Texas – Take Action
‘Something that needs to be fixed in Texas is the treatment of the dogs and cats in commercial breeding kennels or ‘puppy mills.’ Willie Nelson – American country music singer- songwriter, as well as an author, poet, actor, and activist.
In Texas the problem is particularly acute, and it is placing a major burden on animal rescue groups and government regulators. Dogs confiscated from such operations are often malnourished or sick, having been housed in cramped and filthy cages, with female dogs birthing litter after litter of ill-bred puppies.
“Texas is definitely one of the top states for puppy mills,” said Kathleen Summers, who leads the campaign against puppy mills for the Humane Society of the United States.
Texas is one of a handful of states that have no laws regulating dog breeding operations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture only licenses breeders who sell to other companies – pet stores, chains, or pet “brokers” like the Hunte Corporation. Breeders who sell strictly to individuals are subject only to animal cruelty laws, where investigations are often left to animal welfare groups. The result is that breeding operations often go uninspected for years. Those facts, plus the abundance of open space in proximity to major cities and airports, make Texas ripe for such operations.
James Bias, president of the Dallas chapter of the Society for the Prevention and Cruelty of Animals (SPCA), said his group receives about 200 complaints a month about puppy mills in North Texas. In the last two years, the chapter has helped raid about 10 puppy mills a year, compared to an average two raids in other years.
Tammy Roberts, chief cruelty investigator for the Humane Society of North Texas, said her organization’s resources have been overwhelmed by the number of complaints needing to be investigated and the number of confiscated dogs that the organization has had to care for and find homes for. Nearly half the 2,000 or so animals rescued by the Fort Worth-based chapter this year came from puppy mills, she said. She estimates that there are hundreds of puppy mills in North Texas that haven’t been busted yet.
Even though large-scale breeding operations operate in rural areas, cities like Fort Worth often have to deal with the results, when unhealthy dogs end up in pounds and shelters. The animals seized in the Montague County raid were housed temporarily in a loaned warehouse in the Fort Worth Stockyards, where volunteers worked around the clock to provide food, water, and medical care until the dogs were adopted.
Some activists have taken another tack in the fight against such breeders. One group has protested every Saturday for the last two years at North Texas outlets of the Petland chain, claiming that the store sells puppies raised under inhumane conditions.
Petland spokespersons deny that contention, and in fact there is plenty of disagreement over what constitutes a “puppy mill.” Some breeders say that the Humane Society and similar groups are opposed to all commercial breeding operations, regardless of whether they are well run. There may be some truth in that – because many anti-cruelty activists believe that no such large, profit-oriented operation can be run humanely.
The argument continues in part because there is so little regulation of dog breeders. USDA regulations require commercial breeders to be licensed, but inspectors are spread thin, and puppy mills often operate for years before they are shut down.
Tony and Peggy Boyd, the owners of the Kaufman County farm that was raided, were arrested and charged with violating animal cruelty laws. Their case has not gone to trial yet – but Peggy Boyd says she intends to re-start her kennel operation as soon as possible.
To combat the spread of puppy mills, State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston sponsored legislation earlier this year that would have required breeders to meet minimum standards of care and limit them to a maximum of 50 breeding female dogs. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate near the end of the session due to opposition from a veterinarians’ group.
Even Willie Nelson came out in support of the bill. “Growing up in Abbott … I was taught to police my own area,” the legendary singer wrote to legislators in March. “When you see something is wrong, fix it. Well, something that needs to be fixed in Texas is the treatment of the dogs and cats in commercial breeding kennels or ‘puppy mills.’ Many states have enacted puppy mill bills requiring breeders to be licensed and to provide minimum standards of care. Texas is not one of these states, but common decency and the majority of Texans say we should be.”
The development of the web has greatly increased the buying and selling of pets at a distance – and therefore contributed to the problem of puppy mills. Web sites that post free classifieds are deeply involved in pet sales. On Craigslist alone, Summers said, thousands of ads for puppies are posted every day. And Texas ranks among the top four states for selling dogs via the internet.
Now people who want puppies can enter credit card information online, and within a few days, a puppy arrives at the local airport. They have no idea where the animal came from or what types of conditions it was raised in, Summers said.
The USDA requires dog breeders who sell to commercial pet stores and who have more than three breeding female dogs to be licensed. Five USDA inspectors in Texas do nearly 800 animal facility inspections each year, including breeders, research operations, zoos, and circuses (but not ranches, farms, or retail pet stores). Enforcement of animal cruelty laws is an important part of what they do, but the USDA seldom seizes animals. Instead, they usually work in tandem with local authorities and, in many cases, groups like the Humane Society.
Tammy Hawley said she was “one of those people who thought puppies came from satin pillows.” But she soon found out differently when she went to work for the Humane Society of North Texas, where she is now operations director. Hawley helped the group conduct its first puppy mill raid, in Johnson County in 1994. Since then, she said, the North Texas group has participated at least twice a year with law enforcement in rescuing dogs being kept in inhumane conditions.
