Response to “rescuers” buying from “puppy mills” was swift, furious, & tone-deaf
WASHINGTON D.C.––Response from the U.S. humane community to Washington Post freelance contributor Kim Kavin’s April 11, 2018 exposé “Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn” was swift, furious, and tone-deaf to the message screaming out of Kavin’s revelation that at least 86 nonprofit “rescue” organizations have paid top dollar at auction for dogs of popular breed:
Kavin documented 5,761 transactions in which “rescuers” paid as much as $10,000 each for two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, $8,750 for a French bulldog, $4,300 for a Yorkshire terrier, $3,500 for a standard poodle, $3,400 for an English bulldog, $2,550 for a golden retriever, $2,500 for a Labrador retriever, and $2,500 for a boxer.
But shelters all but pay adopters to take pit bulls
Animal shelters throughout the U.S. are meanwhile all but paying prospective adopters to take pit bulls.
Less than 6% of the U.S. dog population, pit bulls have been the beneficiaries of multi-million-dollar promotional efforts by the Best Friends Animal Society, Humane Society of the U.S., American SPCA, and Maddie’s Fund for a decade-plus.
Yet pit bulls now occupy nearly half of the total shelter and rescue space available to dogs and account for two-thirds of the dogs who are euthanized in shelters, typically after multiple dangerous incidents and failed rehoming attempts.
Waived adoption fees, free vaccinations and follow-up care, and subsidized licensing are only some of the perks commonly offered by shelters hoping to ease the pit bull glut without having to euthanize the surplus.
Trying to force the public to take pit bulls has failed
If the Kavin exposé made any point with forceful clarity, it is that efforts to oblige the public to adopt cast-off pit bulls by cutting off other sources of dog acquisition have catastrophically failed, putting more money into the pockets of “puppy millers” and auction hosts, corrupting the whole concept of shelterless “rescue,” and costing the humane community hard-earned public trust.
This is occurring even as the entire U.S. is approaching the “90% live release rate” for dogs that Maddie’s Fund, the Best Friends Animal Society, and others have misleadingly promoted as the benchmark for a shelter being “no-kill.”
National “live release rates” of 80%+
According to the “2016 Animal Sheltering Statistics from the Shelter Animals Count Database,” released on April 16, 2018, the U.S. animal sheltering and rescue sector as a whole (or at least the portion responding to the Shelter Animals Count survey) claims an 85.8% canine “live release rate.”
“Rescues without government contracts” boast a 95.9% live release rate for dogs, 91.5% for cats. “Shelters with government contracts” trail at 83.5% for dogs, 76.7% for cats, and “government animal services” are at 81.5% for dogs, 65.4% for cats.
Describing itself as “a collaborative independent organization formed by a diverse group of stakeholders to create and share the national database of sheltered animal statistics,” Shelter Animals Count is a project of the National Federation of Humane Societies, formed by the Humane Society of the U.S.
Lost in using an inappropriate metric
Lost in the use of “live release rate” as the statistic most used in evaluating shelter performance is the reality that not every animal impounded by animal control or owner-surrendered to a shelter is suitable for safe rehoming, and that about 95% of the reduction in numbers of animals killed at animal shelters since the 1970s is attributable not to increased adoptions––which have actually decreased slightly since peaking in the mid-1980s––but rather to the success of the humane community over the past several decades in persuading most owners of dogs other than pit bulls to get their dogs sterilized.
(See Why we cannot adopt our way out of shelter killing.)
While the sterilization rate for dogs other than pit bulls topped 70% by 1990, the sterilization rate for pit bulls lags, for whatever reason, at about 20%. That oft-ignored number should by itself make a compelling argument for mandating that pit bulls must be sterilized, since pit bull owners have uniquely resisted the arguments for voluntarily “fixing” their dogs that have persuaded other dog owners, even when spay/neuter services have been offered for free or even with incentive payments.
But mandatory sterilization of pit bulls is an approach that the Humane Society of the U.S., Best Friends Animal Society, American SPCA, and Maddie’s Fund, among the major national animal advocacy organizations, have rejected out-of-hand, while continuing to encourage backyard pit bull breeders through intensive pit bull promotion.
