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Mystical Melodies. Brigid Collins. Bad Ends: 5 Horror Stories. Tales of Possibilities. Every year, tens of thousands of dogs are born into the filthy conditions in unregulated puppy mills nationwide. The house on Hilton Lake Road was unremarkable, a brick one-story with an under-watered lawn and a scrimshaw of patchy shrubs.
It was flanked by bigger and smarter homes on a two-lane strip in Cabarrus County, 25 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, but nothing about it suggested to passersby that inconceivable cruelty lived at this address. A stench of complex poisons pushed out: cat piss and dog shit and mold and bleach commingled into a cloud of raw ammonia that singed the hair in our nostrils. Twenty of us — blue-shirted staffers from the Humane Society of the United States HSUS ; several members of their forensic camera crew; the sheriff of Cabarrus County and his deputies; and a contingent of veterinarians from a local animal hospital — tiptoed around the filth underfoot into a house caked in pet fur and waste.
Damp laundry draped across every flat surface; the floor was a maze of cat crates and garbage. Then we found the door that led to the basement. Down there, dozens of puppies in dust-cloaked cages stood on their hind legs and bawled. There were Yorkies and poodles and Maltese mixes, but their fur was so matted and excrement-mottled it was hard to tell which from which. Bred for profit, most of them would have been sold in pet stores or on websites by their third or fourth month of life.
HSUS staffers had gathered evidence that the breeder, Patricia Yates, was selling puppies on multiple websites without a license, and had a stack of buyer complaints lodged against her. David Taylor, an animal-control cop who helped launch the investigation. Obtaining an arrest warrant was the least of it, though. Back up the stairs, we followed more barking to a porch bricked in by the owner. It was pitch-black inside, and the smell was a hammer. Here were the parent dogs in desperate shape: blinded by cataracts and corneal ulcers; their jaws half-gone or missing entirely after their teeth had rotted away.
Out the back door and up a dirt trail, the worst was yet to come. They wept and bayed and spun in crazed circles as we toured the maze of cages. Some went limp as the rescuers knelt to scoop them. Each was photographed, then carried downhill to the giant rig at the curb. There, teams of vets from the Cabarrus Animal Hospital worked briskly to assess each rescue. One hundred and five dogs came out of that house, many of them pregnant or in heat.
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I turned to John Goodwin, the director of the puppy-mills campaign for HSUS, and asked him how many puppies sold in this country — at Petland and Citipups and a thousand other pet stores — come from puppy mills as dire as this one. That vastly ups the chances that the dogs are from mills, not from reputable breeders. Another click shows you ghastly shots of the mills those stores buy dogs from.
Pet stores usually buy their dogs from federally licensed breeders, meaning kennels with five or more breeding females that breed a lot of pups. Both Petland and Citipups deny they sell mill dogs, but reams of evidence and buyer complaints collected by HSUS argue otherwise.
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Yates was arrested and charged with animal cruelty. Twelve counts were filed against her; a hearing is scheduled for February. Varsa, a veteran of 50 animal-welfare raids, was quarterbacking the care of those hundred-plus dogs at a temporary shelter in a warehouse. When told what Yates had said, Varsa pointed to two poodles, both of them desperately underfed. Delicately, she lifted the male from the crate and put him, trembling, in my arms.
He was blind in both eyes and had thumb-size infections where his molars used to be. Since dogs first crossed the Siberian land bridge and set foot in human encampments in North America, they have been much more than pets and companions to us — they made life tenable in this primal place. They chased off wolves and bears while we slept, caught and retrieved the game we ate, and dined on the garbage we left behind. Over the course of 10 millennia, a bond was forged between species that hunkered together for survival.
Once inside the door, though, they were in for good, to be loved and spoiled like toddlers. The number of pet dogs in America boomed between and today, tripling to almost 80 million. Where once you adopted your pup from the neighbors, now there is a Furry Paws down the block with dozens of designer puppies in the window. Of course, in America, we industrialize anything that turns a profit. Beginning in the s, struggling pig and poultry farmers began breeding puppies for extra income.
The USDA only licenses a fraction of all kennels, about 2, of various sizes, which can range from five adult breed dogs to more than a thousand. Three years ago, the USDA passed an amendment requiring online sellers to get federally licensed, which would submit them to annual inspections and standard-of-care rules. At the time, the department expected thousands of breeders to step forward and comply with the law; to date, less than have.
All claim to be local, loving and humane. Far too often, they are none of the above. With dog sales, as with any commodity of late, the Internet has been the great disrupter. The HSUS estimates that roughly half of the 2 million pups bred in mills are sold in stores these days; the rest are trafficked online. Howard sends investigators out to infiltrate mills, exposes the stores that do business with those breeders, and coordinates with advocates across the country to ban the retail sale of puppies in big cities.