The Puppy Mill

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man." Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948)

This quote still rings true nearly a century later as The Puppy Mill, a documentary by William Wolfenden, independent film producer and owner of Seawolf Productions from New South Wales, Australia, gives us cause to re-examine our treatment of animals and the place we have made for them in our world today. As Wolfenden explores the existence of puppy mills in the United States, the United Kingdom and in Australia, he raises our awareness about animal welfare and the increasingly casual sale of puppies, compelling us to wrestle with our personal ethics over the egregious situation we have created for man’s best friend.

While visiting the United States a few years ago, Wolfenden watched a televised documentary about pet auctions and puppy mills and was shocked to learn about the appalling conditions in which these animals live. Bitches are used as often as possible for the maximum production of puppies, with little regard for their health and vitality, and living conditions often lack basic requirements such as adequate housing, ample food and water, reasonable handling, basic disease prevention, decent sanitation and sufficient ventilation. The following statement about puppy mills was found on the website of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS): “Puppy mills are breeding facilities that produce purebred puppies in large numbers. The puppies are sold either directly to the public via the Internet, newspaper ads, at the mill itself, or are sold to brokers and pet shops across the country. Puppy mills have long concerned The Humane society of the United States.”

Growing up in Australia, Wolfenden and his family acquired their dogs from the local shelter, so he was surprised to discover that the problem of puppy mills is one of global proportion and not unique to any one country. According to Wolfenden, many puppy mills got their start in Wales (UK), when the government encouraged farmers to seek another form of revenue. Similarly, some farmers in New South Wales have also taken up puppy breeding to supplement their income during prolonged periods of drought. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (POCTAA), is a primary piece of legislation that aims to protect animals from cruelty in New South Wales and sets out reasonable expectations with regard to the conditions under which dogs can be bred. Unfortunately for the enforcement agencies such as the RSPCA, these guidelines are often ambiguous and rarely result in prosecution when the cases are brought before the courts. The Animal Welfare Act, passed in the United States in 1966, faces similar challenges, in that animals frequently slip through cracks in the system, due to loopholes in the law, and a shortage of staff to enforce the regulations.

Wolfenden also cites our demand for the ultimate family pet and “designer dogs” (cross-bred for purposes of coming up with catchy names like “Spoodle”), as a contributing factor to the mass production of dogs and the creation and perpetuation of inhumane puppy mill environments.

Interviews with key people from world-wide animal welfare organizations and with people formerly employed in puppy mills, bring to light the deplorable conditions in which these dogs struggle to survive. Wolfenden hopes that watching his documentary will encourage people to think before they make spur-of-the-moment puppy purchases, and that they will look beyond the convenience and marketing ploys of pet stores (cages placed in front of glass windows at child height, in order to catch their attention and to play on their heartstrings) and think about the animals as living things. There are currently three hundred pet stores in New South Wales, and close to a thousand in the country, although Wolfenden did not have figures available on how many of these stores are selling animals. In comparison, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), reports that there are close to 12,000 pet stores in the United States and approximately thirty percent of them sell cats and dogs. The PIJAC estimates that 300,000-400,000 puppies are sold through these stores every year, although HSUS estimates this number to be closer to 500,000.
In an effort to improve the lives of companion animals, Clover Moore, Independent Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor of Sydney, has introduced the Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill in state parliament, which would outlaw the selling of cats and dogs in pet shops and would restrict advertising of animals. This bill would require that dogs, cats and other mammals be purchased solely by registered breeders, animal shelters and veterinarians. Breeders of pure bred dogs would be registered by Dogs New South Wales and listed on their website, although no such registry currently exists for mixed breed dogs. Breeders on this registry are required to meet kennel and feeding requirements, are restricted in terms of the frequency with which they can breed a bitch, and they are not allowed to sell animals to pet stores. As to the suggestion that this legislation, if passed, will increase the number of “backyard breeders” and drive the sale of pet animals underground, Wolfenden is quick to respond, “It’s already underground!”

Not surprisingly, puppy mill and pet store owners and the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA), who represents these groups and others, are lobbying against these efforts. A statement on the PIAA website is suggestive of this conflict: “Due to over-regulation it is becoming more important that the operators within the Australian pet industry take greater control of their own destiny.” The PIAA declined to be interviewed for this documentary.

Encouraged by the number of pet stores in the US that no longer sell pet animals, Wolfenden is eager to share what he has learned with his friends and fellow Australians. Stores like Petco and PetSmart do not sell pets and often encourage people to adopt their pets from local rescue groups and shelters. They facilitate this process by holding regular “adoptathons” to showcase these pets to prospective owners.

Wolfenden’s intention for this documentary is to educate people about the real issues and what they can do to help. “People are losing touch with the animal world,” he states. “They purchase dogs like handbags and cleaning supplies and think they are “rescuing” dogs when they purchase them from a pet store.” He challenges pet owners and animal lovers to inform and educate themselves on these issues and implores them to do research, gather statistics, check out the internet forums, and visit with local authorities, shelters and clubs to find out what is happening locally. Ultimately, he hopes The Puppy Mill will inspire us to improve the life of man’s best friend through education, advocacy and legislation.

Information about The Puppy Mill documentary, can be found on Wolfenden’s website www.thepuppymill.com.au or http://thepuppymill.com.au/