“The average dog is a better person than the average person.” That’s true most of the time, but even more so when the person is particularly despicable; a person that, say, runs a puppy mill. Just about every pet-sit over our six years has included at least one rescue animal, including our latest. But this is the first time we’ve cared for rescues that had been incarcerated at a puppy mill which, as defined by the SPCA, is “a high-volume, substandard dog-breeding facility that puts profit before animal health and welfare.”
Claire and Bonnie*, two Shetland sheepdogs (aka Shelties), had lived most of their lives in outdoor kennels in the north and brought inside only long enough to give birth. Even through the breed’s typically thick coats, they shivered through -40 degree winters. They were rescued in 2013 when the mill operators died and their nefarious business was brought to light. Two years on and the dogs are still timid with their new owner, although leaps and bounds better than they were. When we cared for them for a week this spring, they cowered and cringed whenever we approached, no matter how slowly and gently.
It’s in a dog’s nature to bond with humans, and these two really seemed to want to do that, but the treatment they endured at the hands of particularly nasty humans ingrained them with deep suspicion and mistrust. Still, they seemed to enjoy their daily walks with us, although because of a kind of deformity, either congenital or the result of years of close confinement, Claire’s legs were bowed and stiff, limiting how far she could travel at a time.
Even if they could talk, I don’t want to hear what they suffered. Suffice to say that a puppy mill is no day spa. Usually kept in small cages, three or four animals to a cage (often in wire cages stacked six or seven high on top of one another so urine and feces fall to the cages below), with little to no exercise, minimal food, and forced to breed up to two litters a year, the dogs, once they outlive their usefulness, are either killed or cast out. Sometimes the mills are busted and the dogs are saved; rarely do they emerge without behavioural problems.
I’ve written about Shelties before, when we cared for the lovely Lexie. They’re gorgeous dogs, incredibly smart, loving and hard-working. These qualities unfortunately make them prized specimens, fetching thousands of dollars for the mill owners. I was surprised to learn that puppy mills/farms are not illegal in Canada (although your local SPCA would love to hear from you if you suspect one). Only if it can be proven that the owners abuse the dogs can they be charged under Canada’s Criminal Code. Even then the operators simply pay their fine and go back to their disgusting work. I was also surprised to find that Richmond, B.C., is the only city in the country that bans the sale of dogs in pet stores, where most of these pups end up. Others are sold through newspaper classifieds, online or to a broker. Canadian law decrees that dogs can only be sold legally as purebreds if they are registered with organizations like the Canadian Kennel Club, the Canine Federation of Canada, or the Working Canine Association of Canada. But unscrupulous operators often get around the requirement by falsifying documents.
Prior to 1995, most of the puppies for sale in our country’s pet stores originated in the U.S., but when Agriculture Canada enacted new regulations requiring the puppies to come with microchips, vaccinations and health clearance by vets, imports dropped. Unfortunately, that just opened the door for more puppy mills to launch in Canada. Because of the covert nature of the business, obtaining an exact number of how many of these facilities are operating here is difficult, but to say “in the thousands” is apparently not an overstatement.
Claire and Bonnie were two of the lucky ones, but they carry the baggage of their abuse with them. At the end of our week together, they had only begun to inch near and accept our attempts at affection. But they could not shake their wariness entirely, preferring instead to take comfort in one another, looking out for each other, rarely relaxing completely with a human nearby. At night, before settling down to sleep, they would emit a long, mournful howl. It was eerie. Were they wailing for the memory of their torment? For the puppies they’d never known? Or for the helpless dogs still trapped, waiting to be saved?
*Not their real names; their owner has requested anonymity.