Omaha, Neb. Bob Baker has seen the worst of the worst in his 27 years as an animal cruelty investigator.
There was the Missouri breeder who would skimp on food by skinning dead dogs and feeding them to other dogs in his kennel. There was the South Dakota breeder who used a handsaw to amputate the leg of a pregnant Rottweiler, injured in an attack by another dog, in hopes that the Rottweiler would survive long enough to give birth to another litter.
Baker says such cases are the exception, but adds that mistreatment of dogs in large-scale breeding operations remains common and troubling.
"Most breeders learn how to keep their standards just above violating cruelty statutes, but the conditions are still unacceptable," said Baker, a St. Louis-based national investigator for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "It's difficult dealing with these people. We file charges on the most egregious ones."
Puppy lemon laws
State legislators across the nation are attempting to crack down on rogue breeding operations and pet sellers.
The week after the May 16 rescue of 173 dogs from the property of a Dawson County man, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law that increased the number of state kennel inspectors from one to four and requires new operations to be inspected before opening.
Puppy lemon laws, which let buyers get their money back if health or genetic defects are discovered within a set time, are on the books in 16 states and were introduced in four others this year.
California lawmakers are studying a bill that would require cats and dogs over 4 months old to be spayed or neutered, unless the person caring for them obtains a breeding license.
Laws that would tighten the regulation of retail pet shops are pending in Oregon, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and bills establishing standards for breeding operations were introduced in Minnesota and Ohio.
Mass breeding has been a hot-button issue for decades with animal welfare activists, who use the term "puppy mills" to describe the most unsavory of operations, which are usually situated in rural areas.
Puppy mills in Kansas
The Humane Society of the United States has long identified Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania as the major puppy-mill states, said outreach director Stephanie Shain.
Of the 7 million to 9 million dogs brought into U.S. families each year, Shain said, an estimated 2 million to 4 million are products of puppy mills.
The demand for popular breeds, and the high prices people are willing to pay, keep breeding operations churning, Shain said. A quick Internet search showed many puppies with four-figure sale prices, and some breeds, including bulldogs and Belgian Malinois, with top prices exceeding $3,000.
Many dog breeders chafe at the term "puppy mill," saying it is inflammatory and lumps conscientious commercial dog breeders together with the unscrupulous.
Clem Disterhaupt, president of the Nebraska Dog Breeders Association, said most commercial breeders have the animals' best interest at heart.
"We don't associate ourselves with puppy mills, but sometimes people are under the impression that if you have a lot of dogs, you must be a puppy mill," Disterhaupt said.
Disterhaupt said reputable breeders are licensed with state or federal agencies and provide adequate space, cleanliness, heat and air conditioning and ventilation.
"That's not a puppy mill," he said. "People need to distinguish the difference."
Daisy Okas, assistant vice president of communications for the American Kennel Club, said breeders, kennel operators and pet stores register all types of breeds with her organization. The AKC has 15 inspectors who visit about 5,000 places a year where significant numbers of dogs are registered.
Shain, however, said people who want a puppy should avoid pet stores and instead buy from a hobby breeder or adopt from a shelter.
Puppy mills, Shain said, damage dogs emotionally and physically because the animals are confined in tight, unsanitary quarters with little or no socialization with humans or veterinary care. Females are bred repeatedly, some when they're as young as 6 months.
The overbreeding, combined with the dismal environment, results in sickly puppies that have genetic defects and temperament problems, she said. The dogs are sold in pet stores or on the Internet to unsuspecting buyers.
Investigators such as Baker inspect breeding operations after receiving complaints. Breeders usually cooperate, but when they don't, he said, he gathers information by interviewing neighbors and observing the facility from afar.
Baker, who said he has visited more than 750 breeding facilities since 1980, said that when he finds evidence of animal cruelty, he notifies local law enforcement.
"Most abuse we see is neglect," Baker said. "They know some of the stuff they're doing is wrong, and they're embarrassed. They apologize a lot of times when we come see them. But they're blinded by the greed and money they're making off of this.
"Some start out with the right intentions. They breed a few and make money, so they get more dogs but don't put money back in. They get swamped."