Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How we meet our puppies

A sad, timely and admirably lengthy article in The Age today about the puppy industry. Nick Galvin speaks to dog trainers, anti-puppy mill campaigners, commercial dog breeders, former pet shop employees, veterinary academics, the Australian veterinary Association and the RSPCA to provide a well-rounded overview of this incredibly brutal industry. It’s distressing but important: http://www.theage.com.au/news/lifeandstyle/pets/grim-end-for-christmas-puppies/2008/12/22/1229794326689.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

It’s an issue with a lot of traction in the vegan community, and one which really strikes home with a lot of people. Obviously, people who are particular concerned with the welfare and wellbeing of animals (and their rights) take the issue very seriously and quite rightly bring a lot of attention to what many people see as simply a benign industry full of sweet puppies in a pet shop window. For those of us who live with or care for animals, thinking about the fate of unlucky puppies, kittens, fish, birds, mice, rats and other ‘pet’ animals is painful and infuriating.

With this in mind, this article made me think about the attitudes we hold towards puppy mills, pet shops, dog breeders and animal shelters (more or less in descending order there). I abhor puppy farms where bitches are forced bear multiple litters in quick succession, where dogs get little socialisation or time outside, and where their sole purpose is as enslaved breeding machines pumping out sick, unhealthy, and unhappy puppies. I am appalled at pet shops that sell animals, shipping in the cuties, shipping ‘em out to any old person regardless of suitabllility and without any proper checks, and ultimately get rid of the unsold. And, obviously, I applaud rescue organisations who take in, care for and hopefully find loving homes for animals. But breeders? Where do they fall?
I've thought quite hard about publishing this post, as I know it's a controversial issue and one which attracts some passionate views. I'm not really about provocation (although I will happily express my opnion on anything; just buy me a beer and off we go), but given my personal experience with dog breeding I wanted to share my perspective on it.

Let me clear: I am talking about breeders who work in accordance with the rules set out by their relevant kennel club or breed association; who are concerned with the physical and temperamental improvement and promotion of a breed they love; and who provide each animal love and veterinary care of the highest standard. I am not talking about ‘backyard breeders’; people who think they can just mate their bitch to the dog up the road on a regular basis; people who breed primarily to make money; or people who understand nothing of the history, medical issues or temperament of their breed. Those people are not responsible. They are not informed. They are not interested. They are not good breeders.

I have to declare my hand here. My grandmother was a breeder of Miniature Schnauzers, and my understanding of how much she loved and cared for her dogs has very much informed my position on dog breeders. She bred for many years, was very involved in the Victorian Miniature Schnauzer Association, made close friends, loved caring for her dogs, kept them healthy, kept accurate records of their bloodlines and medical histories, and when the time finally came for her to move to a retirement village and let her two companion dogs, Missy and Heidi, go to live on a friend’s farm, she missed them sorely. In fact, when she was very very old, suffering from advanced dementia, losing almost all her English (a second language), and refusing to eat, visits from the hospital visiting dogs made her so indescribably happy it was a real lesson in what it means to love animals from the heart. When she patted a dog her she began to use words she hadn’t used for months. She used her hands to smooth and stroke and scratch when she could barely hold on to her cup. She would willingly eat when we gave the dog a mouthful for every one she ate. Her eyes became soft and sparkly and she smiled. She loved dogs intensely from her childhood and she did so until the end of her life. It’s something to bear in mind when thinking about whether breeders love their dogs the way we do. She did.

Yes, I think that rescuing a dog should be everyone’s first choice, and one which is promoted and accepted as best practice. It should be an easy and desirable choice which is common and respected. No, I don’t think it should be the only choice. Yes, it’s terrible and illogical to keep breeding puppies when there are so many killed for the lack of a home. No, pet shops should never be allowed to sell any kind of animal. Yes, all non-breeding animals should be sterilised by their loving and responsible human carers. And yes, of course puppy farming should be illegal and puppy breeders should be strung up and pelted with various rotten things. But no, the breeding of particular types of dogs by registered, responsible, informed and caring breeders should not be banned.