In the last few years, however, the North Texas rescue group has been swamped by complaints about puppy mills. Tammy Roberts is a one-person investigative unit, driving hundreds of miles a week to look into complaints of animal cruelty.
The workload increased even more after July, when a judge gave the Humane Society ownership of the dogs seized from the Montague County breeding operation. Since then, Roberts said, she’s received an average of 10 complaints a week from people who say they know of puppy mills in their areas.
Roberts and other HSNT workers scrambled to find a place to house the 497 dogs from the Montague County breeder. Chesapeake Energy donated the use of a warehouse in the Fort Worth Stockyards, but the building had poor ventilation and no running water. Roberts lugged in water hoses and commercial fans, and the HSNT sent out e-mail blasts asking for round-the-clock volunteers to feed and water the animals. Veterinarians were brought in to rid the dogs of fleas and worms. Amazingly, HSNT says about 400 of the dogs were adopted locally in about a week; another 100 were sent to a Humane Society chapter in Atlanta to be cared for.
“Obviously for 2009 none of us expected the surge of such large cruelty cases,” she said. “All we can do is be responsible for every penny we spend and manage that money and hope, pray, and rely on our donors.
Wrapped up in a green sweater on a chilly November afternoon, 72-year-old Peggy Boyd pointed out the four kennel buildings behind her house on FM 90 in Mabank. Now empty, the kennels take up about an acre of the 30-acre farm that she and her husband Tony own.
The couple have bred dogs since the 1970s, formerly selling them from their pet store in Mesquite. Peggy Boyd said her kennel was never licensed by the USDA because she sold dogs only to individuals.
“We were not a puppy mill,” she said about the raid that shut down her business in August. “The whole thing was half-truths or lies.”
She does admit that their dog-raising business had fallen on hard times. When the economy went south, fewer people had money to spend on buying pets, and last year the Boyds found themselves with little money coming in. In June, Peggy Boyd called the Humane Society of nearby Cedar Creek Lake for help in feeding her 535 dogs.
Krista McAnally, who works at the Cedar Creek shelter, said in an affidavit that she gave Boyd 400 pounds of dog food, though the shelter usually doesn’t work with commercial breeders. On Aug. 4, Boyd returned, out of food again. That time, McAnally called the national Humane Society, which assigned an investigator to go to Boyd’s house two days later.
Armed with a hidden camera and audio equipment, the investigator reported seeing dogs with mange and missing fur, trash strewn throughout the property, a terrier with an open wound, and feces smeared across the walls of the kennels. One dog was found to have an untreated tumor.
“About 80 percent of the dogs I visited are fearful … and/or territorial,” wrote the investigator, who wasn’t named in sheriff’s department documents. “They appear to have had little to no human socialization in their lives.”
McAnally and the Humane Society investigator went to the sheriff’s department with the video recording. Accompanied by representatives of the Humane Society and the SPCA of Texas, Sgt. John Pillow of the sheriff’s department arrived at the Boyds’ farm with a search warrant on Aug. 11.
Boyd said she called the local Humane Society shelter for help, even though she was suspicious of their “snooping.”
“I know not to trust the Humane Society,” she said. “Why I did, I do not know.”
Boyd said she didn’t take the dogs to the vet for minor ailments. “If your kid has a drippy nose, are you going to take your kid to the doctor or treat him for a cold?” she asked.
Kathleen Summers said that, based on the pictures, Boyd’s dogs were suffering from some of the worst conditions she has ever seen.
“If Texas could have a law like many other states do, where they at least have to be regulated and inspected once a year, it would have been caught a lot sooner, long before she had more than 500 dogs,” Summers said.
Not many animal lovers would quit their jobs to follow that cause, but John Pippin, 59, of Dallas, did. A cardiologist, he quit to form Texans Exposing Petland, a group that parades in front of Petland stores in North Texas every Saturday, carrying signs with slogans like, “Pay Petland, Support Pet Prisons!”
Pippin says the fact that Petland buys puppies from Hunte Corporation is enough to keep him standing outside the stores for years. In October, the posse gathered outside Petland in Arlington, brandishing signs that said, “Petland: Buy One, Get one Dead,” and “Puppies aren’t Products.”
“Puppy mills are concentration camps for animals,” he said.
Pippin and the Arlington Petland store owner, Paul Thomas, got in a fight in front of the store in September, throwing punches and rolling in the grass. Both men were cited by the police for fighting in public.
Thomas wouldn’t comment for this story, but Pippin said he won’t stop protesting until Petland agrees to stop selling puppies and to start adoption programs for rescued animals instead.
Animal welfare groups say big pet stores and pet brokers are another part of the puppy mill problem in Texas. More people complained to the national Humane Society last year about sick dogs bought from breeders and pet stores in Texas than any other state, Summers said.