The “flip side” of pit bull promo
The Kavin exposé could be termed the “flip side” of the same crisis of mission recognition and identity within the humane community that has caused shelters to seek coveted “no-kill” status at the expense of rehoming dogs safely––especially pit bulls.
Of the 53 dogs rehomed from shelters and rescues known to have subsequently killed a human, 49 have been rehomed since 2007, including 37 pit bulls, four Rottweilers, three bull mastiffs, and one Akita, one boxer, one “golden retriever” who may have been a pit bull mix, one husky, and one dog of unknown breed.
The paucity of dogs other than pit bulls among the cast-offs coming to animal shelters in turn enables “rescues” to “flip” dogs of popular breed for fancy sums after acquiring them at auction.
“Dog-flipping” by “rescues” is not new
Dog-flipping by quasi-“rescues” has long been suspected. Even in the early 2000s some “rescues” claimed to do impossibly high numbers of adoptions with no visible source of the puppies of popular small breeds and “designer” mixes that they always seemed to have available, for “donations” of $500 and up.
The likelihood that such rescues are buying dogs from breeders is underscored by the “2016 Animal Sheltering Statistics from the Shelter Animals Count Database.”
Shelter Animals Count found that 35.4% of the dog inventory at “rescues without government contracts” are puppies.
Yet only 13.5% of the dog inventory at “government animal services” and “shelters with government contracts” are puppies.
Why do “rescues” have three times as many pups as pounds?
Such a discrepancy could be maintained, in theory, if “rescues without government contracts” quickly claim every impounded puppy on expiry of the mandatory holding period to allow for owner reclaim, then keep each puppy for about three times longer than do shelters with government contracts.
But this would mean rescues are typically keeping puppies for up to six weeks each. The visible puppy turnover rate is much, much faster.
The simplest, most obvious explanation for the numbers is that many of the puppies at “rescues” have not come from “government animal services” and “shelters with government contracts.”
Retail dog sale bans
The phenomenon of rescues acquiring puppies and purebred dogs of popular breeds directly from breeders appears to have gained momentum since 2012, when Los Angeles adopted an ordinance requiring pet stores to obtain dogs only from city and country animal shelters and nonprofit organizations.
By January 2018, more than 250 municipalities had enacted retail pet sale bans, according to the Humane Society of the U.S., while California passed the first statewide retail pet sale ban in October 2017.
Similar legislation has been introduced in nine other states, Kavin mentioned.
Kavin identified the tip of the iceberg
“Activists and lawmakers tell the public that the laws help homeless dogs and choke off income to the kinds of breeders who sell dogs and puppies at auctions,” wrote Kavin.
“But commercially bred dogs have continued going to consumers in places with the municipal bans, including Los Angeles, by way of nonprofit groups and the auctions.”
Kavin said she had “identified four California-based rescue groups tied to auction purchases, and two more that operate in the state.”
But the dog purchases at auction that Kavin described are only the most visible part of an enormous clandestine commerce in dogs, especially puppies, moving quietly from breeders to the public via “rescuers” who operate with little or no accountability and pay no taxes on their transactions.
“Out of state & even out of the country”
Observed Lisa Peterson in a November 19, 2017 column for the Newton Bee, of Newton, Connecticut, “If all pet stores can sell are rescue dogs and those dropped off in shelters, you can bet many of those are going to come from out of state and even out of the country. There is a huge pipeline for shelter dogs coming into the United States from Mexico and Asia on the West Coast,” Peterson charged, “and a portion of those ‘rescue dogs’ are specifically bred for sale in the retail shelter market.”
If anything, Peterson understated the scope of the “bred for rescue” traffic from abroad, which ANIMALS 24-7 became aware of––and exposed––after the notorious New Jersey dealer Joseph P. ‘JoJo the Dog Man’ O’Neill, 76, died of a heart attack on June 22, 2005 aboard a train in Poland.
(See Humane success makes market for mixed-breed pups.)
