Puppy factories: An Ongoing Battle
A Queensland puppy farm during a raid. Picture: RSPCA
Elvis, a rare field spaniel, was rescued from a puppy farm in Bankstown, Sydney, four years ago. He still doesn’t like being around other dogs, is wary of humans and whenever he’s anxious walks round and round in circles, the way he used to in his cramped little cage where he was used as a breeder for the first three years of his life. Elvis was one of 17 dogs rescued from that place; most of the others discovered there were so diseased and damaged they had to be put down. Elvis had a bad ear mite infection and his hair was so matted he had to be completely shaved.
But he survived and was sent to Mel Jones, who assesses such dogs for the RSPCA before they are rehomed. “When I went to pick up Elvis, I was told that he was so conditioned to being kept in a cage I would have to cage him too,” says Jones. “First I put the cage in the lounge so he could be part of everything but he hated it. So I put the cage outside on the back deck and he went straight in. Then he wouldn’t come out. He just sat there quivering. My dogs terrified him; I terrified him. For the next week that’s where he stayed. I could coax him out to ablute but other than that, it was back in the cage. I even had to feed him in there. The first time I took him to the park, he just stood there. He lifted up his feet and put them down, but didn’t move. He didn’t know what grass was.”
Jones has seen many dogs like Elvis. “They’re rejected from birth,” she says. “Their own mothers were born on puppy farms so they have no idea what they’re doing with their litters. They’re too exhausted, sick and in pain to care for them. They push the puppies away from them; there’s none of the licking that gives the puppies their first important contact. They get no warmth, no care, no affection. Then, when the dogs are a few weeks old, they’re given a quick wash and some talcum powder to cover up the filth and they’re sent to the pet shop or advertised online. And a few months later, all the problems — physical, psychological — are visible. Many end up at rescue centres because their owners can’t cope.”
No one knows quite how big the industry is because for the most part it’s an underground business, the breeders working clandestinely in remote areas far from watchful eyes. “We simply don’t understand the size of the puppy trade,” says Steve Coleman, CEO of RSPCA NSW. “There are a lot of broken dogs out there.”
In May, the full horror of puppy factories came to light when a Victorian family pleaded guilty to 240 charges of animal cruelty. They received a hefty fine but escaped jail. Some 235 dogs were kept at the Pyramid Hill farm and many were malnourished and suffered from ear infections, dental disease, heart problems and skin conditions. Yet the puppies presented a lucrative opportunity. Over two and a half years, the family sold 570 to pet shops for more than $250,000.
Between 2010 and 2015 the NSW RSPCA received 132 complaints about dog breeders, 43 of them this year, of which likely half will lead to prosecution for cruelty. Figures are similar in other states, and the number of reports has grown with public recognition of the problem. But insiders say this is just a tiny proportion of the breeders who are running lucrative mass breeding operations across the country.
It is almost impossible for authorities to keep track of them. They set up their operations in remote locations and seldom stay in one place. A breeder may be closed down in one state only to cross the border and open in another — or start again under a different name.
Animal activist Debra Tranter, who has campaigned for 20 years to shut down the mass puppy trade, tells me of a woman whose dogs were so malnourished they were brain-damaged. They were all surrendered to the RSPCA but she moved to a more isolated area in Victoria and opened again under a different name. “It’s common,” she says. “It’s the way these people work.”
Loopholes in the legislation allow puppy farms to thrive. As the RSPCA points out in its 2010 discussion paper, “Nominal efforts by the operators to meet the minimum (albeit inadequate) standards set by regulators make it difficult to mount a prosecution case.”
“I go to at least one puppy factory a month,” Tranter says. “We report them to the local council or the RSPCA, depending on which state we’re in and which laws they are violating. But I’ve been involved in only about five prosecutions over the last 10 years despite overwhelming evidence of cruelty and neglect. It speaks volumes about how weak animal protection laws are.”
Lobbying by Tranter, the RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations resulted in the recent NSW government inquiry into the puppy trade. The Companion Animal Breeding Practices in NSW inquiry heard atrocious tales of animal cruelty; how animals lived and died in appalling conditions, suffering from mites, mange, flesh-eating infections. It heard how unsupervised breeding can lead to broken penises and mauled dogs; how some bitches become so psychotic from having litter after litter removed that they resort to maternal cannibalism, eating their newborn puppies. It heard that the intense inbreeding of puppy mills results in exaggerated congenital disorders and the lack of kindly human contact or socialisation with other dogs mean that they may never be able to settle within a family. And it heard that the life span of factory dogs is brutally short, three or four years at most — forced to start breeding as early as six months old and killed once their usefulness wears out.
The final report, released last month, recommended the introduction of a breeders’ licensing scheme for all commercial dog and cat breeders and the requirement that breeder identification and animal microchip numbers be displayed when advertising the sale of dogs and cats. But it doesn’t go as far as some people wish: there’s no move to ban animal sales in pet shops or restrict the numbers of animals kept by breeders. Animal welfare groups have expressed frustration at what Tranter describes as “a tragic missed opportunity”.
The government has six months to reply to the report. But as Coleman points out: “There’s a big gap between recommending something and implementing it. And we’ve been disappointed before. We now need the public to pile pressure on the government to pass these recommendations. We’ll never end the puppy trade; but if these do go through, at least we’ll have dragged it into the light.”
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