Animal Rights

How Westminster Dog Show and American Kennel Club Allow Cruel Puppy Mills to Thrive

The AKC calls itself the "Dog's Champion." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Puppy mills are inhumane, commercial dog-breeding facilities where dogs are typically kept in small wire cages for their entire lives.
Photo Credit: SOMMAI/Shutterstock

In December 2017, a police K9 officer entered an eight-bedroom mansion in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, home to dog breeding facility De La Sang Monde (“of world blood”) and found 84 Great Danes wandering a horrific scene: feces and maggots made the floor as slippery as an "ice-skating rink," according to an ex-worker. The juxtaposition of the lavish home with the malnourished dogs—one with puncture wounds stapled shut by breeder Christina Fay, who is appealing 10 counts of cruelty—is what makes this case so shocking.

Animal advocates who have been tracking puppy mills for years are used to witnessing the suffering that happens when the sins of commercial breeders are protected by industry lobbyists.

This month, purebred dogs, many co-owned by the wealthy like investments, will be put on display at the 142nd Annual Westminster Dog Show, held in New York City. A look underneath the pomp and Pomeranians reveals the ugly politics of the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), which lobby against policies that would help prevent abuses of breeders like Fay and worse.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates there are 10,000 puppy mills, defined as large-scale breeding operations placing profit over welfare. Its Horrible Hundred lists mills that have for years kept dogs in muddy pens; left them with rotting teeth and matted fur; stacked dogs in cages; starved nursing mother dogs; and made euthanasia "plans" for shooting dogs with a gun. Operations frequently churn out AKC-registered dogs: Mike Chilinski had 161 malamutes found in 2011 living off their own feces and severely malnourished. AKC “Breeders of Merit” have been found guilty of cruelty even after AKC inspector visits.

In September 2016, the HSUS Animal Rescue Team carried out a raid on a puppy mill with the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina. (image: Meredith Lee/The HSUS)

With only 120 inspectors countrywide for all manner of animals, the United States Department of Agriculture, mandated to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, rarely cracks down on violators. That's where state laws and local ordinances come in, and animal advocates have won significant victories here, with California recently joining the more than 200 localities banning pet stores from selling dogs from breeders.

Lindsay Hamrick, New Hampshire state director for the HSUS, thinks legislation requiring licensing can prevent abuses to animals like Fay’s Great Danes, whose care has cost the nonprofit $800,000 as of December 2017. The rescued dogs have "everything from significant opthamology issues to orthopedic issues to cardiovascular issues," she said. And in New Hampshire, of the approximately 260 pet vendors—a definition encompassing stores, rescues, and breeders— “only four of them are commercial kennels, and we know there are far more than four entities producing puppies on a scale we think needs regulating,” says Hamrick.

A Great Dane suffering from a severe case of cherry eye (top) and another one with injured, bloody skin (above) wait to be loaded onto a transport vehicle during an HSUS rescue of approximately 70 Great Danes from a suspected puppy mill on June, 2017, in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. The Wolfeboro Police Dept. called in HSUS to assist with rescue and long-term care of the dogs. (image: Meredith Lee/The HSUS)

New Hampshire's proposed bill, SB 569, would require a license for five or more breeding female dogs and require anyone charged of cruelty to post a bond for their animals' care. The AKC has issued a legislative alert against it and an affiliated group, the Dog Owners of the Granite State (DOGS), has roadblocked attempts to tighten regulation for at least a decade, according to Hamrick. The AKC typically argues that requiring government inspection for a certain number of breeding females threatens responsible hobby breeders. So Hamrick said she asked DOGS if any members have more than five breeding females, and "they have not provided that statistic."

Similarly, in response to pet store bans, the AKC states, "When regulated sources of healthy, purpose-bred puppies are banned, it creates a vacuum that is filled with dogs from unregulated sources that may lack even basic health and temperament checks." Their strategy casts aspersions on rescued animals while misleadingly using "purpose bred," which refers to a dog bred to perform a job—not a dog bred for conformation (i.e., the externally visible features of a dog's physical structure and appearance, as defined by the dog's breed standard).

