Now that HBO has premiered Madonna of the Mills, we’re a step closer to leading everyone (or at least a segment of the TV-viewing population) to understand that pet store puppies come from horrid, festering, disgusting, putrid kennels. But what about the breeders that pet owners have so carefully “researched” online to make sure that they’re not dealing with the worst of the worst? What about the puppies that come from family farms located in the peaceful cornfields of the American Midwest? Surely nothing that horrendous could come from such idyllic locales. After all, these breeders send digital pictures and videos to “prove” that their puppies have been socialized with children, come from a clean home, and most important of all, are cute. Besides, why would the USDA be willing to license and inspect so many breeders if they were all puppy mills? Aren’t laws helpful, and doesn’t regulation and control ensure quality standards?
When we divert the “puppy mill problem” to the Amish or the Mennonites or pet stores or a few notorious states or poo-mixes, it’s easy to delude ourselves into thinking that the problem doesn’t concern us. But this corrupt, ineffective, and broken system continues because we’re still not paying close enough attention and we’re excusing our rash purchases with our love — our love for the one puppy we couldn’t resist, our personal claims on a breed, our unwillingness to admit the frailties of our own, precious egos.
Meanwhile, some breeds should urge us to a heightened degree of sensitivity. While virtually no breed is invulnerable to puppy mills of the past and present, I’m writing today’s doozy of an entry from a personal perspective of concern for what I’ve observed with the Shiba Inu. Despite their devilish reputation, Shibas are just too cute for their own good. As relatively recent AKC-approved breed that is steadily increasing in popularity, Shibas have fallen victim to commercial breeders at a rapid slide. They’re compact in size and easy to market, which makes them coveted “stock” with puppy mills. And there’s no way to even begin cleaning things up unless we can somehow peel back and demystify the layers of the problem.
Those of us who live in our happy hoo-hah urban centers or certain regions of the United States/the world may never have seen a puppy mill except on television or in images that tend to tout the worst. I also grant that USDA licensing means different things in different areas. My current state of residence, for example, is not a known puppy mill state. As befits our "high tech" reputation, however, California does seem to specialize in breeding facilities for non-human primates that are sold for laboratory research use. Florida, as another point of comparison, is prime breeding ground for exotics such as sugar gliders, reptiles, pet marmosets, and others. USDA licenses are even granted to a few legitimate conservatories for rare and wild species.
When we're talking about the American heartland, USDA licensed breeders are more often dealing in puppies. Lots of them at a time.
Since I had some time to kill on my multi-day drive across the country, since I had the freedom to choose a meandering route, and since I was curious and wanted to understand how an environment could give rise to and foster something that I find so deeply problematic, I took several hours out of my way to embark on a Midwest Puppy Mill [de]tour. Armed simply with directions from Google Maps, published lists of Class A and Class B certification holders, and my own accumulated knowledge of where Shibas are coming from, I embarked on a mission to see, smell, hear, and to witness for myself what counts as a USDA certified facility.
Sounds like a delightful way to spend one’s vacation, huh?
This whole thing was thrown together at the last minute, with little planning, so I didn’t get very in-depth. But with a long enough drive, even a superficial experience will unravel into several thousand words.
I got this idea when I first hit Iowa, a state I associate with a fairly active group of lobbyists and advocates to counter the high volume of puppy mills. There are quite a few Shiba Inu breeders in the state. Several are registered with the USDA. I selected one address in Lee County that I know deals in Shibas, and drove south off I-80.
A little over an hour later, I found myself on a state highway at my target destination. Drive just a smidge faster than the posted speed limits, and you’ll blow through the town within minutes. With an official population of 130, 100% white, suffice to say that I stood out as an obvious outsider. It was also easy to find the USDA Class A breeder that I was looking for, as Damming Farms* is conveniently located right across from the sign announcing the town limits.
It looks like a beautiful home, located in the midst of flourishing corn and soy crops. The building that the Damming’s website describes as “the puppy house” is located in a separate, stand-alone structure. Curiously, and not mentioned on their website, there was another identically-designed structure right behind that, leading me to wonder if there was not just one puppy house, but two, indicating the volume at which this breeder produces puppies.
However, this was not at all the image of a “puppy mill” that I had in mind. And furthermore, it was eerily silent, for what I thought it was. Perhaps this was owing to the time of day, as the outdoors temperature was somewhere in the drowsy 80’s. At any rate, aside from the goosebumps of being gawked at when I stopped at the town gas station for a cup of coffee, it was turning out to be a pretty dull adventure so far, so I decided to find someplace to contemplate my next move.
