Since day one, the National Mill Dog Rescue journey has been a life changing experience for me in so many ways. It has been gut wrenching, eye opening, disgraceful and at times, surprising; a genuine roller coaster of emotions and experiences. I have seen more horror than any dog-loving person would ever care to see and as a result, I have felt contempt towards my “fellow man” that has cost me many hours of sleep and had me thinking things that would never enter into the mind of an otherwise compassionate and reasonable human being. However, I would be remiss in not making the distinction that, like all other things in life, it isn’t all the same.
Many of you know the story of how National Mill Dog Rescue began.
For those who don’t, in the smallest of nutshells, in February 2007, I received an email plea for help for “50 Italian Greyhounds in need”, and subsequently wound up at a dog auction in Missouri. Although I had been active in animal rescue most of my life, at that time, I had never even heard of a dog auction. A longtime, very large-scale breeder, a puppy mill, was going out of business, auctioning off her entire kennel; 561 dogs, 49 were Italian Greyhounds. At this auction, I met Lily, my true inspiration, and brought her and 12 other pathetic little souls back to my home and so, the NMDR journey began.
The early days were extremely tough as we cared for those 13 profoundly damaged dogs, worked to find them loving, forever homes and pondered how to create a mission around this growing passion. All this at a time when 90% (or more) of the American public had never even heard the term “puppy mill”. The burning desire to give the mill dogs a voice was ever present in me but I really had no idea how to go about it, no expendable money to speak of and other than my immediate family, no help in making it happen. The story gets very long, interesting and crazy at this point but that’s a story for another time, perhaps a book one day.
Suffice it to say, we surely didn’t have the money to run out to Missouri auctions to buy dogs, which in the rescue community, is understandably a controversial subject unto itself. In the end, the steps forward all came down to one person; a lady I had met at the auction – a breeder herself but also a rescuer and a downright interesting character, to put it mildly. We had a brief conversation at the auction that day; I gave her my phone number, looked her in the eye and told her they had not seen the last of me.
To give credit where credit is due, this lady, to the best of my knowledge, was the pioneer in getting breeders to turn their dogs over rather than killing them when they were no longer productive. She was a maverick in the truest sense of the word… and she was the perfect person to do it because, in reality, she was one of them but in some strange ways, she was also one of us.
A couple of months passed; we were busily rehabilitating the dogs along with a handful of wonderful people who had learned of our story and stepped up to help us. I spent every spare minute studying, making phone calls and trying my hardest to learn how to move forward with the mission that was churning inside of me.
One day, the phone call came – the lady from the auction. Her words were abrupt, no “Hi, how are ya?” She simply said, “I’ve got a situation and I need you out here this weekend.” She then related a horrifying story of 34 mill dogs living in a virtual hell and how they were all going to be killed, execution style that weekend. Long story short, this became my second rescue and the path to being able to rescue the mill dogs started to become clear.
For the next two years, about once a month, I ran around the countryside of Missouri and a few neighboring states gathering discarded mill dogs with this renegade woman.
She got me in the door, showed me how to communicate with these people and they learned to trust me because they trusted her. This opened the door to rescuing the dogs but believe me, there was nothing simple about building and maintaining these unusual relationships. Some of the things I saw back then will haunt me all the way to my grave but I forged past my own outrage in order to save the dogs. Those are the days that set the mission in motion and I never looked back.
Jumping forward to the present: I have seen so much over these past ten years over the course of being on more than 100 rescues. If I had to guess, I would say I have been on the inside of more than 500 commercial breeding facilities. I have been on properties that housed well over 1,000 dogs and I have been on properties that house 20 dogs and just about every number in between. This is where the distinction needs to be drawn.
Is there a specific number of dogs that makes a place a puppy mill? Is it about the standard of care? Is any person who breeds dogs for profit a puppy mill, or is it some combination of all of these questions and more? I honestly can’t say I have the conclusive answer to that but what I can say is that through my experience, there is a wide variation on how individual breeders care for their dogs, or not…
We work with about 170 commercial breeders now. About 10% of them stand far and above the rest in the care they provide for their dogs. From there, the care varies widely, but it’s the 10% that I am speaking about when I say some large-scale breeders do take excellent care of their dogs. Yes, that’s a very low number, but for years these folks have continued to turn dogs over to us in great condition both physically and mentally and for years they have been lumped into the heap of all the rest when clearly, that is an unfair perception.
