"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Mahatma Gandhi
Theresa Strader often struggles for words as she describes her work. But last Sunday afternoon, Strader didn't need to talk. She just needed to watch Prancer, a shaggy 6-year-old poodle she had found in Missouri the day before.
Prancer had spent his entire life in a wire cage. He had never run or jumped higher than the 3-foot-tall walls and ceilings of his prison allowed. He had never felt grass between his toes.
So when Strader opened the door to his kennel, inviting him into her yard in Black Forest, Prancer hesitated. Head down, body shivering, he took a tentative first step. Finally, he moved his front legs, and his back legs followed in a rabbit-like hop.
As onlookers watched through tears, Prancer bounced awkwardly around, ricocheting off fence posts, tree trunks and anything else that got in his way. Within minutes, he was running, a goofy smile pasted to his ragged face. An hour later, he still hadn't stopped.
Strader smiled. This is why she established Mill Dog Rescue Network, an area nonprofit organization that rescues dogs from puppy mills.
"We're working to put an end to the misery of commercial dog breeding," she says. "This is a great start."
Strader had left Colorado Springs on Thursday, May 29, in a rented van and returned Sunday morning with 38 dogs rescued during a swing through Missouri and Kansas that included visits to puppy mills and a dog auction.
Among them: Prancer, no longer needed for breeding; Grace, a frail miniature dachshund with blackened teeth and a jaw rotted by infection; a tiny pair of black and white schnauzers wheezing with pneumonia; and Maddie, a trembling year-old poodle who had never been bathed or groomed.
There was also an odd collection of relatively healthy puppies Shih Tzus, Lhasa apsos and a pair of pugs unwanted because they were the wrong color or size.
Back in Colorado Springs, Strader and her volunteers worked intently, examining each dog for medical problems, providing food and water and arranging for vaccinations, spaying or neutering, and a bath or grooming before each is offered for adoption.
Some, beaten down by years of neglect and medical issues too severe, won't make it. Others, like Prancer, have a chance.
An abhorrent industry
Volunteers who have been caught up in the Mill Dog Rescue Network mission admit they were quickly consumed by their work after they met Strader.
A broad-shouldered woman with a deep voice that still has a trace of a New York accent, Strader welcomes each friend and stranger to her Black Forest ranch house, which has been transformed into headquarters for the rescue group. Last weekend, the porch was crowded with an impromptu triage unit, and the yard became a playground for the three dozen newcomers.
Dan Anderson of Peyton has been with the group for a year and has accompanied Strader on rescues. A self-proclaimed animal lover whose dog was best man at his wedding, Anderson works as a U.S. Customs broker.
"That's what I do for a living," he says. "[Mill Dog Rescue] is what I do for life."
Anderson's voice shakes when he talks about what he saw at the Midwestern puppy mills he visited.
"One of the only things that will make me cry is one of these rescues," he says. "When you see these people and how they treat dogs, and how they are teaching their children to treat dogs ... it's the perpetuation of an abhorrent industry."
Around the country, puppy mills churn out about 4 million puppies a year, with 500,000 going to pet stores, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The breeders sell them mostly to brokers, who turn around and sell them to pet stores or to private buyers on the Internet.
In pet stores, buyers are often won over by frolicking puppies. At the Citadel mall in Colorado Springs, shoppers often linger at the windows of Pet City, where several breeds of puppies play.
When a salesperson is asked about the breeder of a tiny beagle in the window, she says, "It's a good one; he's in Kansas." But she won't give up the name.
The Pet City store manager says she will respond only to written questions about the store's policy. But questions for this story go unanswered.
The puppy business is huge. Commercial breeders are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and by some state agriculture departments, but their numbers make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for those agencies to keep up.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) considers facilities that produce purebred puppies in large numbers to be suspect when there are such documented problems as over-breeding, inbreeding, minimal vet care, poor quality of food and shelter, lack of human socialization and overcrowded cages.
That's where Strader and other animal advocates step in, with a mission to save mill dogs and eradicate mills, which are an entrenched part of rural life in some parts of America. They frequently head to Missouri, the country's top producer of dogs and one of the states with the most puppy mills. Oklahoma and Iowa are the next largest in numbers of breeders, and are notorious for puppy mills as well. Colorado is low on the dog-producing list, and isn't included in the list of 12 states in the nonprofit Companion Animal Protection Society's database of mill investigations.