I drove to a nearby baseball field, where I parked my car and pulled out my lunch. I savored the quiet, and tried to imagine the advantages of growing up in this landscape. At some point during my contemplation, someone returned to the Damming farm, raising up a significant frenzy of yapping dogs — most of them quite small, from the sounds of it. There were too many for me to distinguish just how many were barking at once, and since I was situated at a distance, the sounds were not as clear as they could have been. But that piercing, shrilling, almost frantic pack of unseen dogs left an impression on me, an audio confirmation of what I knew was in those buildings.
The least I can say is that the dogs don’t bark continuously. Their neighbors would not stand for it, I think. Their neighbors also surely consider them fine folks, because the Dammings are a prominent local family, probably with deep investments and long roots in this tiny community. They have a damn street in town named after them, after all. Protected by this veneer of being upstanding, down-home citizens, they’ll never be called out for what they do. Nobody in their community would ever think to condemn what they do as exploitative. They’ve just been handsomely successful at making a living and providing for their families.
On the backs of a couple dozen dogs.
I’d seen and heard enough. I got in my car and continued driving West, quietly digesting what I had just seen.
It wasn’t until I got home that I finally looked up how many dogs they had. My guess of a couple dozen dogs and puppies was low, by manifold. There were actually 90 adult dogs and 40 puppies there, according to a USDA inspection report dated October 4, 2010. Apparently, you can cram a lot of dogs into a relatively limited area if the dogs are small to begin with, and if they’re not given any excess space.
Now, had I traveled the other way down the highway, I would have run into a neighboring town that is the site of a USDA Class B breeder whom I’ll call Lithopolis.* Earlier this year, Lithopolis housed more dogs than the population of the entire town. I kid you not. 1200 adult dogs and puppies according to a May 2011 inspection report, whereas the town’s listed population doesn’t even crack four digits.
But something happened between May and July, when another inspection was conducted. Within two months time, Lithopolis had gotten rid of nearly a thousand dogs, “downsizing” to a “mere” 228 adult dogs on his premises. When a puppy miller moves that many dogs at once, I get nervous… especially when I fear that they may be considering a strategic departure from the bully breeds they were familiar with, and creeping towards a growing interest in our beloved Shiba Inu.
By coincidence or by design, a Damming Farm co-breeder lives in the same town as Lithopolis. She doesn’t have a separate USDA registration on file, since she handles only the Shiba Inu for the family business. Given that her two females are pregnant for the second time this year, I wonder if she ever manages her “extra” puppies by passing them along to her neighboring USDA Class B breeder, since he professes an interest in the breed and, unlike Class A breeders, is licensed to broker sales of puppies that he didn’t produce himself.
Since I did not see Lithopolis for myself, I can only imagine what the facilities were like. But further down West on the highway, I found another kennel that hinted at the degree of sanitary horrors I might have witnessed.
This is a Google Street View image of what I later confirmed as Randolph Farms.* I was able to match the name against the USDA lists, because they spell out the family name in stones on their front lawn. As this is an old shot from several years ago, some changes to the landscape are not represented. For one thing, the double-tiered kennel on the right exhibits some weathering. The saplings planted in front of the kennel had also grown just a little bigger to provide minimal shade and heat protection, though they do nothing to obscure the building from roadside traffic.
Like Lithopolis, Randolph Farms specializes in English Bulldogs. They also have a litter of Siberian huskies posted on Nextdaypets.com at the moment. Neither are breeds that seemed particularly well suited to life in this manner.
These kennels with a sheltered interior and a portal leading to an exposed cage are quaintly referred to in the industry as “Sundowner” type buildings (named after the original manufacturers), as if the dogs could strut onto an outdoor balcony and admire a view of golden sunset dripping over their vast, prairie home. The wire flooring is known as “Tenderfoot” flooring, as if the dogs are dancing ballerinas taking a graceful shit over heat-baked metal mesh. What these euphemistic terms mask, and what the pictures don’t divulge is how badly these kennels reek, even when someone is just casually driving by with the car windows rolled down.
Now, I don’t necessarily know how to distinguish all my farm scents, but I doubt the olfactory assault came from any nearby, invisible cows or horses or pigs. I have done some time mopping up a building that housed a large number of dogs, and while this odor didn’t exactly match, it was much closer to that memory than any manure. If just one of these Sundowners smells this bad, I can’t imagine how polluted the air would be with a dozen or more on the property.
