When the fireman sets the fire: Dog rescues that bankroll puppy mills

By Julie Castle

It’s hard to know where to start with this. An article in yesterday’s Washington Post by Kim Kavin tells a troubling story of a twisted distortion that is taking place in animal rescue and, strangely, the breeding industry is blowing the whistle on the rescuers.

In years past, it was a common practice for certain rescue groups that specialize in providing a safety net for old, sick, injured and “used up” puppy mill dogs to attend secretive breeders’ auctions to buy these sad, broken animals, often for pocket change (literally). The dogs had no commercial value either through a pet store sale or to another puppy mill, so breeders had a simple choice: dispose of them or sell them for whatever they could get to whoever wanted them.

In 2010, Best Friends’ national manager of puppy mill initiatives attended one of these auctions where leftover, wrung-out mill dogs were going for peanuts. This was legitimate rescue. These dogs were going to be disposed of or, at best, dumped in an overburdened rural pound where they faced almost certain death if not for the intervention of organizations like National Mill Dog Rescue that pioneered this channel of compassionate rescue. We bought 10 dogs slated to be euthanized at the end of the day for a penny apiece.

The Washington Post article documents the disturbing story of how this compassionate effort has been turned on its head by misguided rescuers and outright exploiters who are outbidding breeders and pet store distributors and paying thousands of dollars to “rescue” a single dog. In one case reported by a breeder, a rescuer paid $10,000 each for two Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Another “rescuer” paid $8,750 for a pregnant French bulldog.

The owner of the largest auction is quoted as saying, “There are very good, responsible rescues that just love the dogs … and I think there are malicious, lying, cheating rescues that are in it for the money.”

Sigh. In either case, the end result is that commercial breeders, the overwhelming majority of which are abusive and exploitive, are being given the incentive by so-called rescue groups to ramp up their breeding operations — while Best Friends and every national animal welfare organization and every rescue group that deserves the name are working to make the high-volume pet trade a thing of the past.

So, what’s going on here? The Post writer suggested that one of the drivers is our own success. The number of animals dying in shelters has declined as a result of the no-kill movement, and the selection of breeds and types of dogs available in shelters has been proportionately reduced. Supply drives demand, but that’s the point of putting the squeeze on puppy mills through the smart marketing of shelter pets and ordinances that ban the sale of mill-bred animals in pet stores — to make animals supplied by puppy mills more expensive and less accessible.

The idea that organizations that identify themselves as rescue groups are subverting these hard-won gains is just crazy.

Breeders refer to these rescuers as ”hypocritical dilettantes who hide behind nonprofit status while doing business as unregulated, online pet stores.” It’s hard to argue with that observation while more than 4,100 dogs and cats are still being killed in our nation’s shelters every day. Seven states (Texas, California, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi — in the order of number of shelter animals killed) account for 50 percent of national shelter deaths. Adding the next eight states with the respective highest numbers killed accounts for 75 percent of the national total.

These auctions originated as a venue to sell surplus animals, but Kavin quotes the Iowa breeder who sold the Cavaliers as saying, “We have breeders that breed for the auction. It’s a huge, huge underground market. It’s happening at an alarming rate.”

Would it surprise you to learn that the rescue group that purchased the two Cavaliers for $10,000 each is located in Alabama, the state with the third highest number of shelter animals killed annually? Or that the rescue group that purchased the pregnant Frenchie is located in Texas, the state that tops the shelter killing list? Texas kills an estimated 232,000 shelter pets per year and this Texas “rescue group” is buying pregnant dogs from breeders at auctions in Missouri?

This is not rescue, this is enabling abuse.

Best Friends is leading a national campaign to Save Them All and is committed to ending the killing in shelters in this country by 2025. You can be part of this seismic social change by adopting your next pet from your local shelter or a legitimate organization that rescues animals at risk of being killed in shelters, on the streets or by exploitive breeders. Buying puppies from puppy mill breeders and selling them to the public is not rescue. It’s the pet trade and it needs to be exposed.

Together, we will Save Them All.

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Julie Castle with dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society