Mill owners tend to let in strangers only when they need to weed out old dogs that can't have any more litters, that are sick or undesirable, or simply didn't sell as puppies. They rarely sell to individuals.
In recent years, large-scale breeders have felt more pressure from animal groups, and they watch carefully for rescuers who try to get inside and document conditions on camera. Still, they often knowingly give unproductive dogs or unwanted puppies to rescuers to save themselves the trouble of disposing of them.
Strader planned her May trip with the assistance of a Missouri woman she refers to by first name only. Julie has figured out how to infiltrate puppy mills by gaining the confidence of the most notorious breeders, and she has formed an underground network of people who rescue dogs and gather evidence of abuse.
Strader's crusade began in February 2007, when a friend and fellow animal lover sent her an e-mail advertising a dog auction at a reputed puppy mill in Missouri. A large-scale breeder was retiring, and her family's buildings, equipment and hundreds of dogs, including 50 Italian greyhounds and dozens of other breeds, were being sold.
Strader had rescued many dogs before, but had never seen a puppy mill. On impulse, she packed her minivan and headed east to the auction with her 14-year-old daughter. She says today that she wasn't sure what she would do when she got there, but that she felt like she had to do something.
At the Missouri farm, Strader and her daughter tried to blend in, but they had a hard time hiding their emotions. They were horrified to find hundreds of dogs crammed into too-small wire cages stacked in rows.
Dogs crammed three and four deep in a crate.
Dogs with hair tangled with feces and dirt.
Dogs with splayed feet deformed by a lifetime spent standing on wire.
Dogs that had never been petted.
And one particular dog, a frail Italian greyhound with elfin ears and dark eyes. Seven years old, she had probably churned out more than a dozen litters in her life. She had been given food, but no love; water, but no dental care. Her teeth had fallen out from decay. Her gums were infected, and her lower jaw had rotted and fallen off.
By the time she locked eyes with Strader in the dim barn in rural Missouri, the frail dog's mouth could no longer hold her tongue.
"I looked at her, and she looked at me, and I told her I would get her out of that place," Strader says, her normally booming voice lowering to a whisper. "I never let her out of my sight the whole time."
The disfigured dog didn't get much attention at the auction. Strader paid $40 for her and took her home, naming her Lily.
On that trip, Strader also spent a few dollars on several other skeletal Italian greyhounds that trembled when they were touched and a Lhasa apso that had given birth so many times her reproductive system had ruptured.
The Straders are animal lovers. Their menagerie in Black Forest already included dogs ruled by a massive Irish wolfhound and sleek Ibizan hounds; cats, chickens and rabbits.
But they had never seen anything like the damaged little dogs Strader brought with her from Missouri. They would have to be nursed back to health, so Strader set up a makeshift infirmary in her basement.
She quit her job as a pediatric oncology nurse and found a less demanding job as a private-care nurse, and founded the nonprofit Mill Dog Rescue Network in October.
Strader and the group's 50 or so volunteers work relentlessly; so far, they have rescued and placed more than 650 dogs with organizations such as Dreampower Animal Rescue, Teller County Regional Animal Shelter, breed rescue groups and even in rehabilitation and training programs sponsored by the Colorado Department of Corrections. They've launched a Web site to educate consumers, and spent hundreds of hours at pet expos, store adoption fairs and other events where they can tell the story of mill dogs.
The group is working toward raising money for a free-standing facility. But it's also reaching out beyond the Springs area; in May, Strader and a volunteer drove nearly 3,000 miles to rescue 160 dogs and take them to a network of Phoenix groups that would take care of their medical needs and adoptions.
"We are being careful that our rescues don't cause another problem," Strader says. "We don't want to oversaturate the Colorado Springs area and cause shelter dogs here to lose their chances at adoption. That's why we are reaching out to other cities. Phoenix was the first. We're working on many more."
Swells of outrage
Around the country, individuals and groups watch for notices of dog auctions and kennel liquidations. Rescuers troll the Internet, looking for suspect kennels and kennel owners often those with many different breeds, large numbers of dogs and no access to the public. Volunteers travel, sometimes hundreds of miles, to auctions like the one where Strader found Lily. They try to get the dogs for free from kennel owners who often recognize them as rescuers and take advantage of their compassion as a way to save them the trouble of shooting or drowning unwanted stock, both common practices.
