Animal Shelters Are Buying Dogs from Puppy Mills and Passing Them Off As Rescues

News & Politics

Who would pay over $10,000 for a dog?

You might think only wealthy dog owners would shell out that kind of cash for a pet pooch. But two King Charles spaniels were recently purchased for $24,200 by an unlikely customer: a pet rescue organization out of Alabama.

The spaniels in question were “rescued” from an Iowa dog breeder with no reported complaints against him. The breeder, William Yoder, sold them immediately after obtaining them at a Missouri auction. In fact, 86 rescue organizations bought dozens of purebred and designer dogs at that same Missouri auction, as reported by the Washington Post. Often the rescues bid against each other, driving up prices.

This story comes at an unfortunate time, because many animal lovers had high hopes for recent legislation in California and some cities that requires pet stores to sell only dogs from shelters and rescues. “This will put puppy mills out of business and stop the proliferation of unwanted pets!” cheered animal rights advocates. But if rescue organizations are going to buy from breeders themselves, puppy mills can still remain in operation.

“This is really frustrating,” says Teresa Chagrin, PETA’s animal care and control issues manager. States and municipalities “are requiring pet stores to only have dogs and cats that come from rescues. The whole point of that is to deter breeding. Now these so-called rescues are providing a new revenue source for these poor animals who are bred in puppy mills. There’s no excuse to support the puppy mill industry.”

Patti Strand, president of National Animal Interest Alliance, doesn’t support legislation that forces pet stores to only sell rescues. “Pet store legislation has only resulted in shifting who can sell dogs, not in improving animal well-being,” she says.

“Whether you call adoption a sale or not, it is a sale. They [rescue groups] are sourcing them from the same place as the people they are putting out of business,” Strand adds.

Should we stop using the phrase “puppy mill”?

Ask most animal rescue organizations what a puppy mill is and they are likely to implicate any breeder of cats or dogs.

Strand doesn’t use the phrase “puppy mill” because, she argues, “it so readily becomes a marketing term capable of painting all breeders as bad operators while converting unregulated rescues as saviors regardless of how they operate or where they acquire their dogs.”

Rescues justify buying dogs directly from breeders by claiming that they are saving the animal from being used to breed other dogs or saving it from a sojourn in a puppy mill or pet store.

While there are disreputable breeders who don’t give their dogs a good diet, space to run or proper veterinary care, many breeders take excellent care of their dogs and invite customers on site to meet the mother and father of the latest litter.

Responsible breeders keep up with veterinary care for their dogs. Many even interview would-be owners to make sure they are responsible enough to own a dog. They ask many of the same questions that rescue organizations ask: Do you have a fenced yard? Have you ever lost a dog? Do you have character references?

Breeders who are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have promised to raise their dogs according to federally agreed-upon standards for care.

And there’s the rub. Rescue operations are not, by law, required to get any such license. That means that, just as there are good and bad breeders, there are good and bad rescue operations. Removing a dog from a breeder does not guarantee the dog a good life.

Dare we use the term “dog shortage”?

The problem of rescues buying from breeders is complicated by what appears to be a dog shortage in some areas of the United States. New England, the Pacific Northwest and Colorado are all importing dogs from other states, and even from other countries, says Strand. That points to a shortage of available, healthy dogs in those states, she adds.

It’s not an item that is making the news, but we can extrapolate a regions-specific dog shortage from a number of sources: the NAIA’s data on shelter intakes from other parts of the world, the anecdotal difficulty of getting a rescue dog and the number of applications for a single rescue puppy. A local rescue in Louisville, Kentucky, for instance, recently received 25 applications for one blue heeler mix puppy.

So, why is there a dog shortage, particularly in some of the most affluent states and communities? It’s because responsible dog guardians with ample financial resources get their animals fixed. They also keep companion animals on leashes, in fenced yards, in dog parks or in the house almost all the time. When the sun sets, most well-heeled dog guardians know where their pooches are. And they’re not running loose, making new puppies.