How JoJo the Dog Man stimulated “puppy mills”
O’Neill had for 40-odd years made a career of rounding up puppies for resale from Amish farmers in rural New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, initially collecting cast-offs who would otherwise have been drowned.
Later O’Neill found himself having to pay for puppies, in competition with bunchers who collected dogs for resale to laboratories.
Buying puppies in turn stimulated the growth of the Amish dog breeding industry. But as more and more Amish bred dogs deliberately, for profit, often giving up struggling dairy farms to become full-time dog breeders, O’Neill found himself priced out of the market.
Internet-facilitated rescue, though, was coming into vogue. O’Neill anticipated that with the right connections abroad, he could cash in. But he died before he could.
O’Neill left 80 unsold dogs behind, half of them rehomed by the North Shore Animal League America and half by New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse. Both were organizations with which O’Neill had often conflicted. O’Neill, for example, had been caught several times dumping dogs who had grown too large for easy sale, or who had developed health problems, behind the North Shore Animal League shelter in Port Washington, New York.
The North Shore Animal League then rehabilitated and rehomed the dogs, and spent years trying to bring O’Neill to justice for abandonment.
Except that O’Neill did not operate under nonprofit auspices, and that even the dogs he dumped decades ago could easily be “flipped” at a profit today, his modus operandi differed little from those of nonprofit “rescues” that buy dogs from breeders and at auction.
“Nationwide shadow market”
Wrote Kavin, “An effort that animal rescuers began more than a decade ago to buy dogs for $5 or $10 apiece from commercial breeders has become a nationwide shadow market,” resulting in “a river of rescue donations flowing from avowed dog saviors to the breeders, two groups that have long disparaged each other. The rescuers call many breeders heartless operators of inhumane ‘puppy mills’ and work to ban the sale of their dogs in brick-and-mortar pet stores. The breeders call ‘retail rescuers’ hypocritical dilettantes who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated online pet stores.”
Specifically, Kavin charged, “Bidders affiliated with 86 rescue and advocacy groups and shelters throughout the United States and Canada have spent $2.68 million buying dogs and puppies from breeders since 2009 at the nation’s two government-regulated dog auctions, both in Missouri, according to invoices, checks and other documents the Washington Post obtained from an industry insider. At the auctions, rescuers have purchased dogs from some of the same breeders who face activist protests, including some on the Humane Society of the United States’ ‘Horrible Hundred’ list or the ‘No Pet Store Puppies’ database of breeders to avoid, maintained by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Most rescuers then offered the dogs for adoption as ‘rescued’ or ‘saved.’”
“Rescue” generates a third to 40% of auction income
Said Southwest Auction Services general manager Bob Hughes, “Rescue generates about one-third, maybe even 40% of our income. It’s been big for 10 years.”
Claims Theresa Strader, founder of National Mill Dog Rescue in Colorado, “We do not pay the mills to rescue their dogs.”
But, said Kavin, “Invoices show that Strader paid breeders nearly $44,703 for 193 dogs at 11 auctions from 2014 to 2016. Prices ranged from $1.00, for a Chihuahua, to $1,325 for a golden retriever, for an average price of $231 per dog.
Strader in November 2013 received both the Henry Bergh Award from the ASPCA and the “Hero of the Year Award” from the Home Again Pet Recovery Service, a project of Merck Animal Health.
The Kavin exposé “affirmed the predictions of those opposed to the recent politically popular wave of ‘puppy mill bans’ nationwide, causing the closure of conventional pet shops,” wrote Phyllis M. Daugherty for the Los Angeles political web site CityWatch.
Daugherty, a former producer of training videos for animal control officers, favors “just enforcing or confirming compliance with existing local/state regulations.”
Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council president Mike Bober responded to the Kavin exposé by suggesting to media that “rescues and shelters engaging in business transactions should be treated the same way as licensed dealers who purchase dogs and then resell them.
“Record-keeping and reporting requirements,” Bober said, “would ensure that – when possible – accurate information is provided to prospective pet owners. USDA oversight would ensure these groups provide appropriate care for the dogs for which they are receiving compensation,” also a growing problem, especially among “rescues” that do take in pit bulls and other hard-to-home dogs from pounds.
