North Carolina, the Puppy Mill State
North Carolina has become a hot spot for puppy mills, with more busts last year than any other state. Why?
It took two weeks, a massive search, and a huge (humane) bear trap to finally bring home Coco, a black-and-white Shih Tzu. She vanished in March, just days after her foster owner, Wanda Steele, handed the puffball over to the woman who wanted to permanently adopt her. Steele was so distraught at news the dog had run away, her husband thought someone had died when he came home and found her sobbing in their Lake Wylie living room.
When they found Coco, the dog was down to nine pounds and covered in puncture wounds but thrilled to see Wanda. The Shih Tzu, who they think is around three years old, is up to almost eleven pounds and now lives permanently with Steele, her husband, and their two labs. But Coco’s treacherous journey stretches back before she first came to live at the Steele home.
In February, Coco was rescued from a puppy mill—one of eight busts in North Carolina since last June in which the Humane Society of Charlotte has participated (there were other busts, too). Animal workers and law-enforcement officials have seized around 1,100 animals from unregulated facilities where dogs tend to live in cramped cages, surrounded by their feces. According to the Humane Society, area animal rescue groups and shelters have spent almost half a million dollars cleaning these mills and providing medical treatment for the animals. Taxpayers have paid for the work law enforcement performs in leading the investigations and raids. A recent Caldwell County bust required help from officers from three counties.
“We clearly have a problem here in North Carolina,” says Kim Alboum, the North Carolina state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “Our lax laws have made it so this is where you want to be if you want to breed dogs and you don’t want to follow the rules.” Combine those lax laws with our climate and convenient location on the East Coast, she says, and you’ve got the perfect storm. In 2011, the Humane Society of the United States was called in to assist in rescuing dogs during nine raids on puppy mills across the country. Four of those raids took place in North Carolina.
The state regulates breeders who sell to pet stores and to research labs, and it regularly inspects animal shelters, but there are no state-required inspections and no laws governing breeders who sell to the buying public. The Humane Society estimates there are 200 to 300 of these breeders in the state and 10,000 across the country. Together, they sell 2 million to 4 million puppies nationwide each year from these types of facilities where breeding dogs remain caged their entire lives, kept only to provide offspring to be sold for profit.
Twenty-one states (including Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) have some sort of commercial breeding laws on the books. The Humane Society and other activists have spent four years trying to get similar laws in place here. The latest version of the proposed legislation would affect anyone who owns ten or more female dogs and breeds them to sell as pets. It would also require those breeders to provide basic care for the dogs.
Most of these facilities fly under the radar for years before customer complaints amount to enough probable cause for local law enforcement agencies to conduct a raid. In recent years, counties have come to rely on the Humane Society for help conducting these busts because there are typically dozens if not hundreds of animals that need to be examined, cared for, and placed in foster care. And after years of tight budgets, law enforcement simply can’t handle the load.
Shelly Moore heads up the Humane Society of Charlotte, an agency regularly called upon to help handle the animals when busts take place. She says by the time law enforcement is typically able to get involved, the animals have been suffering for a while. “Most of these busts lead to animal cruelty charges,” Moore says. The animals “have to be provided with food, water, adequate shelter, and necessary veterinary care, and in these puppy mill cases that hasn’t happened.”
Coco was one of 150 dogs rescued from Dan River Bullies, a puppy mill in Stokes County, on the Virginia border. The couple running the facility was charged with twenty-seven counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty charges.
Dan River Bullies went undetected until local officials say they became suspicious about the facility after the owners surrendered eleven dogs in “very poor physical condition” to the Stokes County Animal Shelter. Alboum says the Humane Society had been receiving complaints from upset customers for years but didn’t have enough to compel local law enforcement to act.
But the combination of the complaints, the poor condition of the eleven surrendered dogs, and a recent warning from the American Kennel Club proved a catalyst. Law enforcement got a warrant, called the Humane Society to assist, and went in. What they found was not a pretty sight.
The puppy mill was in a rural part of the county, down a winding dirt road. There was a main house and a set of concrete buildings in the back. They were kennels filled with dogs. “The animals didn’t even have food bowls,” Alboum says. “They would have to fight for their food when it was thrown on the ground, and the ground was covered in feces.” She says those are typical conditions for puppy mills that get busted.
Jorge Ortega, vice president of operations at Charlotte’s Humane Society, was one of a number of people who responded to the Stokes County puppy mill. He grimaces when talking about what he saw.
“The conditions were horrible. They were deplorable,” he says. “There were rats and standing water. There was layer on top of layer of feces and the cages were made of chicken wire. … It’s just sad it had to get to that point before someone took action to remove those dogs. You could tell it had been years and years of confinement for these dogs. It didn’t happen overnight.”
Ortega led a team from Charlotte to help with caring for the Stokes County animals. The Humane Society of Charlotte is often called to help out with puppy mill busts across the state. Moore says she carefully weighs whether to send a team every time they get the call. “Our priority is Charlotte-Mecklenburg animals, but as one of the biggest shelters in the state, we also feel an obligation to help in these smaller counties.” Sometimes she just sends a veterinarian to triage the dogs. Other times the Charlotte chapter will take responsibility for several animals, getting them medical care and ultimately adopting them out. Coco was one of several dozen the local Humane Society took in from the Stokes County puppy mill.
The district attorney ended up dropping the charges against the couple who ran Dan River Bullies in exchange for prohibiting them from owning any pets for two years and requiring regular inspections on the property. The DA also made it clear the case could be reopened at anytime. “The county’s major objective,” says Stokes County Manager Rick Morris, “was to stop the improper treatment of animals at the business and to remove the animals from that location.”
Linda Kirby is fostering another of the Shih Tzus. She says the rehabilitation process has been slow. Another family took Caesar home first, but they quickly realized the four-year-old dog was not comfortable around people and brought him back to the shelter. “He didn’t know how to be a dog,” Kirby says. “He’d spent his whole life in a two-by-three cage standing on chicken wire. He didn’t even know what grass was or how to walk on a leash. He’d never had any human contact,” she says, getting frustrated.
“The first time he got in the backyard he just rolled and rolled in the grass.”