The human population, however, continues to expand unchecked. And all those new humans also want dogs. Hence, there is a dog shortage in parts of the country where the existing dogs are cherished and well protected against the dangers of having sex and procreating.

Meanwhile, statistics show that the number of dogs euthanized in shelters nationwide has declined steeply, from millions in previous years to less than a million last year. Strand attributes this to the excellent work done by NAIA and other animal welfare organizations that have tirelessly educated people about the importance of spaying and neutering family pets.

This pet shortage, in areas where people can afford thousands of dollars for a dog, creates a terrible temptation for rescues to obtain animals from breeders in order to stay in business. By buying a few dogs from the “puppy mills” they despise, they can sell cute pups and continue raking in sizable contributions from animal lovers.

But what about the pit bulls?

So who are those 660,000 dogs a year who still get euthanized, according to the ASPCA? Some of them, of course, have been bitten someone, have untreatable medical conditions or can’t control their bladders.

The rest of them are pit bulls. Once a symbol of America’s quiet strength, the humble pit is still the least wanted dog. According to, “pit bulls now occupy nearly half of the total shelter and rescue space available to dogs and account for two-thirds of the dogs who are euthanized in shelters.”

“Pit bulls are in particular crisis in this country, and we need better laws,” says Chagrin.

The responsible pet purchase

Strand and Chagrin may not always be on the same page of the animal welfare discussion, but they do agree that families shopping for a new pet should go to the local municipal shelter, a.k.a. “the pound.” They both agree that your local pound is the one rescue organization that is almost certainly not obtaining dogs from breeders.

Chagrin warns, in particular, against buying “rescue” dogs and cats online. You can’t verify where the animal is from. And you might end up giving your dollars to a bad rescue, where dogs and cats are kept in the same or worse conditions as a puppy mill.

It might seem counterintuitive, but Chagrin says you should be wary about supporting a “no-kill” shelter. Such facilities usually maintain their elite status by turning away desperate animals, animals belonging to renters about to be evicted or poor people who allowed their animals to reproduce because they couldn’t afford the surgery to spay or neuter.

The animals most in need don’t make it into the boutique shelters, and that encourages people to shoot, hang or drown their dogs, Chagrin notes.

Blurring origins, bad economics

The recent trend of transporting dogs from high-kill regions to regions with dog shortages has saved many dogs who would otherwise have been euthanized. Pilot and dog advocate Peter Rork has personally flown hundreds of unwanted shelter animals slated to be killed to areas that have the resources to adopt them out. However, the downside to transporting animals across state lines is that buyers may not really know where their new pets are coming from.

For instance, the Chicago Tribune recently reported that an Iowa breeder sold two Siberian husky puppies directly to a Chicago pet store, in violation of city law that says only rescued dogs and puppies may be sold on a retail basis. To get around the law, breeders formed two “rescue” groups for the sole purpose of piping dogs from breeders to stores.

We want to love the grassroots rescue folks. But some rescue personnel get so wrapped up in an individual animal that they lose sight of the greater mission—to reduce suffering and untimely death across the animal kingdom. Put another way, it’s a lot more dramatic to run a crowdfunding campaign to save two spaniels from sinister breeders than to slave away at your state capitol, trying to get new laws passed that would save thousands of animals.

Good economics dictate that rescues not spend thousands of dollars on one or two rescue dogs.

The money spent on those two spaniels could have been used to do the boring work of lobbying state and federal lawmakers to enact better animal welfare laws. Or it could have been used simply to prevent more unwanted pets from happening.

When Chagrin read about the $24,200 that was spent to rescue two spaniels, “My first thought was, they could have spayed and neutered how many animals and reduced how much homelessness?”

In general, Chagrin thinks stopping cruelty to companion animals should focus on spaying and neutering. Other attempts, like transporting animals and rescuing animals from breeders are, she says, “like trying to empty a running bath with a teeny teaspoon instead of turning off the water at the faucet. Spaying and neutering isn’t as sexy and exciting as saving a new puppy. If everybody would work together to stop puppies from being born in the first place, we could stop the problem in weeks.”

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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