The Wisconsin Humane Society recently agreed to buy a mass breeding operation -- described by critics as a "puppy mill" -- in order to shut it down. It will take a couple of months to find homes for the more than 1,000 dogs of 40 different breeds, which were kept at the facility.
When you think of a breeding operation, images of puppies probably come to mind right away. But you first see hundreds of adult dogs when you drive down the long gravel road to get to Puppy Haven, a mass breeding facility in rural Wisconsin. The beagles, poodles and other breeds are permanent residents, kept there to turn out one litter after another. They live in side by side pens, also known as runs.
"It’s just stunning to the eye when you see these outdoor runs almost as far as the eye can see," says Mike Schnitzler of the Wisconsin Humane Society. He's driving a large truck from Milwaukee to the breeding operation, about two hours away.
"The sound is just amazing also. I’ve never heard that much barking, and I've heard quite a bit of barking at Wisconsin Humane," Schnitzler says.
Schnitzler and his Humane Society coworker Jill DeGrave park alongside the outdoor kennels and start to round up dogs to remove them from the facility. They've been kept in groups of five or six per enclosure, with no beds, toys or names. The dogs can pass through a metal flap door to get into a cramped indoor space where there's food and running water. The building is heated to 45 degrees in the winter. DeGrave calls the conditions stressful and inhumane.
"You know having numerous dogs in one run, the dogs really are isolated with themselves here in a setting that doesn't provide them with any enrichment and anything to do really but to bark," DeGrave says.
A staff of 16 takes care of about 1,200 dogs. So medical problems can go unnoticed even though a veterinarian stops by on a regular basis. For instance, a Pekinese who's being moved to the Humane Society today has an untreated injury to his eye. It will have to be removed.
Dogs with new litters get more attention and a cage to themselves and their puppies in a separate building. But DeGrave says those conditions aren't much better. The enclosures are small and packed together, with no secluded spot for protective mothers, like a Cocker Spaniel who's having a litter of Cockapoos as we walk past. Wallace Havens -- the former owner of Puppy Haven -- suggests we keep moving.
"If we're around them they think 'well I want to hide these a little bit better,' and then they're carrying them, and they sometimes kill them if we don't get out of their way," Havens says.
While the setting is appalling to animal welfare groups, Havens defends how he's cared for his dogs. The former cattle rancher has been in business for about four decades, selling around 4,000 puppies each year to pet stores and on the internet.
"I feel like these dogs are taken care of better than people can possibly do it in their home because they're with their dog family. If you're leading a dog around he wants to go with another dog. And they can go outside any time they want to, they don't have to ask a person to open the door," Havens says.
Havens agreed to sell his facility to an animal welfare organization because he was ready to retire and he wanted to make sure the dogs got good homes.
The deal is the first of its kind, according to Stephanie Shain of the Humane Society of the United States. But she says overcrowded breeding facilities are not unusual. They're in every state, producing an estimated two to four million puppies a year. Shain says she’s seen worse conditions than those at Puppy Haven.
"Dead puppies on the property, the water covered in green slime, and we have this business operating that is treating these animals as an agricultural crop. They are no more than an ear of corn," Shain says.
Shain says there are federal rules for breeders who sell to pet stores. But she says they're not strictly enforced. Federal and state lawmakers could eventually vote on measures to tighten regulations. But regardless of the law, Shain says people who want to get a dog can make a difference -- by only going to a small-scale respected breeder, a breed rescue group, or a shelter.
That's what Beth Wendt of Racine did after hearing about the effort to close Puppy Haven. She picked out a 6-year-old rust-colored female Cocker Spaniel that was removed from the facility, and housed at the Wisconsin Humane Society shelter in Milwaukee.
"I’ve always been an advocate against puppy mills. Having five kids myself I can really relate to her brutality in her early years," Wendt says.
Wendt says it might take awhile for her new pet to get used to a living indoors with people and walking on a leash. She says she’s taking a chance, but it’s worth it.