A (Designer) Dog’s Life
If the Obamas choose a hybrid, unethical breeders will try to cash in—and puppies are likely to suffer.
From the magazine issue dated Apr 13, 2009
The White County sheriff's department noticed the stench from a mile up the road. By the time rescuers entered the series of sheds in Sparta, Tenn., some were forced to wear respirators. Inside each shed were scores of dogs in tiny cages, many covered in feces. The sheds reeked of urine and were so frigid the officers had to set up portable heaters to work inside. Authorities, who raided the farm in February after receiving tips from angry customers who'd purchased sick puppies, discovered 300 dogs on the three-acre property—many of them malnourished, mangy and infected by parasites. Some were housed a half dozen to a cage in near total darkness. Many of the pups were "designer dogs"—trendy new breeds like puggles (which result when a pug is bred with a beagle), Maltepoos (a Maltese-poodle mix) and Chipins (a Chihuahua-pinscher cross). "It's market driven," says Melinda Merck, a forensic veterinarian who assisted with the Tennessee raid. "People just see a designer breed and say, 'I've never heard of that dog but it sounds cute'." And for puppy mills like this one, designer dogs—many of which sell for more than $1,000 apiece—have become a huge business.
The line connecting this canine hellhole to the White House is admittedly indirect. But any day now the Obama girls will bring home the puppy their father promised them in his election-night speech. In January, Obama told ABC News the family was strongly considering a Labradoodle, a Labrador-poodle hybrid that's become especially popular among allergy sufferers—a group that includes Malia Obama. Michelle Obama has said she favors a purebred Portuguese water dog; a White House spokesperson won't comment, but an announcement could come this week. No matter which breed the Obamas choose, animal-welfare advocates expect to see a "101 Dalmatians" effect: a sudden burst in popularity that results when a movie or a celebrity puts a spotlight on a particular dog, a phenomenon breeders try to capitalize on it by mass-producing similar dogs.
By all accounts, the Obamas are laboring to make a prudent decision. They've already committed to adopt a shelter dog, which thrills animal lovers. (It's also a big improvement over Vice President Biden, who in December unwittingly purchased a German shepherd from a large Pennsylvania breeder whose kennel had a recent history of unsatisfactory inspections.) But the two breeds they're considering aren't commonly found in shelters, so if other families want a similar dog, there's a good chance they'll get one bred in a puppy mill like the one raided in Tennessee. The good news is the Obama adoption comes at a time of heightened scrutiny over the practices of these dog breeders, who've been able to utilize the Internet to sidestep regulations intended to protect dogs from cruelty. More than two dozen states are passing new laws to make commercial breeders treat their living products better. Among animal-welfare advocates, much of the concern focuses on reports of inhumane practices by Amish and Mennonite dog breeders in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. And as NEWSWEEK found during visits to Amish and Mennonite dog farms, those concerns appear warranted.
As you're driving through bucolic Lancaster County, it's impossible not to be struck by the number of worn, wooden rabbit hutches stacked beside barns. There are often no rabbits, however; inside many of the hutches are puppies, a NEWSWEEK investigation found. Often, the animals are left outside during the frigid winters. Their feet slip painfully through the cages' wire floors—and sometimes, so does their excrement, which rains on top of the dogs below when breeders stack cages to save space. Some of the dogs are nearly as big as their cages, leaving them little room to move. In front of the farms handwritten signs advertise the different breeds available. On these farms, hybrids like Labradoodles and puggles are plentiful.
Animal-welfare advocates refer to many of these operations as "puppy mills"—a catch-all term that's loosely defined as a facility that produces large numbers of puppies in less-than-ideal conditions for sale to pet stores or to consumers over the Internet. According to Bob Baker, who investigates puppy mills for the ASPCA, these dogs typically receive little if any vet care, are kept in tiny cages 24 hours a day and rarely interact with humans. "The differences all come down to raising a dog as a loving pet versus a cash crop," says Baker, who estimates there are between 5,000 and 10,000 puppy mills in the United States, with as many as 2,000 in the Amish and Mennonite countryside.
Animal-rights advocates say that culturally, the farmers who breed dogs don't see a meaningful distinction between pets and farm animals raised for slaughter. Sometimes they behave accordingly: last summer Elmer Zimmerman, a dairy farmer in Kutztown, Penn., shot and killed 70 sick dogs on his farm, avoiding big vet bills after a health warden ordered him to take the dogs in for treatment. There's no law against such behavior in many states—and in fact, because many of these farms now sell directly to consumers over the Internet, they're not even covered by the minimal U.S. Department of Agriculture standards that apply to breeders who sell to pet stores. "It's a massive loophole," says USDA spokesperson Jessica Milteer.
