Puppy mills breed dogs in "deplorable conditions," according to Mary A. Steidl, executive director of Sugar House Day Spa and Salon in Alexandria and a dedicated activist opposing the mills.
"They are in cages stacked one on top of another. The cages are never cleaned, the dogs freeze in the winter and swelter in the summer," she said.
The word "mill" is accurately descriptive, in that dogs produced by these enterprises are turned out in such numbers that legitimate breeders are often driven from the marketplace. As with many other "products" today, that marketplace has become primarily the Internet.
This has triggered a concerted nationwide educational effort to close down puppy mills.
Allan Corman, Alexandria Animal Control Officer, said that animals for sale or adoption in pet shops in Virginia must meet strict requirements and are inspected regularly. That is not the case in other areas of the country.
"Many puppy mills operate in the Midwest where it is harder to police them," Steidl said. "People want a dog. Like so many other things purchased today, they turn to the Internet. But they actually don't know anything about the dog they are buying, and many times they pay far more than is necessary. The dog is shipped to them in a crate and they never see the seller or know the true history of the dog."
That is not the case when purchasing from a reliable breeder or adopting from an animal shelter. Jean McAloon of Mill Springs, N.C., has been a breeder specializing in Golden Retrievers for 14 years, and said she's only raised about 10 litters in those years.
"I have a questionnaire that I require potential buyers to complete and I interview each buyer. I also provide them with a guarantee that if, for any reason, the purchase does not work out, they can return the dog in a reasonable amount of time," McAloon said.
"Mills breed strictly for money and don't really care about the dog or the buyer. Many of the puppies are not raised in the right atmosphere and are sold way too young without any socialization," she said.
ALTHOUGH, THE MIDWEST SEEMS to have the greatest number of puppy mills, it doesn't have the market cornered. Some of the most notorious mills are in bucolic Lancaster County, Pennsylvania's Amish country, just a two hours drive from Northern Virginia.
"In the last few years, that area (Lancaster County) has become a hub for large scale commercial dog breeding. And, although the Midwest still ranks as containing the highest number of dog breeding operations, the concentration of puppy mills in Lancaster County is unparalleled," wrote Rachel A. Lamb, director, Companion Animal Care, The Humane Society of the United States based in Washington, D.C., in her piece "Prisoners For Profit."
On an inspection trip to Pennsylvania one summer Lamb described her first actual view of a live, operating puppy mill in the following way:
"Rows of dilapidated cages were lined up outside a barn. Dogs were crammed three or more to a cage which were elevated over mounds of feces. Matted fur covered their eyes. Their plight was so dramatically different from the dogs I knew."
Posing as buyers, Lamb and a Humane Society Inspector were able to handle and examine some of the puppies they saw that day during their visits to various mills. "Many seemed sickly, disoriented, and underweight," she said.
The term "puppy mill" came into use in the 1960s to describe large scale commercial dog breeding facilities that use female dogs as nothing more than breeding machines, according to Lamb. There are an estimated 5,000 of these "mills" throughout the nation.
The real victims in this fur/flesh trade are the mothers of the puppies. "Starting at six months, she is bred every heat cycle. She is often weak, malnourished, and dehydrated. Rarely, if ever, is she provided with veterinary care," Lamb stated.
That productivity usually ceases after four or five years. "After that, she is nothing more than a drain on the mill's operation and must be disposed of. If she's lucky, she'll be humanely euthanized. More often than not, she will be shot or bludgeoned to death. Discarded, her wasted body will lie forgotten in a local landfill or garbage dump," Lamb said.
TWO OTHER LOCAL ACTIVISTS working to halt puppy mills and encourage canine adoptions are Pam McAlwee, co-owner with Ross Underwood, of the Dog Cafe and Cat Cafe at 5876 and 5870 N. Washington Boulevard respectively in Arlington, and Claire Liston, owner, C. Liston Communications in Old Town Alexandria.
McAlwee is active in Lost Dog Rescue and Stray Cat Rescue. A portion of the proceeds from her two cafes go to support these humane endeavors. A resident of Herndon, she has been involved with animal rescue for approximately 20 years.
"In this day and age there is no good reason to go to the Internet or a pet store for a dog or cat. Go to a reputable breeder. They screen their buyers and will stand behind their dogs," she said.
Liston sees the surge in Internet dog purchases as "a simple supply and demand situation. There are more dogs than there are good homes for them," she said.
"If people go to a reliable breeder that's okay. However, these puppy mills just turn out inferior dogs. There's so much education involved in acquiring or adopting a dog," Liston said.
In addition to her communications firm, Liston also operates "I Believe In Dog" which sells small products such as chains, t-shirts, and others items on the Internet through Ibelieveindog.com. Forty percent of the profit from those sales goes to different animal rescue groups. She also does behavioral training for dogs.
"I just want people to understand it is not how much you pay for a dog. It's about their heart and health," Liston said.
On average 15 dogs per 1,000 people in Alexandria are euthanized by the Animal Shelter per year because homes cannot be found for them, according to Liston.
"We have a great gift in this area because people are so understanding and love dogs. If you get a dog from the shelter, that's one less that will die," she said.