In Defense of Puppy Mill Rescuers (With Caveat)

A Policy Discussion About The Washington Post’s Bombshell Report

Jack, purchased at auction by National Mill Dog Rescue.

Jack, post-auction rescue.

A few days ago, The Washington Post ran a very provocative exposé entitled, “Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn.” The article, which has since sparked a great deal of debate within the rescue community, explored how some rescue groups which engage in “puppy mill rescue” are raising large amounts of money through online fundraising efforts in order to purchase dogs from commercial breeders at auction.

The categories of dogs purchased at these auctions are many and in addition to healthy young and adult animals, also include “spent” breeding animals, sick and undersocialized puppies, puppies who do not meet “breed standards,” and leftover dogs when a mill is ceasing operations. While the rescuers who bid on these animals — animals who can sometimes sell for many thousands of dollars — claim that their efforts spare animals from death or a life of misery and breeding, The Post article suggests that they may also be unwittingly creating a lucrative market that financially bolsters the very industry whose victims they seek to save, with rescuers at some auctions now comprising almost half of all bidders purchasing animals.

Also explored in the article is the effect the import of such animals into communities which have banned the sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores has on undermining the effectiveness of such laws, and, of course, whether or not groups spending thousands of dollars to purchase such dogs at auction are using those donations as promised in fundraising appeals.

For me and other No Kill advocates with whom I have spoken about it, the article created more questions than it answered, and so I have spent the last several days researching the issue in greater detail in order to come to terms with how those of us who love dogs, support rescue, and scorn commercial breeding should respond.

And while a lot of people have attacked the rescuers, calling them “hypocrites” and saying they are “enabling abuse,” I don’t agree.

My conclusion: the vast majority of rescuers are doing the right thing. Even the critics of the practice I spoke to admit that every dog taken out of the auctions is spared a life of exploitation. I’m troubled by some of the implications such as enriching breeders, but the evidence — independent of the statements of breeders — is that in spite of sales to rescuers, there are still  fewer auctions, fewer USDA-licensed breeders, fewer dogs at auction, and the kinds of dogs aren’t changing, which cut against the claim that they are encouraging more breeding.

There are some exceptions — a small subset of the small subset of rescuers — which I take to task below. But this article does not make the case that the rescue community is “flush with donations,” corrupt, or in need of stringent regulation as “pet stores.”  Of course, we must close the auctions by shutting down the breeding industry, but just like looking back at abolitionists buying slaves at slave auctions in order to free those individuals from bondage through manumission, it would be hard to find fault with the rescuers’ motivation or the overwhelmingly positive results for the individuals such efforts saved.

The Sides

The report has understandably sparked an uproar on social media. It has also caused people to break up into different factions. At one end are those — primarily commercial breeders, but also groups like Best Friends and HSUS — who say that rescue groups that buy dogs at auctions are hypocrites “who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated, online pet stores.” They argue that rescues are also acting hypocritically by telling people they should “adopt, not shop” but then turning around and doing the opposite: themselves buying dogs from breeders and increasing demand for commercially-bred animals. On the opposite end are those who say that The Post piece is anti-rescue and we must stand together and focus only our common enemy: the puppy millers.

I believe both sides err by taking an all-or-nothing approach in their response, as if there are only one of two possible perspectives on what turns out to be a quite complicated issue: that either what these rescuers are doing is reprehensible or that we cannot criticize rescuers because it somehow diminishes our ability to criticize others. The problem with these overly simplistic reactions is twofold. First, by placing ourselves into ideological straight jackets, we not only blind ourselves to the distinctions necessary to effectively strategize as to what, if anything, the rescue movement should be doing about the concerns The Post article highlights. Second, by unleashing a fury of condemnation on those who have been and may yet be the only thing standing between some individual dogs and a life of misery, we potentially deter further such rescues which might spare more dogs from that same, terrible fate, while punishing those who actually deserve our gratitude.

