One day early last month, Gary Larrowe, the county administrator of Carroll County, Va., declared the small town of Hillsville a disaster area.
There were just too many puppies to deal with.
“We counted 1,080 dogs on November the 2nd,” Larrowe said, making it necessary to call in state emergency officials and the Red Cross to help.
Carroll County found itself with 1,080 dogs — topping 1,100 after a few new births over the following days — after county animal control officers, acting on information compiled during a five-month undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States, raided Horton’s Pups, a mass breeding farm in Hillsville, near Roanoke.
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
More than a dozen animal rescue agencies, some from as far away as Florida, agreed to care for and distribute the dogs for adoption. Their task is difficult. Most were already near capacity, and space is at a premium because, with winter approaching, animals can’t always be housed outdoors.
The breeding farm, which was raided Nov. 1, is “the biggest operation of its kind to our knowledge ever,” said John Snyder of the Humane Society. It is one part of a nationwide network of thousands of puppy mills that sell purebred dogs to pet stores, animal brokers and Web-based pet businesses.
Puppy mills are generally legal. Large commercial operations where puppies are bred for profit are regulated by the U.S. Agriculture Department, but many do not register with the department, and enforcement of humane regulations is a low priority, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.
This year, however, state and local agencies have sharply stepped up their own raids on puppy mills, said Stephanie Shain, outreach director for the Humane Society.
Assembly line breeding condemned
The Hillsville operation was “basically a factory farm where female dogs are constantly bred over and over again in often unsanitary conditions, and then the puppies are taken away from their moms and sent to pet stores all over the United States,” said Cherie Wachter of the Broward County, Fla., Humane Society, which took in about 100 of the dogs.
The operator of the farm, Junior Horton, 44, defended his business, which operated under licenses allowing only 500 dogs. He called the seizure of his animals “dognapping” and said his kennel was one of the best in southwest Virginia.
“We take good care of the pups here, and we make sure they get everything they need,” Horton said.
Indeed, most of the puppies — mainly purebred corgis, King Charles spaniels, bichons and Jack Russell terriers — were in fairly good shape, animal rescue workers said. That’s because they’re more valuable to the dog brokers who act as middlemen between puppy mills and pet stores.
“The puppies get the priority. They’re cute, they’re cuddly and [they’re] sold for a lot of money,” said Kelly Farrell, director of the Angels of Assisi shelter in Roanoke, which took in about 60 of the dogs.
But the adult dogs, housed in above-ground rabbit hutches where they bred countless litters, were another story.
Workers at the assisting shelters said the animals were not appropriate for adoption by first-time dog owners. Their eyes were bloodshot, and their hair was matted. Most had intestinal parasites. None were trained or housebroken.
“We’re excited to be able to remove them from that horrible situation,” said Kate Hamilton of the Richmond, Va., Society for the Prevention of Animal Abuse.
Enforcement moves to state, local levels
If you have ever wondered where pet shops get all those cute little puppies, the answer is places like Hillsville. Animal rescue workers say the network of secret puppy mills numbers in the thousands nationwide, most maintaining fewer than 200 dogs but some much larger.
The scale of the industry has been highlighted by a series of prominent raids in the last few weeks, many driven by tips derived from Humane Society and ASPCA investigations:
- In Independence, Va., the owner of a suspected puppy mill faces a court hearing Dec. 17 on multiple animal welfare charges after county animal control officials seized 20 puppies, which they said she was breeding and selling for $400 apiece. “The conditions there, stated in a single word: deplorable,” said Glen Richardson, a Grayson County animal control officer. The puppies had parasites and had been eating food meant for adult dogs; three died from severe malnutrition.
- In Honey Brook, Pa., the local SPCA took in about 24 dogs from a suspected puppy mill after it went to court for a warrant. The facility was not heated, and the dogs had dental and skin conditions. SPCA workers said they suspected more dogs had been at the facility but were removed before the raid Saturday.
- Late last month, 78 malnourished puppies of many breeds, some of them 20 to 40 pounds underweight, were removed from a licensed kennel in Lehigh County, Pa. “Their backbones are all showing,” said Harry Brown III of the Animal Rescue League in nearby Berks County, who said some of the puppies were suffering from an infection from drinking stagnant water.