Enforcement of applicable federal, state, and even local animal welfare legislation fell steeply during 2017, the first year that Donald Trump was U.S. President, emphasizing relaxation of regulations at every level.
ANIMALS 24-7 logged only 1,142 dogs impounded during 2017 in U.S. breeder neglect cases, the lowest total in at least 12 years, while 1,552 dogs were impounded in “rescue” neglect cases, less than a third as many as in 2016, but consistent nonetheless with a trend since 2012 of “rescue” impoundments equaling or exceeding “puppy mill” impoundments. Of the 1,552 dogs impounded from rescues, 616 (40%) were pit bulls or pit mixes.
(See also Casualties of the “save rate”: 40,000 animals at failed no-kill shelters & rescues and “Rescue hoarding” cases horrify Iowa.)
USDA warning to “rescues”
USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service deputy administrator for animal care Bernadette Juarez, dogged since her appointment in February 2017 by allegations of lax enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act in a manner tending to favor animal use industries, on April 17, 2018 issued a bulletin entitled “USDA Provides Guidance to Entities Purveying Dogs in Regulated Activities,” asking “Are you an individual, business or non-profit organization that buys, sells, adopts or transports dogs?
“If so,” Juarez advised, “you may need to obtain a USDA license or registration so our inspectors can ensure you are humanely caring for, treating, handling and transporting your animals according to the regulations and standards outlined in the Animal Welfare Act.”
A technical note linked to the Juarez bulletin explains that “The Animal Welfare Act and associated regulations require a USDA license for anyone who (for compensation or profit) buys, sells (including adoption), or negotiates the sale of dogs for research, exhibition, or use as a pet; or for hunting, breeding, or security purposes at the wholesale level. Additionally, the Animal Welfare Act restricts the importation of dogs for purposes of resale.”
Class B dealers
The technical note further explains that for the purposes of Animal Welfare Act enforcement, “Compensation is any payment for the animal, regardless of whether the payment is for profit. Payment could be sales, adoption fees, donations or any economic benefit related to the transfer of the animal.”
“Rescuers” would be Class B licensees, in the same category as dealers who sell random source dogs for laboratory use. However, the National Institutes of Health quit funding experiments using random source dogs effective on October 1, 2014.
According to the HSUS Puppy Mills Campaign, “Organizations that are exempt [from needing to have Class B licenses] include municipal shelters and groups where the adopter, adoptee and pet are all in the same place when adoption fees are collected. Those that transport pets for a fee, even rescued pets, nor those that send rescued pets to adopters they don’t meet in person, are some of the nonprofits that may need a license.”
But this appears to be a matter of interpretation, since neither the Animal Welfare Act itself, the Juarez bulletin, or the technical note linked to the bulletin state such an exemption.
Julie Castle of Best Friends
Blogged Best Friends Animal Society chief executive Julie Castle, who succeeded her husband Gregory as CEO on April 16, 2018, “In years past, it was a common practice for certain rescue groups,” Best Friends among them on at least one occasion, “that specialize in providing a safety net for old, sick, injured and ‘used up’ puppy mill dogs to attend secretive breeders’ auctions to buy these sad, broken animals, often for pocket change (literally). The dogs had no commercial value either through a pet store sale or to another puppy mill, so breeders had a simple choice: dispose of them or sell them for whatever they could get to whoever wanted them.
“This was legitimate rescue,” Castle said, while deploring that “commercial breeders, the overwhelming majority of which are abusive and exploitive, are being given the incentive by so-called rescue groups to ramp up their breeding operations — while Best Friends and every national animal welfare organization and every rescue group that deserves the name are working to make the high-volume pet trade a thing of the past.
Got supply-&-demand backward
“The number of animals dying in shelters has declined as a result of the no-kill movement,” Castle acknowledged, “and the selection of breeds and types of dogs available in shelters has been proportionately reduced,” primarily to pit bulls, secondarily to Chihuahuas, and––third most often available––older dogs of other breeds who have already failed in multiple homes and may never be appropriate pets for most homes.