Occasionally, but not very often, rescuers will spend a small amount of money to buy dogs that are injured or sick. They don't have resources to compete against high-dollar brokers.
"And we don't want to do that," Strader says. "That only makes money for the breeders. It doesn't change anything."
Mills have operated around the country for decades. In 1966, Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, which outlined minimum standards of care for dogs and cats bred for commercial resale. But investigations conducted by the HSUS in the decades since then have shown that many breeders who have licenses from the USDA are cited repeatedly for violating the act and still remain open.
News investigations reaching back several decades have exposed some of the nation's worst puppy mills. Many close down after the public scrutiny or resulting legal action, but others replace them. The HSUS used the term "puppy mill" as far back as 1965, when it was involved in the arrest of a kennel operator in New Jersey on charges of cruelty to animals.
A 1999 Reader's Digest story, "Scandal of America's Puppy Mills," a 2000 Dateline report, "A Dog's Life," and a 2006 CNN report, "Sick Puppies," all caused swells of outrage and calls for action. The Companion Animal Protection Society has investigated more than 100 puppy mills since 1995 and has an investigation page on its site, caps-web.org
In 1980, an HSUS investigator spent five months researching puppy mills. Robert Baker led the probe that resulted in the closing of numerous puppy mills as well as Docktor Pet Centers, one of the largest pet-store chains in the country.
Today, Baker is an investigator in the anti-cruelty initiatives department of the ASPCA. His decades-long fight against puppy mills hasn't insulated him from the horrors he finds in his investigations, but he says he's not going to give up.
"There have been changes since the 1980s, especially in the way the dogs are housed," he says. "Back then, we found dogs in junkyards, housed in old vehicles or just tied outside. So conditions have improved a little bit. And when I talk to the breeders themselves, they are all scared about what's going on."
Still, Baker continues to find violators. Earlier this spring, he was in Lancaster County, Pa., "a notorious area for puppy mills," he says.
"I got a call about an Italian greyhound that was starving to death. When I got there, I saw she was pregnant and she had no water or food. She was shivering in an unheated barn. It doesn't get much sadder than that. The vet said she wasn't going to live unless we got her out, so I bought her from the guy. She had seven puppies shortly after that, and we resuscitated two of them."
Sometimes, Baker doesn't get there in time. "One of the worst cases I ever saw was in South Dakota," he says. "There was a Rottweiler with an injured back leg, and the breeder did the amputation with no anesthesia, thinking the dog could still be bred.
"Another operator in Missouri was discovered feeding dead dogs to the other dogs to cut down on food costs. Another had 30 American Eskimos and the puppies weren't selling, so he ended up shooting them with a shotgun."
Close to home
How did the industry get to this? How can a society that loves its pets allow it to happen?
"The greed just blinds people," Baker says. "The other day, a breeder was showing me around (his facility). He said, "This is my best dog here. She throws six or seven pups every litter.' That's how they determine their favorites they are good breeders."
Baker continues his fight against puppy mills, and he believes there is hope.
"Enforcement is certainly a key," he says. "The Animal Welfare Act can only establish minimal standards: just guarantee the dogs survive. The laws have to be strengthened to be humane."
Animal groups have long criticized the agency for lax enforcement and for using the same standards for dogs as for other livestock.
In Baker's years of investigation, he has seen progress, saying, "Kansas used to be the worst state in the country. In the 1990s, the attorney general cracked down there and it made a difference."
Legislation recently introduced in Pennsylvania would raise minimum health and safety standards for all kenneled dogs and increase penalties for animal cruelty. In Louisiana, lawmakers have also introduced legislation to combat puppy mills by limiting the size of such operations.
Still, puppy mills remain open for business. In Virginia, where the governor recently signed legislation limiting the number of dogs at breeding facilities, one of the nation's largest puppy mills was just exposed. Owner Lanzie Horton Jr., who had more than 1,000 dogs, was charged with animal cruelty and at his May 16 trial, was sentenced to 14 years probation, fined $4,775 and ordered to keep no more than 250 dogs.
States vary on how they regulate breeding facilities. According to the HSUS, 30 states have no inspection program and 24 don't require licensing.
In Colorado, the Pet Animal Care Facilities Program licenses and inspects pet animal care facilities through the state's Department of Agriculture. Breeders are required to reach minimum standards for sanitation, ventilation, temperature, humidity, space, nutrition, humane care and veterinary care.
