Where *Not* to Buy a Dog: The Pet Store Connection to the Business of Puppy Mills
So where should you buy a dog? The absolute worst place, it turns out, is a pet store.
An HBO documentary, Madonna of the Mills, exposes the fact that virtually all pet store puppies are raised in puppy mills in horrible conditions, in wire pens no bigger than a dishwasher, and the puppies are sickly with parasites and other serious issues.
In my previous posts, I talked about my experiences with Alison my shelter dog, and Tessie, my Golden Retriever that came from a high-quality breeder and about the economics of buying and owning a puppy. Today, as part of a continuing series, I present an interview with Andrew Nibley, a CEO who took off a year and a half to make this documentary about the dirty secret of the pet industry.
The documentary, which can be found on HBOGo.com, takes a rigorously journalistic view of this complex problem. (Nibley used to be an editor at Reuters.) It also balances an unflinching depiction of the problem with moments of hope provided by the dogs that have been rescued from the mills and the woman who rescued them. It’s an uplifting, deeply personal story that’s well worth the $15 and an hour of your time. Here’s my interview with director Andrew Nibley.
Allen St. John: What’s the solution to the puppy mill problem?
Andrew Nibley: Puppy mills will continue to exist as long as people buy puppy mill puppies. 99 percent of all puppies in pet stores come from puppy mills. So if people stop buying from pet stores, if people stop buying over the internet, puppy mills will dry up. It’s a question of supply and demand. If there’s no demand for these dogs, farmers will go back to growing crops or doing something else for a living.
And pet stores will go back to doing what they should be doing—selling leashes, bowls, toys, and puppy chow—and not actually selling the animals themselves. It’s pretty straightforward.
ASJ: Some states like Missouri have tried to legislate the conditions in puppy mills.
AN: I think it’s very, very hard to regulate. There have been a lot of legislative attempts, but they make small improvements and they’re almost glacial in the way they’re taking hold. You have states that say that every animal has to have an exercise plan. But there isn’t any enforcement on the back end. Or there’ll be something that says they can’t have wire flooring—that’s an improvement, but if they don’t clean the cages anyway, you’re not getting at the problem.
And frankly, I think animals should have more room to move around in than something the size of a dishwasher. USDA regulations say that the animal has to have seven inches in front of its nose and seven inches over its head and that’s not a lot of room. The farmers think of these puppies as a cash crop the same way they’d look at soybeans or corn or spinach.
ASJ: But I guess there’s another side of this, too, that the puppies from the mills are often dangerously sick when you take them home and prone to all kinds of life-threatening problems early in life.
AN: Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not you want to support puppy mills which are, in my opinion, concentration camps for the parents of pet store puppies, and just look at what you’re buying as a consumer when you buy a dog from a pet store or over the internet.
You’re getting a dog that cost $1,000 to $2,000 that cost the farmer $50 to $75 to raise. There’s 100 percent chance that puppy is going to have parasites or some kind of disease. There’s almost a 50 percent chance that dog is going to die or have a serious illness within the first year.
So you’re buying a defective product at over-inflated prices, even if you don’t care about what happens to that puppy’s parents, it’s a bad, bad deal for the consumer.
ASJ: How can you tell when an Internet breeder is really a puppy mill?
AN: When you talk to a breeder, you should say “Can I see this puppy’s parents?” If it’s a puppy mill they won’t be able to produce the parents.
If they say they’re going to fly the dog to you, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a puppy mill. Most breeders love the animals so much they will actually fly with the animal to make sure that the owners are legit. In some places it’s as hard to adopt a dog [from a quality breeder] as it is a kid. “Do you have a big enough back yard? Do you have other animals? Did you have animals in the past?” These breeders love these dogs.
ASJ: And puppy mills are really preying on our attachment to our dogs.
AN: It’s an emotional purchase. As the vet says in the movie, it’s not a washing machine or a car or a refrigerator that you can take back. You bought the puppy because you had an emotional attachment when you first met it. When you find out its sick, the last thing you want to do is take it back, you want to help it.
And that’s how people get trapped. In a pet store, you walk by and see cute, adorable puppies but you have no idea where they came from and what’s happening to their parents. That’s really why we made the movie, is to wake people up.
ASJ: Is the problem that people don’t see the connection between the pet store puppy and the horrible conditions in which it was raised?
AN: I think if you ask, 90 percent of people would say they’re against puppy mills, and then you ask them where they got their pet, they say “Oh, we got him at the pet store.” We tried to make that connection between puppy mills and pet stores and how it’s part of a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S.
ASJ: How big is the puppy mill industry?
AN: It’s kind of a shadowy industry. It’s a multi-billion dollar business. The USDA keeps track of how many animals are trafficked, but not the dollars and cents. That one example in the film, The Hunt Coporation had 88,000 dogs they had transported, and say they’re $2,000 apiece, that’s $176,000,000. It’s a big, big business.
ASJ: How can we stop it?
AN: Public education is hugely critical. If you look at cigarette smoking, littering, seat belts, all the great campaigns that have changed behavior in this country, they have all come through kids nagging their parents. “Don’t smoke Daddy, put on your seat belt, don’t be a litter bug.” Those are public awareness campaigns that percolated up through the school systems and fundamentally changed the behavior of the country.
I’d love to see the same thing happen with puppy mills. If you can have kids saying to their parents “Mommy, Daddy, you shouldn’t buy a puppy from a pet store because it’s diseased, and the parents of this puppy are living in miserable conditions,” maybe that’s the way we can bring this to a close.
ASJ: Does this consciousness raising effort seem to be working?
AN: We’re starting to see results. We’re seeing major pet store chains announce they’re not going to sell animals anymore. And we’re seeing towns all over the country banning the sale of animals in pet stores, out in California particularly. It’s starting to take hold.
ASJ: On a personal level, how did you end up making this movie?
AN: Basically my wife is the producer and she made the movie because she absolutely loves dogs, and I made the movie because I love my wife.
She came home with a cocker spaniel named Maisey, that had been de-barked by Amish farmer who put a pipe down her throat and crushed her voice box. We became curious about the dog and how it had been rescued and where it had been rescued from.
During the course of that investigation, we met Laura, a young woman from Staten Island who had rescued 2,000 dogs from puppy mills. My wife came up with the idea: Let’s make a documentary to put a stop to this.
I’m a CEO by trade but I decided to take a year and a half off I wrote and directed the movie. My wife produced the movie and sold it to HBO. It was recently nominated for the Genesis Award, the Academy Awards for movies about animals. It’s the first and last time we’re ever mentioned in same story as Steven Spielberg. It really was a labor of love.