Then came the howler. While chief executive officers of multi-million-dollar organizations typically understand the laws of supply-and-demand as a basic requirement of holding the job, Castle stated it precisely backward:
“Supply drives demand, but that’s the point of putting the squeeze on puppy mills — to make animals supplied by puppy mills more expensive and less accessible.”
Higher prices bring more supply
On the contrary, demand drives supply, as Adam Hayes, CFA describes in depth and detail at the Investopedia web site.
The higher the demand for something, in this case the dog people want to share their homes and their lives with, the higher the price that customers are willing to pay.
“The higher the price, the higher the quantity supplied,” Hayes explains. “Producers supply more at a higher price because selling a higher quantity at a higher price increases revenue.”
“All other factors” are not equal
Castle and others “putting the squeeze on puppy mills” to try to boost adoptions of the pit bulls, Chihuahuas, and other dogs of problematic history who still fill most animal shelters are ignoring the first premise of economic law of demand, which as Hayes summarizes, “states that, if all other factors remain equal, the higher the price of a good, the less people will demand that good.”
That first premise is that “if all other factors remain equal,” which is not the case if the alternative to acquiring the dog whom people want to share their lives and homes with is acquiring a dangerous dog, a hyperactive, hyper-reactive, or noisy dog, an otherwise ill-behaved dog, or a sick, injured, or older dog who will be expensive and difficult to care for, only to die soon.
Top states for shelter killing are also tops for dog import
Castle mentioned in passing that “Seven states (Texas, California, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi — in the order of number of shelter animals killed) account for 50% of national shelter deaths,” but neglected to note that according to the “2016 Animal Sheltering Statistics from the Shelter Animals Count Database,” four of those states––Texas, California, Florida, and Kentucky––were also the three top states and four of the top 15 in adopting animals transferred in from shelters and rescues in other states.
Shelters and rescues in Texas, California, Florida, and Kentucky accepted 70,017 transferred animals in 2016, whom adopters clearly found more suitable than those originating from within those states and left unadopted.
Kitty Block: “This perpetuates puppy mills”
Blogged Humane Society of the U.S. interim president Kitty Block, who succeeded Wayne Pacelle on February 2, 2018, “Pet rescue groups that buy dogs at auctions should understand that they are not helping. This practice perpetuates puppy mills by putting money in the pockets of a notoriously cruel industry, effectively buying cast-off animals and helping to subsidize more cruelty.”
Block, however, attributed the Kavin exposé and the data supporting it to a conspiracy theory, alleging that so-called “puppy millers” are trying to put the very “rescuers” who are now among their major “profit centers” out of business.
“The puppy mill industry has attempted to focus attention on a few questionable rescues in an attempt to draw the public’s scrutiny away from the horrific cruelties of puppy mills,” Block wrote. “In all of this, we see the hand of puppy millers who want to obstruct animal rescue in all of its forms, while seeking to give their own cruel industry a free skate.
“The folks pointing their fingers at small problems within animal rescue, or the transport of animals from state to state or from country to country,” Block charged, “are pursuing a strategy of gaslighting the public, trying to distract and divide.”
That probably plays well with animal advocates who have long been conditioned to equate all dog breeders with “puppy millers,” and all “puppy millers” with the devil, but amounts to an exercise in circular reasoning, flunking the tests of both logic and economic reality.
“Puppy millers” seeing the sort of prices paid for dogs of popular breed that “rescues” now are getting will not want to lose that market.
And dog buyers shelling out that sort of money have already demonstrated that they will pay more, much more, to get the dogs they really want, instead of pit bulls they can all but have for free.
Rachel Clark says
Very well written article. I wish I knew the best solution. The public wants to “rescue” dogs. The pet shops want healthy puppies to sell who are not pit bulls or pit bull crosses.
With mandatory spay/neuter laws, fewer puppies are available other than from large USDA breeders. Dog breeders largely don’t want to be told how to breed their dogs by those who have never bred dogs. They want to make the best decisions for their dogs and their families. Most dogs should never be bred.