I think I can best describe my own experience, and by no means do I suggest that my decision was in any way better/worse/more or less ethical than anyone else’s; it’s just that it was my own decision so I can explain more clearly why I chose to adopt my Sam from a breeder.

When I decided to bring a dog into my household, I considered the following: I live in a flat, I already had two cats, and I do not have an outside area at all, so any dog would have to be one who would be happy and healthy being primarily an inside dog. I thought about simply choosing a smaller dog, as advised by PetFinder, but I simply could not accept the risk of choosing a puppy who would be unhappy or unhealthy. If I knew that my dog was miserable or sick because of the environment I had brought it in to, I would have no choice but to find (yet another) home for it. Without knowing the breed characteristics and temperament likely to emerge, the size of the dog was irrelevant considering my needs. Certainly, choosing any particular dog, as opposed to an entire breed and its characteristics, carries that risk, but I felt it was my responsibility to reduce that risk as much as I could before adopting a puppy. As such, with a lot of careful research, I decided that a chihuahua would be most suitable to my household and lifestyle, as they are generally happy living in apartments, do not require a lot of outdoor time or exercise, get along well with other small animals, and are known as loyal and loving companions.

When I looked for a puppy to bring home, I took great care choosing a breeder, and the lady I found, although not registered, could not have been a better person to get Sam from (I should note here that at that stage I didn’t know that breed rescue organisations existed, and if I had I would definitely have looked there first). I went to her home to meet Sam, and it was evident that she loved her dogs immensely, considered them a part of her family, bred them responsibly and carefully, and was very concerned to make sure that I would be a proper person to take her (one and only, not one of many) puppy to a new home. In fact, in between my first contact with her and the day I went to meet Sam, we spoke a number of times about the arrangements I had made to introduce him to the cats. She was also very worried about how he would go with them when I went to work, and it took a lot of discussion before she was satisfied that he would be happy and safe (luckily, due to my parents’ and sister’s schedules we were able to give them all quite a few days with a human always present to supervise them before moving to a staggered schedule of animals-alone-time). I remember going to meet Sam with my parents, and my mum said how important it was that we show the breeder that we were good enough to take one of her puppies, as my own grandmother was known to regularly refuse to let her puppies go away with people she didn’t approve of.

Perhaps if I were to choose again, with the knowledge I have since gained about animal theory, I would choose differently. But I maintain that I chose Sam based on a considered, responsible and caring position, and the fact is that I absolutely adore him and can’t imagine life without him (probably the cats can though … they like him a lot, but he does annoy them quite a bit).

So where does that leave us? I acknowledge and understand why many people are opposed to any dog breeding of any kind. I agree that any commercial breeding operation, casual breeding, uninformed and irresponsible breeding, and pet shop selling is horrific, should be legislated against, and rigorously enforced. I agree that the first port of call when adopting a companion should be a rescue organisation, and as I have noted, should I be lucky enough to be able to bring another dog home in the future, that’s where I’ll be trying to find him or her first. But I cannot agree that people who genuinely love, understand, and act with all responsibility and care for their particular animals and for the breed as a whole should be put in the same category as puppy millers and pet shops, and condemned for wanting to breed their dogs. For me, as always, the line is drawn with whether the animal is well-cared for, safe, healthy and happy, and if a breeder is providing that then I will save my contempt for those who mistreat, seek to profit from, and care nothing at all for an animal’s suffering.

I am reproducing Nick Galvin’s article below in full, as it appeared in today’s Age Online, to encourage you to just keep scrolling down and read it ...

Nick Galvin December 23, 2008

It would be a hard heart that could resist the sight of puppies tumbling over one another in a pet shop window.

Many people do succumb to their charms, especially at this time of year, paying up to $1500 to take home an instant new family member.

But behind this heart-warming scene a venomous debate is raging about the way puppies are bred and sold. Opponents claim it is a profit-driven, inhumane business that indirectly causes the destruction of more than 60,000 unwanted dogs a year. But to the dog industry these critics are reckless extremists who will do and say anything to further their agenda.

