- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

OMAHA, Neb. — Bob Baker has seen the worst of the worst in his 27 years as an animal-cruelty investigator.

There was the Missouri breeder who would skimp on food by skinning dead dogs and feeding them to other dogs in his kennel. There was the South Dakota breeder who used a handsaw to amputate the leg of a pregnant Rottweiler, injured in an attack by another dog, in the hopes that the Rottweiler would survive long enough to give birth to another litter.

Mr. Baker says such cases are exceptional but adds that mistreatment of dogs in large-scale breeding operations remains common and troubling.

“Most breeders learn how to keep their standards just above violating cruelty statutes, but the conditions are still unacceptable,” said Mr. Baker, a St. Louis-based national investigator for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

State legislators across the nation are attempting to crack down on rogue breeding operations and pet sellers.

The week after the May 16 rescue of 173 dogs from the property of a Dawson County man, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law that increased the number of state kennel inspectors from one to four and requires new operations to be inspected before opening.

California lawmakers are studying a bill that would require cats and dogs older than 4 months to be spayed or neutered, unless the person caring for them obtains a breeding license. Laws that would tighten the regulation of retail pet shops are pending in Oregon, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and bills establishing standards for breeding operations were introduced in Minnesota and Ohio.

Mass breeding has been a hot-button issue for decades with animal-welfare activists, who use the term “puppy mills” to describe the most unsavory of operations, which are usually situated in rural areas.

Of the 7 million to 9 million dogs brought into U.S. families each year, said Stephanie Shain, outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated 2 million to 4 million are products of puppy mills.

The demand for popular breeds, and the high prices people are willing to pay, keep breeding operations churning, she said. A quick Internet search showed many puppies with four-figure sale prices, and some breeds, including bulldogs and Belgian Malinois, with top prices exceeding $3,000.

Many dog breeders chafe at the term “puppy mill,” saying it is inflammatory and lumps conscientious commercial dog breeders together with the unscrupulous. Clem Disterhaupt, president of the Nebraska Dog Breeders Association, said most commercial breeders have the animals’ best interest at heart.

“We don’t associate ourselves with puppy mills, but sometimes people are under the impression that if you have a lot of dogs, you must be a puppy mill,” Mr. Disterhaupt said, adding that reputable breeders are licensed with state or federal agencies and provide adequate space, cleanliness, heat and air conditioning, and ventilation.

“That’s not a puppy mill,” he said. “People need to distinguish the difference.”

Daisy Okas, assistant vice president of communications for the American Kennel Club, said breeders, kennel operators and pet stores register all types of breeds with her organization. The club has 15 inspectors who annually visit about 5,000 places where significant numbers of dogs are registered.

Puppy mills, Miss Shain said, damage dogs emotionally and physically because the animals are confined in tight, unsanitary quarters with little or no socialization with humans or veterinary care. Females are bred repeatedly, some when they’re as young as 6 months.

The overbreeding, combined with the dismal environment, results in sickly puppies who have genetic defects and temperament problems, she said. The dogs are sold in pet stores or on the Internet to unsuspecting buyers.

Investigators such as Mr. Baker inspect breeding operations after receiving complaints. Breeders usually cooperate, he said.

“Most abuse we see is neglect,” Mr. Baker said. “They know some of the stuff they’re doing is wrong, and they’re embarrassed. … But they’re blinded by the greed and money they’re making off of this.”

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