We live in an age of polarization, an age in which patience for comprehensive policy discussions seems thinner than ever and the temptation to reduce complicated and weighty issues to mere soundbites or platitudes that sort us into tidy, entrenched camps is enormous. But responding to The Post article in this way is a mistake. It is not a call to arms, but a think-piece that asks our movement to focus our attention on an area that has thus far escaped our greater awareness and scrutiny. Taking a closer look at how auction purchases of commercially-bred animals impact the lives of the animals they save, balanced with what, if any, impact these sales have on the economic viability of commercial breeding, should be the starting point of our collective response; a response that must be undertaken in goodwill and in good faith and informed by an acute awareness of the responsibility we bear to be both thorough and open-minded when advocating, as animal activists do, on behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves.

That is the challenge posed to our movement by The Post article, and therefore precisely what I hope to do with the remainder of this piece. How successful I am at that endeavor, I’ll leave to those who actually take the time to read and discuss it.

What did The Post piece show?

1. Before answering the question, it is important to note what it did not show. It did not show that this is a pervasive problem as some industry apologists have claimed. Overall, only 86 rescue groups were involved, buying 5,761 dogs since 2009. There is nothing in The Post piece that would therefore stain rescue groups in general, demonstrate that rescue groups need to be regulated more broadly, or that, like a follow-up Huffington Post piece suggested, that people have to increase their diligence about the reputability of most rescue groups.

Second, it did not show that all the rescue groups involved are behaving inappropriately and, to the contrary, some — in fact many — appeared to be acting out in service to the dogs’ best interest, as I hope to show below.

Third, it did not show that rescue groups in general — including breed rescue groups — are “flush with donations.” For the vast majority of rescuers, rescue is financially debilitating, not lucrative. The alarmist headline in the online version of the article did a disservice to the content.

That said, while the number is not large overall relative to the shelter-rescue market, it is significant in terms of the auction market of which there are only two. At the largest of these, the one which handles about 85% of the dogs auctioned in the country, some 40% of the buyers are rescuers. If breeders are breeding for the rescue market as the breeders quoted in the article indicate, we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

2. The motivation and practices of these rescuers is broad and it is therefore unfair to paint them with a broad brush:

  • Some rescuers are only buying dogs in what are termed “dispersal sales,” thinking that these dogs are at risk because the breeder is ceasing operations and interested in selling the animals to others who will continue breeding them. This is sometimes true. Buying these dogs saves them from a life of continued misery and exploitation but does not imperil other dogs by increasing breeding to meet auction demand.
  • Some are only buying sick and globally undersocialized dogs and puppies, saving them from death. Others are buying “spent” breeding dogs to save them from a life of continued exploitation before death. Indeed, some of them are then spending a lot more money after the auction to get these dogs healthy/socialized before finding them loving homes.
  • Some bought dogs in the past, but no longer do because the prices have increased dramatically. They paid a nominal amount that didn’t enrich the industry or cause the dog to be replaced by other dogs through potentially increased breeding. The goal was to remove dogs from the commercial breeding supply chain and keep them from spending the rest of their lives in misery.

We can discuss the merits of whether buying these dogs is a viable long-term solution and whether enriching commercial breeders is sound strategy, but that is a different issue than the fact that these dogs are being saved which in my view is laudable and does not warrant the condemnation some who have posted about the article have heaped upon rescuers. They are, in fact, getting dogs out of places that can often only be described as “hellholes” and keeping them away from other breeders who would otherwise further exploit and harm the dogs.

Potentially cutting in the other direction:

  • Some rescue groups may be outbidding one another and paying large sums for puppies, enriching breeders in the process when they do so. They are, if the article is accurate, causing puppies to be bred specifically for the “rescue auction market,” resulting in other dogs taking their place.
  • Finally, some rescue groups are bypassing shelter dogs scheduled to die in order to buy puppies from breeders to “meet market demand” or in subservience to a breed monomania. Indeed, some of the rescue groups paying the largest sums for puppies at the auction markets are in communities where the pound is killing large numbers of healthy, friendly dogs.  