Vickie Davy is a dog trainer, campaigner and creator of the website Where Do Puppies Come From (www.wheredopuppiescomefrom.com). She and other campaigners claim many of the thousands of puppies required to supply pet shops come from so-called "puppy farms".

"It's quite a veiled industry in Australia," she said. "A lot of people don't realise where puppies do come from."

The filmmaker William Wolfenden found out how secretive the industry was when he spent two years researching and producing his documentary The Puppy Mill.

"I spoke to many puppy farmers in NSW and none of them would allow me on to the properties to film them," he said. "I was happy for them to state their case and have a reasoned argument, but none would."

Debra Tranter prefers a more direct approach. Something of a star in the puppy rescue world, she has been conducting a personal crusade against large-scale commercial breeders for more than 15 years, frequently raiding premises at night to gather evidence of conditions.

"I started off with placards outside pet shops, but that doesn't work," she said.

"People need to see this. They need to see what's going on and that's when I started to go on the properties and show the conditions."

Her biggest scalp has been a puppy farm near Ballarat. Called Learmonth Kennels, the business was owned and operated by Ron Wells, a former Victorian MP and vet. The farm, which bred more than 1000 puppies a year, attracted concerted opposition from animal activists. It was closed under a confidential agreement with Ballarat City Council.

At the time, Mr Wells said he was trying to run "a very scientific operation" and defended conditions at the farm.

"Dogs are not designed to live on satin cushions watching TV," he said.

Ms Tranter continues her activism and claims there are many puppy farms operating in country regions of NSW and Victoria.

"These set-ups are not because they love dogs - they are designed for profit only," she said.
"The dogs are just breeding machines. I think what is happening to these dogs is an injustice and is unnecessary - we don't need to do this."

One problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes a "puppy farm". The best working definition comes from a policy statement by RSPCA Victoria, which characterised them as being in the business of "large-scale commercial production of puppies for sale".

"Puppies are churned out in large numbers to maximise profits for breeders with little regard for the welfare of the animals or pet overpopulation," the statement said.

"Inspectors have seen puppy farms with hundreds of dogs used as breeding stock and some bitches forced to have litters of puppies every six months. The breeding dogs generally spend most of their lives in pens with very little social interaction or exercise. Many of the puppies are sold through pet shops, the internet, newspaper ads, or at the puppy farm itself.

"The RSPCA is totally opposed to these types of commercial breeding premises and [believes] they should not be able to operate."

But, it continues: "The sad truth is that while we currently oppose such establishments, they are not illegal."

One former pet shop worker, who did not want to be identified, confirmed many pet shop puppies come from large dog breeders and are distributed by air freight.

"I'd put my order in one week and get them delivered the next week," she said. "They were meant to be eight weeks of age; some were five weeks, some were dead. The condition was absolutely disgusting. In one dog crate there might be eight puppies shoved in there.

"Sometimes the vaccination cards wouldn't match up with the breed of the dog so we'd just make up the breed ourselves depending on what was selling at the time. Whatever would fetch the most money, that's what we would call the dog."

No more than about $200 was allowed to be spent on veterinary treatment for an individual puppy, after which it would be destroyed. She also said there was no attempt to match dogs to their new owners.

"The most important thing was, when a customer went to a cage, to get that dog out and put it in the customer's hands. We really wanted kids in our shop. Once you got a kid with a dog in its arms the mother normally can't say no. That was our aim - attack the kids to get to the parents."
Another former pet shop manager recounted similar experiences.

"I'd often take puppies home because they were off their food and they wouldn't be allowed treatment because they weren't worth it. I had puppies die in my garage at night-time."

She said there was pressure to sell dogs with no regard to whether they were suitable.

On one occasion, she said, a young tradesman came to her shop wanting to buy an akita, a large dog that needs an experienced owner and would be unsuitable as a dog to go to work with a tradesman.

"I ended up having a really good chat and sending him home with a little cattle dog cross puppy, which cost $295 as opposed to the $1500 price tag [on the akita]. I got into a lot of trouble for that."

