American Puppy Mills and the Rescues That Keep Them Afloat
Updated: Jun 8, 2019
Photo: Kathy Bauck was one of America's most notorious puppy mill operators. At her peak, she had nearly 1,200 breeding dogs plus puppies. When I visited her property, there were 800 dogs on site. Click the photo to see an in-depth story about her by the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS).
It is a smell you can't ever really get rid of. Once you smell it, it stays in your memory forever: a pungent mix of decaying feces, urine, vomit and blood. When it hits your nostrils, it burns, just like it burns your eyes. Once you leave, it is in your clothing and it is embedded in your sinuses so you can still smell it after you change your clothing and shower and then shower again. And then there is the noise, the ear-drum-shattering screeching of hundreds of dogs packed into a tiny metal building where the walls, ceiling and floor only amplify the sound of the dogs' cries to far beyond human safety limits. Welcome to puppy mills in America, large-scale, commercial producers of dogs, which are very different than small hobby breeders.
The distinction between hobby breeders and commercial breeders is important because as the numbers of animals housed and produced goes up, the operation becomes less about the dogs and more about profit. Hobby breeders, after all, often make no profit and maintain small numbers of animals because they love their given breeds and are working to maintain healthy breed standards. To commercial breeders, dogs are commodities to be traded and sold for profit, pure and simple. Nothing more.
In my career, I have been boots on the ground at some of the most notorious puppy mills in America, sometimes incognito and sometimes accompanied by law enforcement in order to take dogs or document cruelty. The sights, sounds and smells are things you have to take in in-person to fully understand. No photos or videos are capable of reproducing what being there is like. The first time I entered a puppy mill, I knew in my heart I needed to do something to stop them.
Since then, I have litigated against puppy mills, I have inspected puppy mills, I have rescued animals from puppy mills and I have worked on legislation to regulate puppy mills. Throughout that time there has been a group of people who have made the work more difficult by helping to financially support the troubled puppy mill operators. To my great pleasure an extensive expose in the Washington Post recently called them out for what they have been doing.
In preparation for the Post piece, Kim Kavin spent months carefully documenting how nonprofit "rescue" organizations attend puppy mill auctions in order to buy puppy mill dogs, often paying more money for them than commercial brokers that sell to pet shops would pay, thereby pumping millions of dollars back into the pockets of puppy mill operators. Her research uncovered documents showing 86 rescue groups purchasing 5,761 dogs for a total of $2.68 million, or an average of $465 per dog purchased. Most puppy mills would be thrilled to get half that amount selling to a commercial broker in the traditional pet shop supply chain.
In my years working on this issue, I have repeatedly watched as puppy mills on the verge of collapse managed to save themselves and their operations by auctioning dogs to rescue groups.
Gary McDuffee in Morrison County, Minnesota
One of the clearest examples of "rescues" saving puppy mill operators and keeping them in business was Gary McDuffee in Morrison County, Minnesota.
McDuffee opened a large-scale commercial breeding operation in Belle Prairie, Minnesota in 2006 after receiving a conditional use permit to do so by the Morrison County Board. At that time, his reputation was well-known. He previously operated a large puppy mill with his ex-wife, Wanda, where USDA inspection reports documented serious violations. When the couple divorced he chose to start his own operation in Belle Prairie.
Photo: the metal building in which Gary McDuffee housed hundreds of dogs in small wire cages stacked 3-high.
Neighbors to the land McDuffee had purchased followed a multiple-pronged strategy to challenge him in court, along with help from my legal team. We presented their successful approach the following year at the No Kill Conference in Washington, DC. Most significantly, they challenged him in court, using our funds and our attorneys on several grounds: We said the noise and environmental contamination of the area (including smell and potential pathogens) reduced their property values and posed potential health risks to people and wildlife in the area. It was a full-blown legal battle that made it all the way to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, with McDuffee being supported by the commercial breeders association and the neighbors being supported by animal welfare advocates and our legal team.
The legal fight was in the press regularly for the next year and sources who knew McDuffee told us that he was having financial troubles, because no one wanted to buy his dogs, for fear they would get caught up in the litigation, or be publicly exposed in the press. Furthermore, we had fought for, and won, the right to have a veterinary inspection of his dogs to search for pathogens that could contaminate the environment and spread to people. When the veterinary report came out, indicating serious health concerns, our sources told us no one was buying his dogs. However McDuffee found where he could sell his dogs: at auction and to local "rescues."
I vividly remember the day I got an email from a local rescue group. They attached an auction flyer listing several of Gary McDuffee's dogs. The rescuer who sent me the email was elated and immediately began rallying other rescues to join in to "rescue" (I mean purchase) McDuffee's dogs. They began fundraising so they could "rescue Gary McDuffee's dogs." They certainly got a lot of attention for it. They said he was "going out of business." But, he didn't, at least not then.
Multiple auctions later, McDuffee was still breeding dogs and getting cash infusions from each. With money paid by the rescues he stayed in business and stayed in the legal fight for some time. Beyond a doubt McDuffee remained in business longer because of the cash infusions he got from rescue groups that purchased his dogs. Beyond a doubt, he bred more dogs because of it. The money paid for his dogs caused more suffering, not less.