Without question, the days when a rescuer could spend $10 and get dozens of dogs out of the puppy mill system are gone. The days of the $1 dogs and even penny dogs are gone. Puppies, nursing moms, and young dogs are now being sold at auction for hundreds to thousands of dollars and, in some cases, for tens of thousands. It is hard to see how this doesn’t enrich breeders: a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. And given the dollar values involved, it is hard not to conclude that, as one rescuer has who no longer is able to pull dogs from auctions because of the cost (and who focused almost exclusively on old dogs, “spent” dogs, dogs with health problems, and dog with eye ulcers and other physical problems) they have “created an industry within the industry.”

To the extent this is true, we have a problem that is harming dogs and needs correcting. Those who say that we can’t criticize rescue groups because we have to focus on our common enemy are repeating the very same platitudes that shelters and their national enablers, like the ASPCA and HSUS, historically used to deter shelter reform advocates. Not only is there no logic to the claim that criticizing the actions of one group diminishes our ability to criticize another (our advocacy is not zero sum), but had we given in to that admonition, there would be no community cat sterilization, no foster care, no shelter-rescue partnerships, no reform, and no No Kill movement because each of these programs were undertaken in defiance of the status quo and the powerful forces which represented it (it is also hopelessly contradictory; to the extent that some rescue groups may be enriching puppy millers, the argument that we can’t criticize those rescue groups undermines the central premise that we must stand together against puppy millers). Our job, therefore, is to focus on the dogs and not the people who are attached to the dogs — it is, after, all what is right, not who is right that matters. To do that, we must scrutinize the available evidence, and then draw appropriate lessons as to what the evidence shows and what, if anything, we should do about the issues that evidence uncovers.

Doing that here, the evidence is not clear. Are rescue groups which purchase animals at auction bolstering the puppy mill industry? The facts would seem to suggest they are not, or, at least, not enough to prevent the industry’s overall decline (though, some could potentially argue that in some small way, that decline might actually occur faster were it not for these purchases). The number of U.S. licensed breeders is going down not up, the number of auctions is going down not up, the number of available dogs at the auction is going down not up, and the kinds of dogs available at the auction hasn’t changed. There does not seem to be evidence — independent of the statements of breeders — that there is a breeding market specifically for the auctions. (If it is true, I obviously condemn it.)

While I am also sympathetic to the argument that rescue groups which prioritize puppy mill rescues over the dogs dying in local shelters while also paying thousands of dollars for auction dogs is troubling, those dogs in shelters don’t have to die and they are not dying because of rescuers. They are dying because shelter directors are killing them. The answer to that problem is not to blame rescuers; the answer is two-fold: regime change in the leadership of shelters that continue to kill in the face of the proven alternative of the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services which make it possible (i.e., the No Kill Equation) they refuse to implement; and, shelter reform legislation that removes the discretion shelter managers have to needlessly kill animals. It should not be — it need not be — an either-or proposition.

In short, the rescue groups profiled in the The Post report run the gamut and include those who are kind-hearted and well-intentioned, saving dogs from a life of deprivation at great personal expense both financially and, I do not doubt, emotionally as well. When many of us struggle to even look at photographs of puppy mill dogs because those photos can be so heart-wrenching, imagine the dedication it takes to visit the places where one must not only witness those animals in person, but know that they may be the only thing standing between those animals and their continued suffering and exploitation. That is an immense amount of pressure for a dog lover, and to me, represents the very definition of courage.

All that said, I want to discuss a smaller subset of what is to begin with, a small subset of auction buying rescuers: those who are spending large amounts of money to buy puppies, who are doing so and also shipping those puppies to places where commercial sales of these dogs are banned while claiming they must do so to “meet market demand.” It also includes groups that may have set up a direct distribution network with commercial breeders, bypassing the auction and thus losing the claim that they are rescuing dogs from other breeders who will further exploit them.