Opponents of sales in pet shops say this casual approach to matching dogs and owners makes it much more likely the dog will be abandoned when it becomes too much for the new owner.
"Often these puppies don't make good pets," Ms Davy said. "The types of people buying these puppies usually do not have a lot of knowledge about dogs. They don't know what to do, so these pets end up back in rescue."

Behavioural experts also say that "classic" pet shop puppies are often not adequately socialised, making them poor candidates for family pets.

Associate Professor Paul McGreevy, of the faculty of veterinary science at Sydney University, said the socialisation "window" for a dog was between about six and 13 weeks of age.

"Someone who wants to prepare a dog well for its future as a calm and pleasing member of society would be taking the dog out every day and socialising it with different people and objects," he said. "Pet shops do not undertake to do that. Behavioural problems are the main reasons dogs are surrendered or dumped."

Wendy West, a veterinary nurse, is the owner of a Victorian business called ACA Breeders Kennels. Each week she supplies between 50 and 100 puppies to pet shops around the country as well as selling them through her own shop in Melbourne. The dogs come from up to 40 different breeders of all sizes. She rejects completely the critics of commercial breeders.

"You can do everything right but there are always groups with their own agenda that will give you grief. We have a great commitment to health and wellbeing and to helping people get the right pet."

ACA Breeders Kennels breeds a range of crosses, often called designer dogs and given exotic names such as groodle (golden retriever/poodle) and pugalier (pug/cavalier King Charles spaniel). Ms West said there was a great demand for these types of dogs, and because of this they rarely add to the growing numbers of dumped or surrendered dogs.

"These dogs have been around for a long time now and they are rarely given up because they suit people's situations."

But more and more pet shops are refusing to stock animals, taking their cue from stores in Britain and the US.

Lisa Wolfenden has operated her shop, Dogs and the City, in Double Bay since 2004. It stocks everything dog-related except for dogs and puppies.

Ms Wolfenden strongly opposes dogs in pet shops, and steers anyone who comes in wanting to buy a dog towards one of the many rescue shelters that try to find homes for unwanted dogs.

"No dollar is worth treating something that badly. Dogs and the City sells everything but the dog, as it is our firm belief that animals do not belong in shops."

The whole issue was brought into focus by a bill introduced by Clover Moore late last year. The Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill seeks to end pet shop sales of mammals, and to direct intending owners to RSPCA pounds, rescue groups or vets.

The bill's supporters believe it will put a big dent in the commercial puppy breeding business and help reduce the number of dogs that are put down each year.

But the bill has caused soul-searching within the RSPCA, which recently softened its policy on animal sales in pet shops away from outright opposition, which has upset many people.

The chief scientist of the RSPCA, Bidda Jones, said: "What we have done is to move from that blanket opposition to a position where we think firstly people should get their animal from us and if we don't have an animal that is suitable we think they should go to a breeder.

"The fact that we don't have a statement in policy saying that we oppose all sales of animals from pet shops does not mean that we support the sale of animals from pet shops. It absolutely does not mean that."

The Australian Veterinary Association opposes Ms Moore's bill. It says there is not enough evidence on how many animals bought in pet shops are surrendered and killed, and that if such sales are banned, "pet sales may be driven underground".

But critics of the association's position say it is set against a background of an accelerating decline in the numbers of dogs owned in Australia - animals that are an important source of income for most vets.

"Promoting pet ownership is the stuff of professional bodies, but I personally think we should be promoting responsible pet ownership," Professor McGreevy said.

"If that means there are fewer dogs kept I wouldn't worry at all, as long as the quality of care is better for all of them."


Mandee said...

Thanks for posting the link to that article and your opinion too. There's a petition going around for the gov't to investigate puppy farms and pet shops, the link is on my blog if you want to sign it.

I really think we need a way of controlling it and not having dogs bred for profit.

Miss T said...

Signed already! :) I am completely opposed to pet shops and puppy farms, and people 'breeding' animals without proper care and understanding.

a vegan about town said...

Thanks for posting your opinion on this matter, and the article, Miss T. I think it is a bit of a contentious issue in terms of AR, and reading what you've got here was very interesting.