Inspection reports suggest that my senses probably were not mistaken. They had been recently cited for “excessive accumulation of feces” and penning their dogs in cages that were smaller than required — which is saying quite a bit, since the USDA only requires 6 inches of additional space above the top of the animal’s head.
What struck me about this farm’s layout was its shamelessness, their willingness to put their “wares” out on roadside display, so to speak. The Randolphs don’t see what they’re doing as wrong. They’re proud to call this farm their own, stinky Sundowner and all. This mentality is what I was striving to understand as I continued through more back roads on into Nebraska. Must I have known nothing other than small town agricultural life in order to understand? Do I need a brood of human children to provide for before I can grasp the simple economics, let alone psychology, of this choice to breed and broker dogs for a living? A farmer’s gotta steel himself for the slaughter if he wants bacon for breakfast, but what kind of mental numbing must you force upon yourself to deny a species whose natural inclination is to be with humans?
Numerous USDA breeder websites insist on the “joy” and the “pleasure” of having pets as their business. They drip with honeyed, vague testimonies about how well their “furbabies” are taken care of. But USDA regulations don’t promote ethical breeding practices, let alone responsible pet care; they basically provide for the minimum biological functions for penned livestock, and that’s it. There’s little incentive and not enough resources for puppy farmers to do more than the required minimum when they’re dealing with dozens, if not hundreds of breeding dogs at once.
The numbers alone signify such a completely different world, an entirely foreign mentality than what I know, though this mindset pervades all across the country. I know it’s not just an Iowa problem, or a Missouri problem, or a Lancaster County problem, or [insert place]. You could put a farm like this in the next county over and I’d still be aghast that the farmer and I are both human. Yet sometimes, because of where I live, it’s easy to bask in the self-assured conviction that we don’t have that kind of ugliness around here, knowing my community would quickly mobilize to purge anything like a puppy mill if it were right in our midst. But the truth is, those who’ve seeded the continued existence of puppy mills move amongst us all the time. Take this excerpt from Hearts and Sparkles* Kennels:
We started raising puppies over 15 years ago, with the help of our 3 children. Now, that our children are grown and on their own, they have started raising puppies, as well.
At first we sold our puppies to pet stores (mainly on the east & west coasts) and privately to people in our area. Lately, however, we have received many inquires from people who have purchased our puppies from those pet stores, wondering if they and their friends could buy puppies directly from us. The answer is obviously “YES!” and so here we are on the World Wide Web.
In these fifteen years, the internet has drastically changed the rules of engagement. Had the puppies stayed within these quiet little agricultural communities, perhaps my outrage, as an outsider, would be misplaced. But because the coasts and the Midwest are bridged by this traffic in puppies, and because they are just as complicit as we are (enthusiastically so!), I can’t say I feel any remorse about letting my city slicker coastal values hitchhike along with the dollars.
Or rather, my values tell me that I do not want my dollars to go to puppy producers whose standards fall so, so far short of my own. It’s just not worth it.
On one hand, the internet makes it easier to publicize the evils behind pet store pups and for dog lovers to network and confront the more public, commercial faces of the problem. On the other hand, the internet has also empowered individuals with the satisfaction of claiming ourselves as authorities, patting ourselves on the back for all the online “research” we’ve done on our chosen breed. You can’t boycott an individual, much less monitor the private desires of those who have invested months or years of their own precious time into making their dreams a living, wriggling, purchasable reality.
But you can attempt to reach out, and educate. Teach each other how to do some honest research, and also how research is an ongoing process. The one phrase that most often flusters me is “But I’ve done my research,” especially when it’s lobbied as a defense of one’s poor decisions (these are also my cranky graduate student instructor horns sprouting). Research is never “done” or completed. Now, I don’t even have the luxury of allowing myself that excuse when it came to how we acquired Bowdu, and I often feel like I’ll need to spend a lifetime atoning for my and others’ ignorance.
Yet, the beautiful thing is that once you know, you can’t really turn back. It takes a lot of effort or trauma to unknow something.
I’d rather take my knowledge along in search of more hopeful horizons.
This was a more personal account of a topic that I’ll write more about later. In the next part, I’ll provide a better organized list of resources on how one can use the internet to research a breeder they’re considering (some resources are already embedded above, though there are definitely a few others).
Meanwhile, if you have HBO (which we don’t at the House of Two Bows, let alone a television), you can catch Madonna of the Mills again this Sunday, and several times afterward. Please check the official website for the schedule.
* Names changed not to protect the innocent, but because I can’t stand to give advertising to the puppy mills that I would rather see go out of business. The diligent or curious should have no trouble looking up any of my references. Or you can just ask.