a clear history of precedent for federal intervention to ensure the health and welfare of animals moving between states in commerce, or entering the U.S. from abroad.
Seeking stronger federal laws and more funding for enforcement of existing laws to curb puppy-milling has had demonstrable donor appeal ever since the 1969 privatization of the U.S. Postal Service introduced bulk mail discounts for nonprofit fundraising.
Back then, however, humane societies and local breeders tended to neatly align themselves in opposition to any interstate puppy transport. The possibility of anyone ever doing significant numbers of out-of-state adoptions was apparently completely unforeseen.
The hope of the humane community was that if the sale of inexpensive volume-bred puppies could be curtailed, dealing with the cast-offs from small-time local breeders might become manageable. Local breeders mostly just did not want big commercial breeders undercutting their prices.
One result of that long-ago alliance is that to this day the federal Animal Welfare Act still does not regulate breeders who sell pups directly to the public.
“If you call yourself a kennel and sell to the public, irrespective of the number of puppies sold, you don’t require a [federal] permit,” USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service spokesperson Darby Holladay explained recently to Karen Dandurant of the Portsmouth Herald. “If you come to me as a dealer and are buying wholesale, you need a license.”
The growth of Internet-assisted humane relocation for adoption and direct-to-consumer puppy sales by commercial breeders have confusingly shifted the alliances that created the Animal Welfare Act in 1971, as a major expansion of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966.
Local breeders are still fighting a losing battle against humane relocation and interstate commercial traffic in pups, led by Oregon breeder and National Animal Interest Alliance founder Patti Strand.
Some humane societies and animal control agencies remain skeptical of humane relocation, but mostly no longer oppose it, if only to avoid conflict with Internet-using rescuers.
Internet-using rescuers and high-volume adoption shelters tend to be vociferous arch-foes of puppy millers, but fight any proposals that might inhibit humane relocation.
Puppy-millers have discovered that hiding behind the concerns of humane relocaters tends to be their best defense.
Including exemptions for nonprofit organizations is not really a way to bypass the problem, because most individual rescuers do not have nonprofit status, while establishing bogus nonprofit fronts to evade taxation and regulation is an increasingly often used trick of profit-seeking industries.
The Santorum PAWS bill
The paradoxes of political alignment in the Internet era have inflamed web sites, e-mail lists, and chat boards since U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) on May 26, 2005 introduced S. 1139, called the Pet Animal Welfare Statute.
“The bill is meant to modernize the Animal Welfare Act to assure compliance with minimum animal welfare standards in the commercial pet trade, as Congress originally intended,” Santorum said.
On March 16, 2006, after more than nine months of acrimony, Santorum unveiled a discussion draft of an amended version of the PAWS bill. The “core principles,” explains Santorum’s web site, are that persons who breed and/or sell a high volume of dogs and cats at retail should be regulated, while persons who import dogs and cats into the United States for resale should be subject to regulations that protect the health and welfare of the imported animals.
“There is a need for additional statutory authority for the Secretary of Agriculture,” the Santorum web site summarizes. “The Centers for Disease Control monitors the import of dogs and cats for zoonotic diseases (diseases that can affect humans), but the CDC does not monitor the import of dogs and cats for animal health and animal welfare purposes,” and lacks the infrastructure to do so.
The USDA has the requisite infrastructure, but lacks jurisdictional authority “to establish or enforce standards to protect animal health and welfare with respect to mass import of dogs and cats for resale.”
PAWS seeks to “limit the importation of puppies to those who are more than six months of age,” and to “require that imported dogs and cats be in good health and have all necessary vaccinations.”
Within the humane community, the most controversial aspect of PAWS is that it would permit “certified third party inspections” in place of inspection by APHIS personnel.
“It is essential to alleviate the inspection burden placed on APHIS,” Santorum argues. “APHIS is currently struggling to maintain its current inspection program. Bringing high volume retailers under coverage of the Animal Welfare Act and strengthening enforcement provisions so as to increase compliance will further increase the APHIS inspection burden.
“In many instances,” Santorum asserts, “there are duplicate inspections of compliant facilities––by private entities, APHIS, and state or local authorities––Accordingly,” the present version of PAWS adds an “exemption for persons who sell dogs or cats solely at retail, and are deter mined to be in compliance with the standards of a nonprofit organization which has been certified by the Secretary as having standards and inspection protocols that are at least as protective of animal welfare as those required under the Animal Welfare Act.
“In addition,” Santorum adds, “persons who are dealers under the Act may opt for inspection by a certified third party inspector in lieu of inspection” by APHIS.
“The certified third party inspector would have to undergo a rigorous certification process, and would be subject to ongoing surveillance” by APHIS, says Santorum.
The March 2006 edition of PAWS also “removes from the dealer definition in the Animal Welfare Act all references to the sale of ‘hunting, security, or breeding’ dogs,” Santorum explains, to “preclude potential litigation arguing that the dealer definition currently in the Act requires that sellers of hunting, security or breeding dogs be regulated on a more stringent basis than persons who sell dogs as pets.
The March 2006 PAWS draft “clarifies that not-for-profit animal shelters, rescue organizations and other persons who do not sell dogs imported into the U.S. for resale and do not operate for profit are excluded from coverage as a dealer. The sponsors of PAWS do not intend to change the status of nonprofits with regard to Animal Welfare Act regulation,” Santorum emphasizes.