The program's regulations are outlined in the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act, signed into law in 1994, according to Christi Lightcap, director of communications for the agriculture department.
Most Colorado breeders are considered small-scale operations, transferring between 25 and 99 dogs a year. A large-scale breeder transfers more than 100 dogs per year, accounting for just 1 percent of the 1,800 licensed facilities.
The state's program is one of the country's most comprehensive, but that doesn't mean Colorado is mill-free. Last November, Colorado Department of Agriculture inspectors found an Olathe kennel operator in violation of the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act. Activists in southwest Colorado referred to owner Nita Smith's kennel as a "puppy mill"; Smith was charged with criminal neglect, and her trial in Montrose County Court is set for later this summer.
And in early May, the owner of a northeast Colorado kennel was arrested after authorities found 41 dead dogs and six malnourished and sick dogs on his property. Troy Tagtmeyer, owner of NECO Kennels, was charged in Kit Carson County with aggravated cruelty to animals.
Tagtmeyer had been in business for several years, advertising his dogs on the Internet, where buyers like Hedda Willard were lured by his affiliation with the Professional Licensed Dog Breeders Group of Colorado, a group she thought gave him credibility. (Tagtmeyer withdrew from that group in 2006.)
Willard says she discovered the NECO Kennels Web site about four years ago. A Realtor who lives in Monument, Willard says, "I really wanted to have a Saint Bernard or a Great Dane. They're hard to find, so I went to the Internet to find Saint Bernard breeders in Colorado. There weren't very many, but I was thrilled to see this NECO Kennels had some puppies available."
Willard called Tagtmeyer, who told her that some of the puppies had already sold. "My husband and I talked about it. [Tagtmeyer] was asking $800. That was a lot for a puppy, but we really wanted one."
She called the kennel operator, set up an appointment and headed for Stratton with her daughter.
"It was our first experience with a breeder and we didn't know what to expect," she says. "When we got there, it seemed OK. We saw a new house. The kennels were in the back yard. The owner had a baby, and he told me the dogs were a side business for his family."
Willard wrote Tagtmeyer a check, picked up the puppy and headed home.
"In the car, I realized the dog really smelled like manure. I thought to myself, "What kind of breeder would sell a dog for $800 without giving it a bath first?' But I was committed."
It wasn't until Cocoa's first vet check that the family realized something was wrong.
"The vet told me that his hips weren't even connected. His hip dysplasia was so bad the hip sockets were defective. He needed major surgery; surgery that would cost as much as a small car."
Willard was angry.
"I thought it was really unfair," she says. "I thought I was supposed to get a dog that was healthy. I went to the breeder. I did all my homework. I asked all the right questions, about shots and papers. I asked about the puppy's parents. [The breeder] talked about all the right papers and affiliations. I had paid so much, and the puppy was supposed to be registered with the American Kennel Club."
She wrote to Tagtmeyer, but says he told her that all she could do was take Cocoa back and have the kennel owner's vet examine him.
"I couldn't take him back," she says. "And we decided not to do the surgery."
She recently wrote about her experience on thesqueakywheel.com, a forum for complaints against business practices.
"I'm still pissed off after all this time," she says. "You want to trust people because of the price and the certification. I thought I was an isolated case. But the more I talk to people, the more I realize I'm not the only one this happened to."
Cocoa is nearly 4 years old now and Willard's family loves him. They feed him healthy foods to keep his weight down, give him natural supplements and watch him to make sure he doesn't run or jump.
"We just try to give him the best life possible," Willard says.
Theresa Strader uses the same words to describe her family's commitment to Lily, the Italian greyhound she rescued from that Missouri puppy mill. At first, the traumatized dog wouldn't let anyone touch or hold her, but eventually she began to trust the Strader family. With a soft bed in a warm spot next to a wood-burning stove, she learned to love being held, especially by Strader's husband, Richard.
Lily became the mascot for Mill Dog Rescue; her picture has a prominent place on the group's Web site where she is listed as founder. But Lily was weakened from years of neglect, and she died on May 13.
Since then, Strader has been inundated with cards, e-mails and flowers, many from complete strangers who saw an online tribute to the tiny dog.
"She never got over what happened to her. It finally caught up to her," Strader says. "But every day, she reminded me what we need to do."