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Breeding for Bucks

Puppy mill inhumanity is against the law, but the problem persists

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It assaults the senses.

It's the stench first. Then you recognize that buzzing sound. It's flies swarming around the dirty cages where the dogs live, around the green scum that floats in their water bowls.

Out here, 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg, out where the air is supposed to be fresh and clear, ammonia from dog urine stings your eyes.

The Chesapeake Bay and Lab puppies live in this, in a wooden shack, in the dark.

About 100 dogs and puppies -- all kinds, big, small, Maltese/ Bichons Frisé crosses, Mastiff/ Rottweiler crosses, Japanese Chin/ Cocker Spaniel crosses -- are stored here.

"I want to get rid of all the Labs and Chesapeakes because I don't want anything that sells under $500," said Dick Wiebe who owns this operation.

These dogs are among the thousands across North America being bred for big bucks by backyard breeders, business people who measure their success in dollars rather than in improvements to a breed, a motivation cited by many reputable breeders.

"The puppy mill problem is huge. And it's happening in the provinces and all over the United States," said Stephan Otto of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, based in California.

Experts say puppy mills are substandard breeding operations where overcrowding and unsanitary conditions produce dogs with serious health and behavioural problems.

Much could be done to correct it in Manitoba where the province's Animal Care Act has been praised as the toughest law of its kind in the country and is about to face an overhaul to make it even tougher. However, Otto said even the toughest laws can't be effective if there are not enough resources to enforce them.

Manitoba's chief veterinary officer acknowledges the province's system sometimes falls short. "If we had unlimited resources, we would improve the health of animals," Wayne Lees said.

This summer, Lees' office hired a student to do spot checks on licenced breeding operations, managing to inspect just one quarter of the 119 such operations. The office also responds to complaints, first by phone, then if necessary with a visit. But Lees does not have staff to monitor the hundreds of online ads that offer puppies for sale.

Manitoba's wide open spaces make it a place where puppy mills can easily flourish. They tend to be a rural phenomena, often hidden in the countryside where prying neighbours are unlikely to see what is going on. Generally, people who run puppy mills offer to meet buyers away from their facilities so the buyer does not know in what condition the puppy was raised.

To check out Manitoba's puppy mill situation, the Free Press answered more than 15 ads for dogs for sale, most of them online -- a venue favoured by puppy mill owners for the anonymity it provides. Ads typically were one sentence, listing breed, price, general location and phone number.

Reputable breeders advise asking about the puppy's parents, their health, how many times the mother has been bred. But those questions appeared to stymie many of the breeders reached.

"We've had way more than five litters. Oh God, how many litters have we had? I would say even more than 10 litters," one woman said.

One Dominion City area breeder advertising puppies for sale became testy when a Free Press reporter pushed to see her facilities, a red flag in reputable breeders' view that an establishment is a puppy mill. But Shirley Falk offered a different explanation later when she was aware she was speaking to a reporter. Falk said she never lets buyers who've been to other breeding operations enter her facility, citing concerns about disease.

Falk said she does not consider herself a breeder and does not have a licence. She said the puppies for sale were the result of Falk loaning a dog to breed to a friend who was short of cash.

The eight operations the Free Press ultimately visited varied in size and conditions and types of dogs, but the breeders' attitudes were the same: all fixated on securing a deposit.

At one property near Steinbach, about 25 Chihuahuas yelped for attention -- some in the owner's yard, in her kitchen and in her basement. The dogs were in large pens with clean blankets and fresh water. There was no smell. The puppies were $600 each, purebred but with no papers.

Owner Simone Harder said she was going through the process of getting a licence after six years in the business. Still, money was the main topic of her conversation.

"They sell like hotcakes," said Harder. "People come from as far as Thunder Bay and Thompson for these. There's easy money in this."

Later, aware she was talking to a reporter, Harder admitted that perhaps she spoke too much about the money and not enough about the dogs and the prospective buyer. "Maybe it's not a good thing to say it's good money. In a way, it doesn't sound too good. But they do sell like hotcakes."

Harder, who quit her job to breed dogs full time, said she doesn't understand why anyone would be concerned that she earns money breeding dogs. Experts often explain that the problem is not in earning money, but that too often the only way to earn a living at dog breeding is by overbreeding which often leads to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

On a nearby farm, the children negotiate with prospective buyers because, the children explain, their parents do not speak English. In a dilapidated wooden shack, feces line the floor. The smell is overwhelming. At the rear of the shack, more than a dozen puppies -- Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, pugs -- run back and forth in an enclosed area.

Asked if the dogs sell well, a boy of about 13 said they used to, but now he suspects too many people have Chihuahuas for sale.

The children tell us they "borrowed" their neighbour's dog for breeding. A tractor ran over one male dog. A litter of puppies froze to death, the children say.

Later, adults at the farm did not return phone calls.

Dick Wiebe spoke freely at both the undercover visit to his operation and afterward when he knew he was speaking to a reporter.

At his facility, the stench was so bad it stuck, and a Free Press reporter and photographer drove home with the windows open.

