My beloved Beagle, Buzz, recently turned 15. I know this because, unlike my two rescues who have mystery backgrounds, Buzz came with a certified pedigree, a piece of paper in which I once took pride.
I found my pedigreed pup in a wall of cages filled with young dogs of different breeds. This was standard practice not so long ago. I wasn’t alarmed. Instead, I ignorantly shelled out $500, not knowing what I was buying into: multi-billion dollar business profiting on a factory-style turnaround of animals bred as commodities.
Buzz wasn’t the haphazard result of someone’s “pet” getting pregnant. (Pets, in many jurisdictions, are defined as being kept by owners “for pleasure rather than utility and/or commercial purposes.”) My little black-and-tan buddy wasn’t the whelp of someone with a hobby permit, because such animals are rendered sterile. Nor was he bred by a “fancier,” an owner of purebreds who must keep no more than one litter at a time up to a specified age and comply with zoning and health department regulations.
Sadly, Buzz came from a puppy mill*, bred by parents who likely lived in filthy wire cages covered in their own increment, bred multiple times to mass produce puppies – many of whom are shipped to other states (such as the case with Buzz) – with rarely a scratch to the ears or a kind word.
At least word has gotten out on puppy mills. Many of us now know that buying a puppy from a pet store or on-line often means that we’re lining the pockets of indiscriminate breeders (including backyard breeders cashing in on their dogs).
Unfortunately, mills aren’t limited to puppies. If there’s a buck to be made, breeders are ready to cash in: purebred cats, “designer dogs” (see the Oct. 2012 issue), ferrets, hedgehogs, birds, reptiles, mice and rats (especially for laboratory experiments or to be used as reptile food), fish, and wild exotics (that shouldn’t be pets, period).
From whom should we get our pets? First check out shelters and rescue groups. You can find purebreds, if that’s important to you, or surprise yourself by melting into the eyes of whoever is waiting for you.
If looking for a specific breed, seek out a responsible breeder. Go to the animal’s home and insist on seeing the parents. Are they free to roam? Do they lovingly interact with their human caretakers or shy away? Are vaccinations up to date? Are there just a couple of adult animals or are there many?
If seeking a caged animal, again look for tell-tale signs of a mill (the sales of exotics add up to $15 billion in the U.S. alone). Are there many animals? Are there employees, suggesting it’s a business? Are they socialized and used to human touch from regular handling? Are they housed in appropriately spacious cages? For example, a single adult boa restrictor requires a minimum of 10 square feet of floor space with 3’ walls, a strong branch for climbing, and a hiding space to feel secure. If stored in drawers, be concerned about rewarding such behavior with a financial transaction.
Responsible breeders give references, provide written contracts and health guarantees, explain genetic problems unique to a breed and provide documentation of the parents being evaluated in an effort to breed out these problems, and offer guidance for care. Responsible breeders also want to meet you to ensure their animals are going to good homes.
We need to stop the mills from turning. Otherwise, we support a business that breeds animals when there’s already an overpopulation crisis and where many animals die and suffer in the process before you see the cleaned-up doggy in the window that will tug your heart strings or the exotic bird or snake that is “cool.”
An animal shouldn’t just get a happy ending with you. It deserves a happy beginning too.
* A Google search confirmed my suspicions: multiple USDA inspections cite the Grand River Kennels of Macksburg, IA for no attending veterinarian, a dirty “whelping building” with enclosures needing “to have feces removed and maintained,” and “protruding wires or frayed chicken wire.”
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, September 2013