These particular breeders have anywhere from 20-70 dogs. These are properties I have been on many times. These are dogs who are not caged 24/7, are let out on the ground in “turn out yards” to play and socialize, are retired by 5 or 6 years of age and are not bred on every heat cycle. Some are leash trained, some are even housebroken as they alternate them through their homes each week. These are dogs that are regularly groomed, receive proper veterinary care and are handled on a regular basis. And believe me, the care they have received is entirely obvious once they are in our hands. These breeders follow every dog they turn over to us until they are adopted and they truly appreciate our efforts in finding great homes for their dogs. Looking at the numbers alone, these would be considered larger-scale operations.
The care from here falls on a spectrum, anywhere from average on down to the worst thing you can possibly imagine and everywhere in between. I believe care of the dogs falls fairly evenly across this spectrum for the rest of the breeders we work with. Cinder, a dog we rescued on our Operation: Hundred Hearts in February of 2015, is a really good example of the very worst. According to our vet, she probably had less than a week to live…literally being eaten alive by a variety of parasites. The effect a dog like Cinder has on those of us caring for her reminds us why we do what we do. None of us have become immune to the sadness and anger; it just fuels our passion.
Bear in mind, my experience is with about 3% of all the breeders in this country. I cannot really say what that means in the overall scheme of things. Is my experience about average or above or below average? I honestly don’t know. I just know what we do, who we deal with and how it works in our small corner of animal welfare.
None of these words question whether we agree with any level of breeding or not. I’m certain that within our own network of volunteers, supporters and fans, there are many different opinions. However, this is a legal business in a free country, the dogs are out there and they need us. We are not in charge of what people do for a living and we have no legal authority over anyone, so we walk the proverbial tightrope doing what we are able to do, for the dogs. We rescue, we educate and we support change.
Some people ask, “When you take dogs from the breeders aren’t you just encouraging them to fill the empty spaces with more dogs?” The fact is, in many cases, the dogs have a deadline date for pick up, meaning if we don’t get them by that day, they will be disposed of. Believe me, if a breeder needs space for more dogs, they will make the space whether the dogs are turned over to us or they are destroyed. As for those who would never destroy their dogs, they wait for us. Whatever the case, at the end of the day, for us it is about giving a chance to every dog on our lists; from decent places or from hellholes, the old, the young, the sick – all of them, no exceptions.
On a personal note, of course, I wish that all dogs were family members lying on a couch or a soft dog bed, receiving the most wonderful, loving care every day of their lives. I don’t want to see any dog caged or penned or chained or dumped, ever. Sadly, that dream is a long way from realization so in the meantime, we will continue to save as many lives as we can and educate at every opportunity.
Unfortunately, society is to blame for many of the sufferings of animals; the lack of lifelong commitment, the demand for puppies from unknown sources, irresponsible ownership that feeds the gross overpopulation of domestic pets leading to senseless extermination. There are many problems separate and apart from one another in animal welfare. We are doing our part for one of them.
“Don’t breed or buy while homeless pets die.” I wanted to comment on this statement as we see it quite often in response to some of our posts. Ideologically, I stand behind this principle 110%. But in reality, it’s a stretch to think that we can turn every person looking for a lap dog, a puppy for their children to grow up with or a purebred dog into someone who will go to their local shelter or rescue to find a companion. Believe me, I have
worked all my life to push shelter and rescue adoption as the best choice and I will until the day I die. While we all know with a little time and patience these kinds of companions can be found in shelters and rescues, the nature of many people is impulsive and impatient, and so it goes.
In closing, please know that my words are simply a reflection of the things I have seen and learned over the past ten years. The journey has been backbreaking, often distressing, yet the most deeply rewarding experience of a lifetime. None of our successes has come easily, but we are on our feet with much work yet to be done.
We have currently rescued more than 11,600 dogs, and I must say that in a million years, never could I have imagined where National Mill Dog Rescue would be today. Rest assured, with your continued encouragement and support, we will be here loving and caring for this population of dogs until the very last day that we are needed. If only that day comes in my lifetime….