In addition, I have seen false information out on “puppy mills”. I have seen it written that “puppy millers” debark their dogs by shoving a metal rod down their necks. One might inhumanely kill a dog that way, but one could NOT debark any dog that way.
I see complaints that “puppy millers” have matted dogs with bad teeth. Having worked with private pet owners, I’ve seen the same thing there frequently. Frankly, small breed dogs are often predisposed to losing teeth early. Hairless Chinese crested dogs genetically have bad teeth inherited with the hairless gene.
Importing dogs from other countries can bring in diseases.
So what is the best solution that makes everybody happy? I don’t think one exists.
Merritt Clifton says
As a point of information, there are no “mandatory spay/neuter laws” in the U.S. that do not provide exemptions for people who purchase breeder or “kennel” permits, nor could there be, since federal courts have repeatedly held that the right to breed animals was among the traditional rights of the people which were protected in 1789 by the Ninth Amendment. Differential licensing laws, however, which charge much higher fees to license unaltered pets, are practically ubiquitous in the U.S., and were quite effective, especially in the 1970-1990 time frame, in establishing spay/neuter as the norm among dog owners, other than pit bull owners.
The public doesn’t really want to rescue dogs. The public is being told that if they shop instead of adopting that they are heartless lowlives. Hypocrites and mercenaries running the show are marketing experts. They care about money, not saving them all and certainly not about safety or people.
This is clearly one of the saddest commentaries I have ever read regarding animal rescue. In 1971 I became volunteer board president of our local shelter. I and a group of lovely volunteers worked endlessly and excitedly to make a shelter that treated animals as something of value, who needed a kind, caring place to be when lost or homeless. As innocent owners of beloved pets, we couldn’t believe the lack of concern we saw about the life and care of other citizens’ pets. Animal rescue has now become much more complicated and I know that there are a lot of transports and animals from other countries, but I still feel that your local shelter needs to be a place where the animals receive proper care, good adoptions, and kind euthanasia when necessary. If demand requires it, then perhaps take puppies from a needy area or of a certain breed that people want. I know that lives are saved by the “musical chairs” game of transporting dogs from one place to another, but there are questionable practices which were brought out in your article. This all begs the question of how should the homeless animal situation be handled? We have tried in every way to make spay/neuter universal, but there are still uncountable backyard breeders of pit bulls and mixes who are pretty much born to die.
I also take issue with shelters that take very elderly, ill dogs and instead of humanely euthanizing them, leave them to sit in cages in essentially a hospice situation. Meanwhile, younger dogs are left and get cage stress or overlooked.
I found your information about rescues buying pure breeds quite shocking and unless the rescue is a pure breed from puppy mill group (which I greatly admire), it seems amazingly counter productive.
Just a small correction. Shelter Animals Count is not a program of the National Federation of Humane Societies. SAC is an independent non-profit. NFHS no longer exists.
We’ve wanted to get our youngest daughter a puppy for several years now, but I still can’t get over the shock at the prices of dogs these days! Our last dog was adopted from a shelter in 1999, but unfortunately, shelters are no longer an option thanks to the “Save the dogs at any cost” attitude of the pit-pushers running most shelters these days. That leaves us trying to find good, non-pit dogs from private homes, and of course, thanks to spay-neuter (of which I approve, don’t get me wrong!) that’s an incredibly expensive option. No longer do we see “Puppies, free to good home” ads or boxes of puppies outside the grocery store. Now every fool who didn’t spay their dogs knows how desperate people are for non-pits and are happy to exploit that, or they’re trying to pretend their mutts are a fancy “designer” mixed breed–I actually saw an ad for $250 “miniature huskies,” which had come about when a pug and a husky managed to make puppies. A “miniature husky!” $250! Ridiculous.
This story is just yet another sad example of the way the pit pushers are taking over and basically trying to eliminate the ability of all but the most wealthy to get themselves a safe, friendly, non-mutant dog to have as a pet. It’s so depressing.