News of the shootings led to protests and prayer vigils outside the Zimmerman farm. Gov. Ed Rendell, a pet lover, marshaled that public outrage to push through a tough new law aimed at improving conditions at puppy mills. Under the Pennsylvania law, which goes into effect in October, wire flooring and stacked cages will be outlawed; dogs must be let outside for exercise; minimum cage sizes will be increased; and owners will be required to have every dog examined by a vet twice a year. (The regs also outlaw shooting dogs.) Legislatures in North Carolina, Washington, Oklahoma and about two dozen other states are considering or have recently passed bills to improve conditions in puppy mills, too.
The legislative crackdown isn't very popular among the Amish farmers, nor are they convinced their practices need reform. When NEWSWEEK visited the Zimmerman farm last month, Elmer hid inside, but his father defended the shootings. "It was instant—if you take them to the vet [to be put down], how would you feel lying there unable to get air for 15 minutes?" he says. Elmer's father, who declined to be named, says the uproar has led his family to abandon their breeding business, which he regrets. "It was very profitable," he says, bemoaning how new regulations will make it prohibitively expensive to raise puppies. "It's one more business that is out of our hands. Japan, Mexico—all these countries are taking our jobs," he says.
Not every Amish or Mennonite breeder treats his dogs harshly: some let their dogs out of their cages to exercise and are scrupulous about vaccinations. And there are plenty of unethical breeders who aren't Amish or Mennonite—including the owners of the Tennessee farm that authorities raided in February, who have not yet been charged but could face jail sentences. Some Lancaster breeders visited by NEWSWEEK defended their practices, saying the dogs are happy in their cages. As Elmer Zimmerman's father puts it, "it's the only way to keep a lot of dogs—to keep them penned up."
The Zimmermans did particularly well selling designer dogs—Elmer favored cockapoos, a cocker spaniel–poodle mix. "They don't shed and then people's houses don't get dirty," Elmer's father says. Amish and Mennonite dog breeders on some of the eight other farms NEWSWEEK visited cited other reasons for favoring hybrids. "It's less paperwork for me—you don't have to register them," says one Lancaster County breeder, who declined to be named—but who, according to rescue officials, has kept as many as 500 dogs on his farm. No matter which breed farmers choose, the costs of these businesses are astonishingly low, critics say. "Once they set up their cages all they have to pay for is staff and vaccines," says Kathleen Summers, director of the Stop Puppy Mills campaign at the Humane Society of the United States. By some accounts, there are Amish breeders earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
It's a business that creates strange bedfellows. Last year animal activist Bill Smith, who runs Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs, Penn., noticed that some of the farms alleged to mistreat puppies were also producing organic dairy products, the kind bought by affluent consumers who'd be horrified their milk and yogurt are being produced alongside dogs in tiny, filthy cages. Indeed, NEWSWEEK visited one farm where a sign identified it as producing Horizon Organics dairy products, which are sold by upscale retailers like Whole Foods Market and in big-box stores like Wal-Mart. That farm, B&R Puppies in Parkesburg, Penn., was recently licensed to hold up to 250 dogs a year; inspection reports from 2007 and 2008 cited conditions as "unsatisfactory" because of squalid cages, sick dogs, pests and failure to vaccinate for rabies. When NEWSWEEK informed Horizon of B&R's puppy business, the company sent a representative to investigate. Upon finding breeding dogs at the farm, Horizon suspended its dealings with the farm. In a statement, Horizon said the farmer promised to "[close] that operation and [find] appropriate and humane homes for all of the dogs." Indeed, late last week farm owner John Stoltzfus told NEWSWEEK he'd already found new homes for the dogs "so we can still send milk to Horizon."
Most of the farms NEWSWEEK visited sold hybrid dogs. According to experts, about 20 percent of the dogs raised in puppy mills are designer breeds, with puggles, Labradoodles and Yorkiepoos (Yorkshire terrier–poodle mixes) among the most popular. Breeders are often able to sell a designer dog for far more than the cost of the two breeds they mate to produce it. For instance, if a puppy mill breeds a $50 beagle with an $800 pug, the litter of puggles can sell for nearly $1,000 apiece. A farmer might keep one male pug and four female beagles. Since beagles average six puppies a litter and two litters a year, a five-dog operation like this could yield 48 puggles annually. "Where else do you get something where two ingredients that cost almost nothing give you a combination that is worth a lot?" says Caroline Coile, a canine expert who's written a book on designer dogs.