- And Wisconsin animal control officials took custody of nine dogs and threatened to shut down a facility where dozens more were housed after viewing videotape shot by NBC affiliate WGBA-TV of Green Bay. On the tape, which was shot in early November and shared with Shawano County sheriff’s officers, dozens of dogs can be seen crammed into small crates stacked atop one another, so that dogs on top were allowed to urinate and defecate on dogs and their food below.
In recent months, raids have become frequent enough that shelters are struggling to keep up with rescued animals, said Rhonda Lowe, president of Schnauzer Rescue in Holly Springs, N.C.
“If they’re suddenly flooded with a thousand dogs, they may not have the room or resources to care for that number of dogs,” she said.
Still, “it’s not even the tip of the iceberg,” said Rhea Aker, who has rescued more than 1,000 dogs through the nonprofit organization Destiny’s Rescue of Loveland, Ohio. “Last year, 7 million puppies were produced in puppy mills.”
The Humane Society more conservatively estimates that, each year, 2 million to 4 million new pets are the products of puppy mills, most of them in eight states: Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The society’s investigation in Virginia uncovered hundreds of substandard operations, leading it to warn that Virginia was likely to join the list of the worst offenders.
For retailers, a perception problem
Many commercial dog breeders treat their animals according to the law, but the biggest are still large farms of yapping dogs lined up in cage after cage, even if they are clean and well-fed. Pet retailers say they can understand why animal lovers could be turned off by even legitimate operations.
“People are going to see all those dogs in cages and think, ‘I wouldn’t want to live in those conditions. ... I wouldn’t want to live in a cage,’ ” said Joe Street, vice president of Uncle Bill’s Pet Centers, the largest pet store chain in Central Indiana, where a thriving industry is known as the puppy breeding capital of Indiana.
Often, a retailer can’t tell you where the animal you’re buying came from, because sales are often brokered by middlemen who do business in places like Hillsville and Daviess County, a quiet Central Indiana farming community two hours southwest of Indianapolis.
Dozens of large-scale kennels operate in towns like Odon and Loogootee, where breeder dogs live out their lives in cages. The kennels are not advertised. Many are tucked behind picturesque farmhouses well away from publicly traveled dirt roads. Inside, cage after cage is filled with dogs whose sole purpose is to breed puppies.
From the breeding farms, puppies are loaded inside small cages in cargo vans to be delivered to pet stores, which can be hours away.
“When they leave here, we’ve got no idea where they’re going,” said a Daviess County breeder, who asked not to be identified when contacted by NBC affiliate WTHR-TV of Indianapolis.
Go straight to the source
The Humane Society and the ASPCA recommend that families looking for a pet avoid pet stores and go directly to a reputable breeder who keeps dogs in the home, not outdoors in kennel runs. A legitimate breeder will let you see where the dogs are raised and cared for, and it will let you review its veterinary records and references from other buyers.
“Dogs are very social. They want to be with you,” said Linda Isley, who breeds registered schnauzers in Franklin, Ind.
Isley’s schnauzers sleep in a warm bedroom, have plenty of room to run and get abundant human attention. She and her husband, Richard, breed one litter of puppies a year, and they don’t sell them to pet stores.
“In commercial setups, they don’t live that kind of life. It’s kind of like a prison,” Isley said. “A responsible breeder would never sell their puppies to a pet store.”
Better yet, adopt from a shelter, animal welfare groups urge. So do some of the largest pet store chains, notably PetSmart and PETCO, which refuse to sell dogs and cats because they can’t ensure the humane provenance of the animals.
PetSmart donates store space to local animal adoption agencies, which keep all fees, while PETCO operates a companion Web site, Petfinder.com, to help families find dogs and cats to adopt.
Deborah Howard is founder of the Companion Animal Protection Society, a nonprofit group based in Cohasset, Mass., which opposes commercial breeding because of its impact on adult dogs.
“If your dog was kept in a run or kept in a cage day in and day out, didn’t get out, wasn’t socialized, wasn’t allowed into a home, didn’t get to interact with people, would you want your dog in that situation?” she asked. “That’s a commercial livestock condition.”
With Bob Segall of WTHR-TV in Indianapolis and Claudia Hickey of WGBA-TV in Green Bay, Wis. NBC affiliates WCAU of Philadelphia; WLWT of Cincinnati; WNCN of Raleigh, N.C.; WRC of Washington; WSLS of Roanoke, Va.; WTVI of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and WXII of Greensboro, N.C., contributed to this report.