Puppy farms under fire
Newhouse News Service
LANCASTER, Pa. — A few scattered pumpkins dot the muddy fields where bearded men in wide-brimmed hats lead teams of shaggy plow horses tilling the soil.
It is autumn in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania's Amish country, and the fields that sustain the simple lifestyle are mostly bare.
But one crop — the most important crop to some — remains: Puppies.
"They're more expensive now because of Christmas coming up," said a bonneted young girl, who cheerfully greeted visitors to her picturesque dairy farm in Ronks last week.
She disappeared into a large red barn and emerged with three squirming puppies, each a different breed.
"That's a Boston terrier. This one is a bichon," she said, motioning to the pups still in her arms, "and this is a Yorkie. ... He's going to cost the most. You can probably have him for $1,300."
Bred for bulk and retail sale, puppies are a growing cash crop for hundreds of farmers in and around Lancaster County, where Amish and Mennonite settlers from Switzerland and Germany arrived in the early 1700s in search of religious freedom.
For farmers, a big crop of dogs can gross up to $500,000 annually, with successful operations netting six figures.
For critics, the men in the suspenders and bushy beards are masking a cruel form of factory farming behind the quaint and pure image of the Amish culture. They so badly want the kennels shut down, they have taken their fight to Congress.
"Amish country is synonymous with puppy mills, and Lancaster County is the capital of Pennsylvania puppy mills, with more than 200 kennels," said Libby Williams, founder of New Jersey Consumers Against Pet Shop Abuse. "Dogs ... should not be treated like chickens, penned up in coops for their entire lives just to breed."
Activists contend more than 200,000 puppies are churned out annually in and around Lancaster County. The farm where the little girl greets visitors had hundreds of older dogs secluded behind the main barn last week.
Perhaps 60 fluffy white dogs were tucked in rabbit hutches stacked a story high and several dozen feet across.
Scores of others filled dozens of pens stacked two-high on both sides of an alleyway. Some were bichons, others Malteses. All were the small, playful and popular breeds that bring the farm — known as Clearview Kennel — a steady income.
The Pennsylvania Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement lists 243 kennels in Lancaster County, and about 50 hold federal licenses to sell litters to brokers. Hundreds more are scattered in surrounding counties.
"The vast majority of kennels, and we have about 2,500 in Pennsylvania ... go through a year without receiving citations, but there are those where we do find violations," said Mary Bender, director of the dog bureau.
Puppy Love, a kennel at the southern end of Lancaster County that sells more than 1,000 puppies a year, was labeled one of the most notorious by the state Attorney General's Office earlier this year. In a lawsuit, the state charged customers bought dogs that died within 48 hours of purchase.
The worst puppy mills, according to Williams and Humane Society investigators, pen up young females and force them to mate from their first day in heat.
That means churning out litters twice a year, maybe for up to seven years, and often with some unhealthy results, said Bob Reder, who conducted undercover puppy mill probes for the Humane Society throughout the 1990s.
"To breed a dog properly requires a medical checkup to see if the animal is healthy enough to give birth to healthy litters. That is never done by these breeders. They breed every dog, so you get sick offspring," said Pamela Shot, a Morris County, N.J., veterinarian and activist.
She cited congenital defects, such as bad hips and poor eyesight, and allergies that develop years later. Temperament problems also occur.
Two weeks ago, during the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on a bill introduced by two Pennsylvania senators, animal-rights advocates told horror stories about breeding operations across the county.
The legislation would add retail dog operations to the licensing and inspection authority of the federal Department of Agriculture, which already regulates wholesale dog sales.
Nancy Perry, vice president of government affairs for the Humane Society in Washington, D.C., said the "legislation has tremendous support on both sides of the aisle."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company