Heavily promoted by the Humane Society of the U.S., Doris Day Animal League, and other national animal advocacy groups in original form, PAWS no longer enjoys the strength of support from the humane community that it had in 2005.
“Third party inspections of puppy mills by industry groups such as the American Kennel Club sets a dangerous precedent of empowerment for other industry oversight bodies such as the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care,” points out the American Anti-Vivisection Society.
In addition, notes AAVS executive director Tracie Letterman, PAWS “now excludes most animal dealers selling to research facilities.”
“We expect the new version to be introduced soon in the Senate,” said Animal Welfare Institute president Cathy Liss in mid-May 2006. “I don’t think the bill can move as a free-standing measure, but with Santorum able to demonstrate widespread support, anything can happen,” such as PAWS being adopted as a rider to a USDA budget bill. “While the House Agriculture Committee is against any animal welfare measures,” Liss added, “they may like this one because it is so helpful to industry.”
Lawsuits & buying power
Meanwhile, using existing legislation, the Humane Society of the U.S. and several individual puppy purchasers on February 9, 2006 filed suit against the online puppy dealer Jim Anderson, doing business as Wizard of Claws in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Explained an HSUS news release, “The suit alleges that Wizard of Claws defrauds customers by misrepresenting the origin of puppies sold, and by selling puppy mill dogs that suffer from a wide array of health problems, including contagious diseases and genetic disorders.”
Following a five-part NBC investigative series reported by Jeff Burnside and produced by Scott Zamost, Florida attorney general Charlie Crist on March 1, 2006 announced that his office would also probe Wizard of Claws. The business “looks like it could violate Florida statute 501, which is unfair trade and deceptive practice,” Crist told NBC.
Historically the humane community has understood that puppy-millers could not be bought out of business, though attempts have been made at times to buy out individual breeders who seemed unlikely to resume. The idea of competing with commercial dealers to buy dogs at auction has also been rejected as economically unviable, even when the circumstances might not give breeders an incentive to breed more.
But the changing economics of supply-and-demand helped to make rescuers the most aggressive bidders on April 29, 2006 at the Bartow County Animal Shelter near Cartersville, Georgia. By order of Probate Judge Mitchell Scoggins, 128 dogs from the estate of breeder Katherine Culberson went on the block. Another 28 dogs, considered beyond sale, were given outright to rescue groups.
“Many of the dogs were in poor health and unaccustomed to humans because they had spent their lives in cages,” reported Jeffry Scott of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Guy Bilyeu, 46, executive director of the Chattanooga-based Humane Educational Society, showed up with a group of supporters and $16,000. He bought more than 60 dogs,” Scott wrote. “Richard Dubé, 56, of Southern Comfort Maltese Rescue, said he brought about $12,000 and planned to buy about 20 Malteses, give them medical treatment and neuter them, and adopt them out for $200 to $300 each.”
The North Shore Animal League also participated. “We’re making sure these dogs don’t get bought by other breeders and find homes,” Bilyeu told Scott.
Breeders were present and bidding, but appeared to have been shut out.
“In my community,” marketing economist Margaret Anne Cleek wrote in November 1993, “some individuals are purposely breeding small mixed-breed dogs and selling them for up to $125. There is a wanted ad for small mixed pups run continuously in our paper by a local pet store. We have created a shortage of small dogs and easily adaptable family mutts. And when a demand is created, people will produce pups to meet the demand.
Irate readers disbelieved that puppies were no longer in substantial oversupply.
The National Council Pet Population Study soon afterward established that the U.S. puppy birth rate appeared to have stabilized at about six million per year––though the findings were not published until 2006. Puppy births in households exceeded pet dog attrition by only 2.4%, while the pet dog population was growing, then and now, by about 1.5% per year. That left surplus puppy births in homes at under 1%. Puppies produced by breeders appeared to be competing for homes successfully against adult shelter dogs, not shelter pups.
About 6% of the U.S. dog population passed through animal shelters, both in 1996 and 2006–but even in 1996, puppies were only about 17% of the total shelter dog traffic.
In December 2006 the pet store price of especially cute small mixed-breed “designer pups” in Tom’s River, New Jersey, reportedly soared to $1,600. The breeder price was $800, wrote Asbury Park Press correspondent Cheryl Miller.
Miller’s article alarmed Virginia Merry, vice president of Animal Birth Control Inc. in nearby Pine Beach.
“Our volunteers as well as others have worked hard for the past few decades to bring down the population of unwanted and abandoned pups bred by careless owners,” Merry wrote. “Then along comes a thoughtless article like Miller’s, in which greedy people are given a blueprint of how to make big bucks breeding puppies.
“Animal welfare groups have been fighting against puppy mill animals sold in pet shops for years,” Merry continued, “pointing out the wisdom and joy of rescuing animals at shelters instead. So now we have a new trend: designer dogs, bred mutt to mutt, in addition to the many pedigree dogs born with genetic diseases due to inbreeding and over-breeding. Shelters will soon be filled with designer dogs, whom nobody will want once they pass the cuddly stage.”
But the public wants pups, and if the humane community can’t fill the demand, breeders will.