Impact on Breeding Bans and Adoptions

As The Post piece indicates, “Los Angeles enacted a ban [on pet store sales of commercially-bred dogs] in 2012, and California followed in October by enacting the first statewide version in the United States. Activists say it is a model for the rest of the nation to follow. Similar statewide bans have since been introduced in nine states.

“But despite the efforts, commercially-bred dogs have continued going to consumers in places with the municipal bans, including Los Angeles, by way of nonprofit groups and the auctions. The Post identified four California-based rescue groups tied to auction purchases, and two more that operate in the state.” While perhaps not technically illegal, it certainly seems to undermine the intent of the law.

Some of these rescuers have claimed that they are doing so to meet market demand. The reduction in the number of available dogs/puppies in shelters, they argue, means these dogs have to come from somewhere. Those who support commercial breeding have seized on this claim, arguing that, “Someone who wants a soft coated wheaten terrier because it doesn’t shed and is good with children isn’t going to want a pit bull, which is what most shelters have in abundance.” She went on to say that,

There is and always will be a demand for the predictability of purebred dogs. Hobby breeders will never breed enough dogs to satisfy the demand. Commercial breeders can meet that demand. Commercial breeders are not evil. There are people who should not be breeders. Laws that require minimum standards of humane care are essential as is robust enforcement. PA has good laws in place, laws that actually forced many substandard breeders out of business.

While I welcome regulation of commercial breeders (in fact, I welcome prohibition of commercial breeding), the overall assertions about dog predictability, adoption demand, consumer preference, shelter dog supply, and need for breeding are wrong for several reasons.

First, it is not true that commercially-bred, purebred animals are better behaved than shelter animals. The literature clearly shows that shelter dogs are more predictable than dogs bred in puppy mills across a wide range of health and temperament issues. In fact, a recent study adds to a growing body of literature that should put to rest, once and for all, the false notion that dogs in shelters are in shelters because there is something wrong with them: “Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general.”

Given that far less than 1% of pet dogs bite people, the conclusion is inescapable: shelter dogs are not dangerous. In fact, looking at bite rates that require hospitalization, only 0.01% of dogs (or roughly 1 in 10,000) bite with enough force to cause an injury.

These studies mirror the findings of the most progressive and successful municipal shelters (and those running “open admission” shelters under contract): those saving 99% of dogs. Doug Rae, the director of the Humane Society of Fremont County in Colorado, is instructive. The Fremont Humane Society runs the animal control shelter for seven cities under contract. Rae also previously ran a private shelter in Rhode Island and “open admission”/municipal shelters in Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, including those taking in as many as 30,000 animals per year:

Over the years, I have rarely seen a truly ‘aggressive’ dog. The vast majority are simply scared. I was speaking with a Board member for a shelter on the West Coast last week and she said that her shelter saves 96-97% of the animals and that 3 or 4% are dogs who are aggressive and need to be killed. In my experience, the percentage of truly aggressive dogs I have seen in small to very large shelters is well under one quarter of 1%.

Ironically, research into dogs from commercial breeders shows the opposite: these dogs have deep psychological scarring as a result of the trauma they experience at the facilities. Compared to shelter dogs, commercially-bred dogs exhibited more fear, nervousness, health problems, compulsive behaviors, house soiling, and sensitivity to touch. In some cases, significantly more. Many of these dogs experience “regular and often persistent fear or anxiety, even after years in their adoptive households” as a result of stress-induced psychopathology and inadequate socialization. These dogs have been psychologically damaged. And their offspring may also suffer:

Offspring of pregnant animals exposed to [these kinds of..] stressors have been documented with neurohormonal dysfunction: impaired ability to cope with stress; exaggerated distress responses to adverse events; impaired learning; abnormal social behaviour; increased emotionality and fear-related behaviour; and fearful behaviours that increase with increasing age; increased susceptibility to pathophysiological outcomes when further adversity occurs during adulthood; and behavioural deficits and molecular changes in the offspring similar to those in schizophrenic humans. (Citations omitted.)