Mostly, though, breeders engage in this mix-and-match mating because consumers have been led to believe that hybrid dogs combine the best features of two breeds into one. Consider the Labradoodle, first bred in Australia in the early 1980s as guide dogs for blind people with allergies. They came to the United States in 1998, and consumers gravitated to them. (Tiger Woods got one in 2006.) "Designer dogs are made to appeal to people who want the perfect dog—perfectly trained, never sheds, no accidents and intrinsically healthy," says Frances Smith, a veterinarian who sits on the board of the Labrador Retriever Club. "Of course, that animal doesn't exist."
Poodle hybrids are especially popular because poodles are hypoallergenic and smart, but have a prissy, fussy image. Mixing a poodle with a Lab or a Yorkshire yields a dog with a poodle's assets but none of the negative baggage. While some hybrids have existed for decades, today unethical breeders behave like crazed bartenders, concocting new mixes by mating whatever dogs are on hand. "[Breeders say] 'I can make anything you want,' but it's not like Sherwin Williams where you're mixing paint," says Main Line Animal Rescue's Smith.
There are several problems with this practice. The first is a genetic phenomenon familiar to anyone who's ever debated whether an infant looks more like his mother or father: there's no perfect way to predict which parent's attributes will flow through to an offspring. That's particularly problematic when the chief concern is a nonallergenic coat, since the character of a dog's hair doesn't become entirely clear until it's mature. (By one estimate, one third of Labradoodles wind up with a coat that's more like a Lab's than a poodle's.) The variability goes beyond the coat. While an average Labradoodle weighs around 50 pounds, experts have seen them range from 19 pounds to 90 pounds. The variations can increase if, instead of mating, say, a pug with a beagle, a breeder tries mating two puggles directly; the results often look like a mutt. Gregory Acland, a professor at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine and a practicing vet, says consumers vastly overestimate breeders' ability to predict what a hybrid dog will turn out to be in terms of coat, temperament and overall health. "When you cross two breeds, it's like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates—you don't know what you're going to get," he says.
That's one reason why some dog lovers are rooting for a purebred to win a place at the White House. "One of the great benefits of a purebred dog is predictability," says Lisa Peterson, spokesperson for the American Kennel Club, which charges owners to register purebred dogs. That group isn't the only one rooting for the Portuguese water dog that Michelle Obama favors: Sen. Ted Kennedy owns three of them—Sunny, Splash and Cappy—and has raved to the Obamas about a "portie" as "the perfect choice." Still, some animal experts question the first lady's pick: they say porties, which typically retail for around $2,000, tend to be hyperactive. Even a top official with the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America has warned that a portie "might be a little too much for a family who has never owned a dog before." (Not to mention one living in a home filled with valuable antiques.) There also tend to be few porties in shelters, so people who want their own version of the White House dog may wind up fueling demand for puppies bred in mills.
As with nearly every decision they make, the Obamas will face some criticism no matter what breed they choose. "It's so hard for a first-time puppy or dog owner to make decisions, and to have to do it under a microscope is very hard—my heart goes out to them," says N. Beth Line, director for the International Doodle Owners Group. (Obama has acknowledged the pressure: "This has been tougher than finding a Commerce secretary," he told George Stephanopoulos in January.) In the past, there have been fads for collies (driven by "Lassie"), Dalmatians (by the Disney movies) and for Newfoundlands (when that breed won the Westminster dog show), so hybrid or no hybrid, the Obamas can't help but inadvertently fuel interest in one breed or another. "This is just part of the wave—it's not like it's adding to it," says Line. At the very least, the Obamas' methodical search and choice of a shelter dog should help teach Americans that acquiring a pet should require soul-searching and due diligence.
Back in Amish country, there's less anticipation over the first canine, and more agitation over the regulatory threats. "All this will be gone," says Edwin, a 34-year-old Mennonite farmer in Lancaster County (who declined to give his last name). He's pointing to a row of elevated wire cages and a chain-link pen, where he breeds mini-pinschers, Labs and a half-dozen other breeds. "I built a business since being a little boy and they're going to take it away," says Edwin, who sells his dogs for $350 apiece. For people who truly consider the four-legged creatures sitting in his cages to be man's best friend, the advent of a kinder, gentler way of breeding puppies can't arrive soon enough.