The national Humane Society has sued Petland, which has five stores in the Metroplex. The suit alleges that Petland and the Hunte Corporation, based in Goodman, Mo., “have conspired to misrepresent to consumers that their puppies are healthy and from high-quality breeders, when many of them really come from squalid mass breeding facilities known as puppy mills.” Summers said about 800 people have complained to the national Humane Society since last November about puppies they bought from Petland.
She said owners often complain that their Petland-bought dogs have congenital knee, hip, and eye problems that require expensive veterinary care and surgery. Sometimes buyers bring home puppies with the sniffles, which turns out to be kennel cough or pneumonia. And frequently the dogs suffer from parvovirus, which causes diarrhea and heart problems.
“Sometimes [the dogs] do die of that within days of weeks of purchase,” she said.
The Arlington Petland store has bought puppies from the Hunte Corporation, according to HSUS documents. USDA inspection reports show that Hunte was cited once in the last three years for keeping puppies in undersized cages and selling puppies too young.
Elizabeth Kunzelman, director of marketing and communications for Petland, said that the stores follow USDA guidelines and buy only from USDA- licensed breeders and local “hobby breeders.” Oftentimes, Petland inspectors visit breeding facilities themselves, she said. “I’ve been in the Hunte facility. It’s absolutely immaculate.”
But Summer said Petland’s rules for breeders don’t measure up.
“Very often the Petland stores claim they know their breeders and they deal with good breeders,” Summers said. “The particular [stores] in Texas deal with a broker, and they don’t meet the breeders. How can they make that claim?”
Kunzelman said, “If we were selling those types of animals, why would we still be in business?”
Summers said that if buyers saw the conditions in which Petland dogs are raised, they’d be horrified.
A Plano woman wrote to the Humane Society in May to complain about her dog, Buddy, bought from the Lewisville Petland store. She noticed that the German shepherd was having trouble walking and soon discovered that he was suffering from hip and elbow dysplasia, a genetic disorder. Cysts grew on his back, and he ran a constant fever. She and her boyfriend still love the dog, she said, but “Had we known what Petland is really about, we would have never set foot in that store.”
Kunzelman said that she couldn’t respond specifically to the complaint, but that congenital defects are covered under Petland’s warranty for up to a year. “Puppies, like babies, have immune systems and can get sick,” she said.
Hawley, the operations director for the Humane Society of North Texas, said Hunte also refuses to provide information that would help return lost dogs to their owners. The company does implant microchips in the dogs they sell, an increasingly common way to keep track of pets. But Hawley said the company doesn’t register information on who buys the dogs, so the microchips do no good.
“I’ve never returned a Hunte dog to its owner,” she said.
Char Duncan of Denton, 53, has been a member of Texans Exposing Petland since it began two years ago. She believes people should adopt animals from shelters. “Mutts make the best dog,” she said, pointing to her dog Casey, who sat slumped on the grass, sporting a hand-made scarf that said, “Free the animals.”
On one October Saturday when the protesters were outside, not one person entered the store in a two-hour period. Pippin said that is a common experience when his group protests.
Senfronia Thompson thought her House Bill 3180 was a sure bet. It passed the Texas House last spring with little debate. Her colleague, Charles “Doc” Anderson of Waco, worked closely with Thompson’s staffers to tweak the bill’s language to gain the support of his fellow veterinarians, who had originally opposed the “puppy mill bill.”
But when the bill reached the Senate, the veterinarians still opposed it, and the Senate balked. It died in Senate committee. “We were taken off guard,” said Colleen Tran, the policy analyst who worked on the bill.
The bill would have regulated dog breeders whose animals produce more than 20 litters per year and required them to obtain state licenses. Breeders would be required to provide adequate food, water, and shelter to their animals and could not have more than 50 breeding females.
Anderson said the veterinarians thought the bill was still too harsh on breeders. It would have imposed fines and made animal cruelty a more serious misdemeanor, with possible penalties of up to 180 days in jail and fines of up to $2,000.
“They thought the bill was overreaching and would be an impediment to those who are doing a good job,” Anderson said.
Thompson said she will re-introduce the bill when the legislature convenes again in 2011. And Anderson said he is already working with the veterinarians’ group to win their support.
Ten states, including Washington and Oregon, passed laws this year requiring the inspection and regulation of dog breeders. But the number of breeders licensed by the USDA has declined, and Summers fears that more breeders are going underground.
“If Texas doesn’t pass a law to regulate breeders, puppy mills in this state are only going to continue to get worse,” she said.
Back in Mabank, 10 yapping dogs – pets, not breeding stock, she says – circle Peggy Boyd as she points out improvements to a visitor. She figures the court may stop her from breeding dogs for profit for a couple of years but plans to be ready to go when that time is up.
“I’d love to have some puppies,” she says.
You can reach Sarah Perry at Sarah@fwweekly.com