A subsequent review of the literature compared the behavior of dogs obtained from pet stores and/or born in breeding establishments and compared them with dogs from other sources to determination causes of behavior problems that occur disproportionately in pet store dogs. It found “that dogs sold through pet stores and/or born in high-volume, commercial breeding establishments (CBE) show an increased number of problem behaviors as adults.”

The findings included:

  • Aggression to people was more than twice as likely in dogs acquired from pet stores compared to those acquired from shelters;
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more likely to develop social fears (of strangers, children, and other dogs) than from all other sources;
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more likely to be separated from their mothers at a young age and these dogs had a four-fold increase in destructive behaviors;
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more excitable, less trainable, had increased separation-related behaviors, escape behavior, and sensitivity to being touched; and,
  • Dogs acquired from pet stores were more likely to house-soil.

In layman’s terms, commercial breeding establishments engage in systematic neglect and abuse toward animals, causing severe emotional scars on the victims. The former breeding dogs living with those scars are a testament to that fact. Not only do one in four have significant health problems, many of them are psychologically and emotionally shut down, compulsively staring at nothing.

Second, it is not the job of rescue groups to ensure that the public has a wide variety of dogs to choose from when adopting; that is an inversion of the mission. Genuine rescue groups should view the public as a tool to help them save at-risk lives irrespective of breed and not as a consumer whose wants they are somehow obligated to fulfill. That said, despite the claim that the choice of dogs in shelters is “mostly pit bulls,” not only is that inaccurate, but many dogs labeled as “pit bulls,” in shelters are, in fact, not. Indeed, studies show that shelters misidentify breed more often than they get it right (one group right calls it “a catch-all term used to describe a continually expanding incoherent group of dogs, including purebred dogs and mixed-breed dogs. A ‘Pit Bull’ is any dog an animal control officer, shelter worker, dog trainer, politician, dog owner, police officer, newspaper reporter or anyone else says is a ‘Pit Bull'”). But perhaps even more to the point, so what if the dogs are Pit Bulls? It’s never been easier to adopt out dogs classified as Pit Bulls, except perhaps to Baby Boomers. Why?

Baby Boomers were shaped by years of anti-Pit Bull propaganda and may not make Pit Bull adoption their first choice. Millennials were not and often do and we can expect the rising, animal-loving post-Millennials (Gen Z) to do the same. But even as to the Boomers, that’s changed from just a few years ago because good science-based information about these dogs is replacing the long-peddled scare tactics about them. One need only look at the dogs in the tony Oakland Hills/Piedmont area — home to Pixar executives, Google techies, and other urban professionals — to see how Golden Retrievers have in large part been replaced by Pit Bulls, Pit-mixes, and rescue mutts.

In short, rescue groups can do a better job of marketing the ethics and benefits of adopting young adult, adult, and mature mixed-breed animals to change community preferences, rather than enabling commercial breeding.  While the vast majority of dogs entering shelters are young (the average age is two years old), social/friendly, and healthy, even those who arrive in shelters with health or temperament issues are finding homes in those cities were the shelter has embraced a culture of lifesaving that includes rehabilitative care. Given the increasing success of the No Kill movement, the cliché that no one will adopt out certain breeds, adults, or animals with behavior/medical challenges has been thoroughly debunked.

Third, despite more widespread and affordable sterilization, the claim that rescuers are somehow compelled to meet the demand for puppies is also not only misguided as to the mission, but as to the ready supply of puppies, as well. Puppies are in no danger of disappearing. Puppies in high intake jurisdictions who are being killed could and should be transferred to higher demand jurisdictions, including from U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Once we have saved all of those dogs, we can get puppies from countries on or near our borders who are still dying or suffering. In short, we’re nowhere near concluding that breeding is required to meet public “demand” for dogs as there is no existing or coming dog shortage.

