She was a timid thing, a tiny Chihuahua whose swollen belly was packed with five pups waiting to enter the world. Cradling this fragile, trembling mom-to-be in my arms, I carried her around the well-lit yet somewhat cramped quarters known as the “back wing” of the Humane Society of Skagit Valley adoption center.
A rare uncovered window positioned at eye level sparked a sudden idea—I’d brighten her day with a glimpse of the outside world. But the pup failed to show excitement. In fact, she registered nothing at all. At that moment, I embraced the stark truth: An unwitting rescue from a life of dark, unspeakable cruelty, this dog—estimated to be three years old—had no idea what a window was, nor was it likely that she had ever set foot outdoors.
The petite Chihuahua and her two-dozen shelter mates were among hundreds of dogs seized in January from an alleged “puppy mill” ring operating in northwestern Washington state. The rest were farmed out to other shelters and foster homes. Malnourished and suffering from infection, almost all required immediate medical attention. Some didn’t survive.
Like others moved by such news accounts, I broke my years-long streak of avoiding the dismal atmosphere of animal shelters. I put on my big-girl pants and signed on to volunteer as a caretaker. I also resurrected the investigative aspect of my extinct career as a newspaper reporter. I needed to do more, but also to know more, and to tell what I knew.
Dogs in Limbo
The scope was astounding. Animal care costs for the two counties in which the operation was located—Skagit and Snohomish—skyrocketed within a week, reaching into tens of thousands of dollars. Already underfunded, overworked shelters found themselves deluged. Legal ownership of most of the dogs remained with defendants, who were facing multiple counts of felony animal abuse. Nonetheless, they refused to surrender their “property,” turning the dogs into de facto wards of the state and running up tabs with county coffers and nonprofit rescue agencies that would otherwise adopt them out.
The refugees I saw were, I suspect, the cream of the crop—the healthiest and least traumatized of the bunch. They’d been bathed, groomed and treated to manicures that brought their nails down to a manageable length. Nonetheless, visible signs of their plight were heartbreaking. Most cowered at the approach of caring humans who wanted only to help them. Some less timid dogs, starved for attention and desperate to be held, charged workers entering their pens. None was properly socialized.
This is the world of breeding for bucks, an insidious industry in which jaw-dropping sums of money are made through trafficking the offspring of dogs crammed together in cages and bred until they can no longer stand. Adult dogs are used as procreative vessels, and puppies are pawned off to pet shops and resellers who position themselves as small-time “hobby” breeders. Proprietors of these canine factories operate on the sly, locating mostly in remote areas hidden from the prying eyes of law enforcement officials.
Doing the Right Thing
Friends’ eyes are a different story. Brandon Hatch never thought he’d turn in his lifelong buddy to child welfare officials, but after walking in on a gruesome scene, he faced a moral dilemma. Hatch knew his friend was involved in breeding dogs. But what he saw on his last visit tormented him: 160 dogs stacked up in cages that were caked with feces and dripping with urine. The stench was overwhelming, Hatch told me, but it was the excrement on a nearby bed that left him no choice but to summon authorities.
“I knew there were children sometimes sleeping there,” he said. “In all honesty? It hurt to do what I did, but it was the right thing to do.” (Read more at PuppyJustice.com, Hatch’s blog.)
Agents inspected, then promptly called law enforcement. An ensuing raid led to searches of three residences in two counties, and the seizure of almost 600 malnourished, diseased dogs with a wide range of medical ailments, including spinal deformities, dangerous bacterial infections and—in a few cases—dental deterioration so severe that the afflicted dogs’ jaws had dissolved.