In at least one instance, the puppies appeared not to be socialized to human contact. When Wiebe opened the door of a cupboard where the puppies were kept, they cowered against a back wall.

Unsocialized pups are bad news for their new owners. They can be overly submissive, hyperactive or aggressive. They are unlikely to easily fit into a family.

Wiebe's dogs sat on soiled straw, raw meat among the bedding. The water in their bowls was green and slimy.

Talking later about conditions at his operation, Wiebe admitted his facilities were overcrowded the day the Free Press visited. He said he had just taken back dogs from a woman who had been selling them from her "beautiful home" after their business relationship soured. He did say on the day of the visit that he normally doesn't allow buyers to come to the facility. Later his daughter, who keeps her father's paperwork, said her father now has 70 dogs and puppies.

Wiebe said he does change the dogs' water frequently, and "it turns green overnight." Later, he said a particular vine which grows on his property, turns the dogs' water green.

He also said it's normal for dog breeding operations to "stink," that he cleans the pens frequently.

Wiebe said his facility is licenced but the licence is "garbage."

The provincial vet said he is familiar with Wiebe's operation.

"I have a fairly thick file on him," said Dr. Wayne Lees. "Most of the issues dealing with him have involved sanitation and facilities. He has made improvements to his facilities, but obviously, you found, there is still a long way to go."

Lees' office responded to a complaint about Wiebe's operation earlier this year and he applied for a licence then. Lees said, "There were a number of things that needed to be improved." Lees' staff re-inspected the operation in June, found it still fell short and issued recommendations which Lees says must be met by the next inspection set for the fall.

So how does a breeding operation that officials admit does not meet the standard still rate a licence? "We try to work with people. As long as they are making progress, we try to ensure the welfare is improving all the time."

But closing down an operation -- despite the occasional case which grabs headlines and tugs at Manitobans' heartstrings -- is a rare occurrence. And it seems the larger the breeding operation, the more difficult it is to close down.

"Because there's nobody in the province who can accept 90 dogs at one time," Lees said. But he added it's the conditions that determine inspectors' actions.

"We base our decisions on the welfare of the animals, whether that's one or 100."

The need to be licenced is particularly irksome to Wiebe. He said many of his neighbours who keep dogs in far worse conditions than his are not licensed.

"There are all kinds of breeders within five miles of my place... the guy down the street, he sells, too... He won't even let you get near his place. He feeds his dogs dead piglets."

Not all people breeding dogs in Manitoba are in it solely for the money. Many are reputable breeders raising puppies with a lot of love and care.

At Cindy Mowez' home in St. Andrews, six bull terriers run and play in a fenced yard. More than once, she has bred the No. 1 bull terrier in Canada.

"These (dogs) are my children and I treat them like that... last year, we spent $25,000 on them. We average one litter a year, and it doesn't cover our costs."

Inside her house, each dog has a designated area with toys and plenty of space. Caring for them, even though there are only six dogs, she says, is a full-time job. Her puppies are all tested for hearing, heart and bone deficiencies, and all prospective buyers are screened rigorously.

She is in good standing with the Canadian Kennel Club and is vice-president of the Bull Terriers Association.

She describes a typical day at her kennel. "Everybody gets their breakfast and supper. Everybody goes out after their breakfast. They get fresh water. They run for an hour depending on weather. If it's yucky outside, and they want to come in, they'll tell me," Mowez says.

Reputable breeders often say they breed for the love of the breed, not the money because there is no money in it. Mowez says she doesn't understand the public's insatiable appetite for so-called designer dogs at bargain prices.

"You don't know any of (the dog's health issues) if you buy from a pet store or a puppy mill," Mowez said.

Unfortunately, many buyers, such as Marsha Penner, learn the hard way about buying from a puppy mill.

Penner bought a pug for $650 from a woman online. When she brought the puppy home, it started to vomit and refuse food and water. It's temperature spiked to 107 degrees. A vet determined the pup, Shadow, had contracted parvovirus, a deadly, contagious canine disease. Penner eventually had to put the pup down, and her daughters were devastated.

"I was naive and didn't really ask for the parents because there were so many dogs there... you see a dog, you fall in love with it because it is so cute and you forget to ask all the right questions," Penner said.

Penner was one of 11 dog buyers who responded to a Free Press online ad seeking people who've had bad dog-buying experiences. Some said they didn't know what to ask the breeder. Others said they noticed the squalid conditions, but fell in love with the pup and wanted to rescue it.

Tracy Munn has dealt with the fallout from puppy mills many times in her 10 years with the Brandon Humane Society. She frequently hears from people who bought from puppy mills whose dogs are suffering serious and expensive health problems.

Munn says it won't change until the political will exists to stop puppy mills.

"I blame the politicians. They don't think it's important... Catching them (puppy mill operators) is difficult and a lot of times they will shut down, move away and open up somewhere else," Munn said.

Lees has a simple solution to Manitoba's puppy mill problem. It is a solution endorsed by shelter workers and dog breeders who spoke to the Free Press for this story.

"If you're looking for a puppy and you can't see where the puppy was raised, dial the next number," Lees said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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