In May 2016, Alvin Nolt of Thorpe, Wisconsin, was found with puppies on unsafe wire flooring, a repeat violation at his facility. Wire flooring is especially dangerous for puppies because their legs can become entrapped in the gaps, leaving them unable to reach food, water or shelter. (image: Wisconsin Department of Agriculture)

The AKC's fear-mongering about rescued animals ignores the fact that while shelters and rescues—just like breeders—aren't subject to any unified monitoring, many shelters—unlike breeders—must release data to the public and follow laws on everything from drug permitting to quarantine. Furthermore, as more states, like New York, recognize the need to regulate nonprofit rescues, larger nonprofits like the ASPCA and HSUS are welcoming the changes.

New Hampshire law treats shelters, breeders, stores and brokers the same: "What I find unfortunate is that while the shelters have never opposed ways for them to be regulated by the department of agriculture, the DOGS routinely oppose the regulation of commercial breeders," says Hamrick.

After appearing in two previous 'Horrible Hundred' reports, Barbara Crick was found with repeat violations, including unsanitary conditions, in 2016. Excessive feces and dirty conditions (like this golden retriever had to suffer through), among other problems, led the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to issue an official warning. (image: HSUS)

Overall the trend is toward regulation and transparency. David Favre, editor-in-chief of the Animal Legal and Historical Center website and professor at Michigan State University, said that while laws vary widely, “the direction of the law is heading towards more and tighter regulations on commercial breeding operations.” According to a study published by the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University, in a nationwide survey of 1,523 responses, "there was strong consensus that breeders should be regulated," with a clear majority preferring "mandatory compliance with best practices, breeder education, and increased transparency of dog-breeding practices."

There are currently two bipartisan bills in Congress aimed at introducing some of these standards. Change happens slowly, as when Virginia passed a law in 2009 defining a commercial breeder as someone with 30 or more female breeding dogs. Then, in 2014, the HSUS found more than six pet stores in the state still sourcing animals from out-of-state puppy mills with violations. Stop Puppy Mills Ohio has just begun a reform effort; Ohio is second only to Missouri for sheer number of commercial breeders.

Appearing twice in the "Horrible Hundred" report, Steve Kruse was found with at least 41 dogs in need of veterinary care since 2015, including this bulldog suffering from an abnormal tissue growth in his eye. (image: USDA).

According to John Goodwin, senior director of HSUS’s Stop Puppy Mills campaign, "The AKC has been a significant problem in efforts to stop puppy mill cruelty. They have pushed back against just about every bill that I've seen that would bring about even modest reform in commercial dog breeding kennels." With a Political Action Committee newsletter banner that reads “Your Dog. Your Rights. Protect Them Both,” the AKC has lobbied against everything from attempts to prohibit the stacking of cages and replace wire-flooring to spay/neuter mandates to bills outlawing tethering.

They join PIJAC and the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) in using inflamed rhetoric to lump animal welfare groups together as "extremists." Would responsible breeders really be affected by any of the new laws proposed, such as New Hampshire’s or Ohio’s? It seems unlikely. As more laws have passed, the AKC profited in 2016, from an 8 percent increase in registrations; revenues, at $72.8 million, grew by 7 percent. 

The AKC’s negative influence on animal welfare extends to breeds warped by inbreeding. After the 2008 BBC One documentary Pedigree Exposed showed viewers the suffering of Boxers with epilepsy and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels with syringomyelia, an extremely painful condition thought to be inherited, the BBC dropped Crufts (their Westminster), and the United Kingdom’s Kennel Club has altered some breeding standards. Since the American Kennel Club has only become more entrenched in its industry-friendly anti-regulation stance, it’s up to American consumers to work for reform.

How can potential dog guardians help reduce the suffering created by breeders? The best option is by adopting dogs from a shelter or rescue, especially dogs who may otherwise be euthanized. "Shelters have purebreds in addition to loveable mutts, and rescue groups exist for just about any breed you can think of," HSUS points out.

If you really want to buy a puppy from a breeder, please do so from a responsible breeder who will let you meet the puppy's parents in person. Don't just rely on paperwork that can't be verified.

"Purebred 'papers' don’t tell you anything about where a puppy was raised or how her parents were treated," notes HSUS. "Most pet store puppies come from puppy mills, and puppy millers pose as small, local breeders online. Even if they advertise dogs with AKC papers, they may still be puppy mills—inhumane, commercial dog-breeding facilities where dogs are typically kept in small wire cages for their entire lives, are given very little food and water and often do not receive veterinary care. They are usually bred continuously and are discarded or killed when they can no longer breed anymore."

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Meisha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and cultural critic living in New York's capital region.