Lastly, but no less importantly, even if we accept the argument — which I do not — that there is a difference between “puppy mills” and “responsible commercial breeders” as is often claimed, dogs and puppies are not commodities. At the very least, they shouldn’t be. Not only because the trade in sentient beings is unethical, but because even if we can show that some breeders are “humane,”  there’s a further supply chain that can never fully be. When there is a profit to be made on the backs of dogs, those backs are strained and often broken.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We must continue to expand our efforts to educate the public about puppy — and kitten, rabbit, bird, rodent, and other — mills, the physical deformities or defects that result from inbreeding, the immorality of commodifying animals, the unscientific nature of discriminating against animals on the basis of how they look, the false view of “shelter” animals as damaged goods, the equally false view that purposely-bred animals are more “predictable” and make “better” family pets, and the infatuation with maintaining breed lines.

We must continue to pass bans on the retail sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores (not just for dogs, but also for cats, rabbits, hamsters, fish, and other animals). We must close any loopholes exposed by The Post’s article in undermining these bans. We must end the internet trade in commercially-bred animals. We must regulate commercially breeding — setting limits on the number of breeding females they can have, creating dog-generous housing, care, veterinary, exercise, and socialization standards, ensuring cruelty laws apply to them and are robustly enforced, including one-strike rules for serious offenses — and eventually ban them. That will also close down the auctions.

While some may argue that a complete ban on commercial (and I would add hobby) breeding is pie in the sky, I believe experience proves otherwise. The late Roger Caras, a former CEO of the ASPCA and Vice-President of HSUS, once said No Kill was so impossible, it “was not worthy of a passing daydream.” Given the immense success of the movement, shelter-killing apologists cannot say those things anymore, and the future looks brighter than ever.

In fact, I am optimistic that when Millennials — who will soon take over as the single largest voting block away from the more regressively-inclined, anti-government Baby Boomers (not all Boomers mind you; but certainly a governing majority) — have their say, we will witness a profound sea change in our civic life, with problems that appeared to prior generations as insurmountable being aggressively, comprehensively, and yes, finally  solved.

More progressive attitudes about rescue vs. buying, a rejection of breed-based discrimination, and an embrace of the means and tools necessary to achieve real and lasting change in shelters as well — government accountability, a reinvestment and faith in public institutions as a force for public good, and shelter regulation — will result in younger generations creating a more compassionate and just world for their most beloved dogs, cats, and other animal companions.

And if we do all that — when we do all that — and then we arrive at this mythic place where there aren’t enough dogs for the people who want them — when all 50 U.S. states are No Kill, when its districts and territories are No Kill, and when its neighboring and then not so neighboring countries are No Kill (and I mean truly No Kill, not the Best Friends’ dishonest “90%” variety that allows for the killing of 10%, excludes owner requested killing, deaths in kennel/foster, killing of late-term animals in utero, and also excludes U.S. reservations) — well, then, we can have the discussion about how to ethically respond to demand outstripping supply. But as long as animals are dying in shelters (or lack homes and would benefit from them as some community dogs would), regardless of why they are dying or where they are dying, adoption and rescue remain ethical imperatives — and they should be legal mandates, too.

In short, I see little revealed by The Post piece overall that alters the strategies that the No Kill movement, which includes rescue groups, need to continue pursuing and which has already reduced the number of USDA-licensed commercial breeders, reduced the number of auctions, reduced the number of dogs available at these auctions, which has proliferated bans on the sale of commercially-bred dogs in pet stores, which has increased the percentage of dogs adopted relative to purchased, and which has reduced killing in shelters to all-time lows.

We’re on the right track. We just have to redouble our efforts, until the the auctions, the truckers, the puppy pet stores, the breeding facilities, and the rest of the supply chain — i.e., the whole damnable industry   — is relegated to the dustbin of history.

(All photos in this article courtesy of National Mill Dog Rescue. Some are auction buys, though no particular auction is identified; others are direct mill rescue. All dogs were part of the breeding industry or puppies destined for it.)


Have a comment? Join the discussion by  clicking here.