Supply/Demand: The Profit Motive
To get your head into the mindset of the puppy mill/auction/retail supply chain you first have to understand that, even though they are dealing with living beings, they are all really there for one thing: money. The industry operates on the same supply/demand rules that affect other industries. If you increase demand, prices and profits go up. Dry up the demand for puppy mill dogs and the industry dries up with it. Most people who have looked at the puppy mill industry understand that, which is why memes like "adopt don't shop" have been so popular. They seek to reduce the demand for pet shop/puppy mill puppies, thereby depriving the industry of its lifeblood: cash.
When rescues buy dogs at auction, and even sometimes bid against each other on the most "in-demand" dogs, or pay high prices for dogs, they are increasing demand and profits in the industry. The puppy mills and auction houses laugh at them all the way to the bank, their pockets stuffed with money that was originally donated to nonprofits for rescue. But, their dollars then end up being used to support the industry they abhor.
Nathan Winograd Responds to the Washington Post Expose
Historically, Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center has remained pretty quiet about puppy mills. The little he did say about them was all correct. Most importantly, he has always said that since killing of animals in animal shelter is not a supply problem (hint: it is not) puppy mills are not really a No Kill shelter issue. They are an animal cruelty/animal welfare issue. Said another way, while important, they have no real impact on whether or not animal shelters can stop killing healthy and treatable pets. He, therefore, has not said much about them.
As our regular blog readers know, we are big fans of Winograd's work advocating for No Kill animal shelters. He created and documented the model we use to transform animal shelters in to No Kill shelters, and our work has helped open admission animal control shelters achieve Live Release Rates (LRR) of 97% and higher.
Unfortunately, Winograd chose to publish a very verbose (10+ page) critique of the Post expose. To his credit, he did say he supported rescues who buy from puppy mill auctions with a caveat. He put the "with a caveat" right there in the headline of the post. But, the caveats are buried so deeply in a lengthy piece that is cumbersome to read that they are lost. The pieces that stand out are things like him saying rescues are "doing everything right," or him implying the No Kill community is aligned with him on this topic (it isn't). In fact, everyone I know, that I have talked to is upset about Winograd's response. And, his response is doing damage. There are rescues that have had a "buy them at any price" mentality to get dogs at auction using Winograd's blog to justify their behavior. His blog will result in more money going to puppy mills, not less.
Rescues Supported One of the Most Notorious Puppy Mills in Minnesota
Kathy Bauck was convicted of multiple counts of animal cruelty, animal torture and practicing veterinary medicine without a license. I will spare you all the gruesome and goury details, but I will leave you with this one piece of the Bauck story: they would perform cesarean sections on mother dogs without anesthetic.
Question to Allen Bauck (Kathy's husband): So you just tie the mothers down and cut the babies out?
Allen Bauck: Yup.
When I stepped foot on the property of "Pick of the Litter" one of the nations most notorious puppy mills, there were about 800 dogs there. That was down from their peak of 1,200 breeding animals plus puppies, and a skeletal crew to tend them. I was there as part of a team brought there by the Otter Tail County Attorney and sheriff to inspect. By that time, she had already been in legal cross-hairs for years. She had already served jail time for animal cruelty, torture and practicing veterinary medicine without a license. However, based on video evidence provided by the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), who went under cover and recorded more than 40 hours of horrific video, we were back.
I followed the Bauck case for years, before, during and after my team's personal inspection of her property, supervised by the County Attorney and Sheriff. At the end of this blog I am including a link to a 17 minute video from CAPS about that case. Be warned, it contains disturbing imagery. But it is well worth watching.
Many things shocked me about the Bauck saga. One was that it was so easy for her to sell dogs at the peak of the national headlines about her business. While commercial brokers and pet shops were shunning her, she could still sell dogs at auction. If a breed line was not being profitable, she could sell it off at auction and use that money to stock up on another breed.
During the course of our engagement with Bauck she "closed" her business "Pick of the Litter" and rescues buying her dogs at action justified their purchases by saying she was "going out of business." The problem was that she then took their money and opened a "new" business called "Puppies on Wheels" that continued shipping her puppy mill puppies nation wide. The situation at the Bauck facility didn't change. She just changed her name and used rescue money to keep operating.
Buying puppy mill dogs helps puppy mills. That is not hard to understand. They want money, they are in it only for money, so giving them money only perpetuates the abuse that we abhor. Winograd argues that rescues who buy auction dogs have the best of intentions. I don't believe in judging people based on arbitrary assumptions about their intentions. I judge their actions and behavior as either effective or ineffective based on their outcomes. The rescues buying dogs at auctions may be perfectly fine people. The outcome of their actions, however, is giving money to puppy mills to continue their operations. Regardless if the rescues intend well, they are enabling the puppy mill to abuse others. That is the very definition of dysfunctional co-dependence. It is reasonable to be critical of their behavior, particularly if they are simultaneously claiming they are trying to close puppy mills.
On that note, here is a look into the broader Kathy Bauck story: