RONKS, Pa. — Megan Anderson's nerves are shot. But she presses ahead — the dogs need her.
She pulls into the driveway of Scarlet-Maple Farm Kennel. She tells the adolescent boy who greets her that she's looking for puppies to give to her nephews for Christmas.
It's a lie. A necessary one, Anderson thinks, but a lie nonetheless. That's why she's jittery. Will the boy swallow her story? How about the Amish man with the long gray beard, straw hat and plain dress — the kennel's owner? Will he discover her ruse and chase her away?
She hopes not. If all goes well, Anderson will leave with at least one dog, maybe more — and perhaps with evidence that could help put this kennel out of business for good.
Over the past four years, Anderson — who works for Main Line Animal Rescue, a shelter outside of Philadelphia — has managed to coax some of Pennsylvania's largest commercial breeding kennels to part with their unwanted canines, usually females past their reproductive prime or young males they couldn't sell.
Main Line's founder, Bill Smith, would like to shut down Scarlet-Maple Farm Kennel and others like it. Smith and other animal welfare activists pushed for a new state law — regarded as the toughest in the nation — designed to end the inhumane treatment of breeding dogs in the large commercial kennels popularly known as puppy mills. Kennel owners say the law is unnecessary and too expensive to comply with, and that it is eliminating many good breeders along with the few bad apples.
After listening to Anderson's tale, the boy disappears into the kennel, leaving her to wait outside in the November chill.
She knows the drill. Large operations like Scarlet-Maple rarely allow prospective buyers inside. They don't want the public seeing how their breeding dogs live.
An unforgettable stench
It's no wonder.
State regulators say the smell of a high-volume puppy mill is unforgettable, an overwhelming stench of urine and feces. Ammonia fumes burn the nose and eyes. The simultaneous barking of hundreds of dogs creates a wall of sound that makes it hard to think, let alone converse.
Puppy mill dogs spend most of their working lives inside cramped wire cages, stacked one atop the other. They get little grooming, veterinary care or attention of any kind.
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Finding a dog that’s right for youLacking a bone or toy to occupy their time, some dogs go into a frenzy every time they see a human. Other dogs circle endlessly. Still others just sit there, staring, like a "warm statue," says Jessie Smith, special deputy secretary of dog law enforcement at the state Department of Agriculture.
"They don't really seem to be there," she says — they lack "that dog joy" of a family pet.
Breeders often act as their own vets, performing delicate surgical procedures — docking tails, "debarking" dogs by hacking at the vocal cords, performing Caesarean sections on pregnant females. The lack of medical training can have disastrous results. Main Line recently took in a critically ill boxer with a mummified puppy in her belly, the apparent result of a botched Caesarean. She was rushed to the veterinary hospital with bleeding and a severe infection.
The physical wounds, horrific as they may be, are treatable. Tougher to heal are the psychological ones. Bill Smith says the volunteers at Main Line spend weeks or even months working with rescued dogs so they can be adopted.
"Every day it must be so difficult for them to try new things, especially when they're 7 or 8 years old and they've spent their entire lives in a box in a dark barn," says Smith, 48, an affable but intense man who doesn't seem to have an off switch. "And they don't know that we're not going to hurt them. They don't know what it's like to walk on grass or to be held."
All of this has contributed to Pennsylvania's sordid reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East Coast (other states with severe puppy mill problems include Missouri and Oklahoma). It's an image that state lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell, the owner of two rescued golden retrievers — including one from Main Line — are working to shed.
Three years ago, Rendell hired Jessie Smith — then a deputy state attorney general — to revamp the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, an agency within the agriculture department that had come under fire for lax enforcement of kennel regulations. He also appointed a special dog law prosecutor and hired new kennel inspectors.
Most significantly, Rendell signed off on strict health and safety standards for large breeding operations. Key provisions that went into effect in October required large-scale breeders to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring and provide unfettered access to exercise. The new law also banned cage stacking, instituted twice-a-year vet checks, and mandated new ventilation and cleanliness standards.
No longer would tens of thousands of dogs be kept in "deplorable, barbaric, inhumane, cruel, and draconian conditions," vowed the law's prime House sponsor, Rep. James Casorio. No longer would kennel owners be able to operate on their own dogs.
And no longer would they be able to kill the dogs they didn't want or need. That provision was added to the bill after two brothers shot 80 of their kennel dogs rather than comply with a warden's order to get some of them treated by a vet for flea bites. Rendell called the mass shooting an atrocity.
Between the new legislation, the bad economy, and heightened public awareness — the state has established a tip line, and Bill Smith persuaded Oprah Winfrey to do a show on puppy mills — pressure is building on multiple fronts against people like Daniel Esh, the owner of Scarlet-Maple.
Looking for signs of mistreatment
The boy returns with three dogs. They cost $500, $400 and $300, he says. Too rich for Megan Anderson's blood.
"Do you have anything cheaper?" she asks.
The boy goes back to the kennel. This time he brings her two small dogs, offering both for a discounted price of $250. At 5 months, they're too old to sell as puppies, he explains. He tells Anderson they would make a good breeding pair.
Deal, she says.
It's an unusual transaction. Main Line almost never buys animals from puppy mills. But it will purchase a dog as part of a cruelty investigation. Last year Main Line volunteer Helen Smith — Bill Smith's mother — teamed with an undercover Pennsylvania SPCA agent to buy a dog whose tail had been mangled in a grooming accident. Their testimony and evidence helped convict a Lancaster County vet who held the dog's hindquarters under scalding water and cut off the rest of the tail without anesthesia.
So, if these dogs show signs they have been mistreated, Main Line will take them to the PSPCA to determine whether charges can be filed. A cruelty conviction could result in the loss of Daniel Esh's federal dealer's license, hasten the removal of his dogs, and prevent him from simply joining his father's kennel business, which is operated on the same compound, Smith says.
As Anderson and the boy talk, a middle-aged man guides his horse-drawn buggy into the driveway. Esh climbs off his rig and strides toward them.
His business is already on the verge of collapse.
State inspectors combing through Esh's kennel found dogs with lameness, lesions, dehydration and dental disease; puppies' paws falling through wire flooring; excrement in food dishes. Esh pleaded guilty in January 2009 to three summary violations of the dog law and subsequently lost his state kennel license. That means he can no longer breed dogs — though he can continue selling the ones in his kennel — and must reduce his kennel population to 25 dogs or less, down from more than 500 as recently as two years ago.
Inspectors planned to visit Esh in January to make sure he has complied.
Esh denies ever mistreating his dogs, telling The Associated Press in a later interview that he has fallen victim to a radical political agenda that seeks the end of commercial dog breeding in Pennsylvania and across the nation.
"The dogs were feeding my family. They were helping me keep my farm. And we enjoyed it," says Esh, who has been selling dogs for 21 years. "If (activists and politicians) had any idea how many lives they hurt by doing this, I don't think they would sleep at night. ... I feel like we as breeders are doomed."
Many commercial breeding kennels in Pennsylvania are run by Amish and Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County. With milk prices in freefall, dairy farmers have increasingly relied on dog breeding to help pay the bills, selling to pet stores or directly to the public via the Internet. It can be a lucrative sideline: A single dog can fetch a breeder $50,000 to $60,000 throughout its reproductive lifetime, Bill Smith estimates.
Like Esh and many other breeders, Edwin Zeiset, 34, blames the new regulations for ruining his livelihood. Zeiset says he operated a clean kennel and had many repeat customers. But he recently shut down his EZ Puppies kennel rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on a big new building.
Dog breedsHe's not alone: Nearly four out of every 10 commercial kennels in Pennsylvania told the state they would be closed by the end of December.
Zeiset was particularly irked by costly new ventilation requirements and by the banning of wire floors. Vets say dogs forced to stand on wire commonly suffer from interdigital cysts — painful sores between the toes. But Zeiset says the wire is there to allow waste to pass through the floor and into a collection system. He says none of his dogs suffered from sore feet.
"The animal activists come out of the cities and tell us exactly how they want things done," even though "there's no science to it," says Zeiset, a third-generation dairy farmer who estimates his income will drop by half with the loss of the kennel. If there are breeders who mistreat dogs, he says, target them.
Bill Smith has heard such talk before. He says he's not out to ruin the lives of kennel owners. He just wants to improve the lives of their dogs.
Dirty fur, parasites, fleas
Anderson holds back tears as she plants a kiss on the head of a black-and-white, poodle-bichon mix. Daniel Esh believed her story.
"New life, guys. New life," she murmurs from the back seat of a gray SUV. "No breeding for you guys. Sorry."
As the SUV pulls away from Scarlet-Maple, she clutches the dogs tightly to her chest.
They are filthy and fetid.
Anderson meets up with Smith, who has been waiting in a parking lot a few miles away, and loads the dogs into a crate in the back of Smith's SUV.
"Look at their feet. Their feet are disgusting," Smith says. "Is that feces?"
"Most of it," Anderson replies. She squeezes some Purell into her hands.
Mission accomplished, it's off to the next puppy mill, and the next, and the next.
At a breeding kennel near the tiny village of Georgetown, the rescuers trade two bags of Rachael Ray dog food for two poodles, a cockapoo and a cocker spaniel. At a third farm — a small, unlicensed kennel in Strasburg — they talk the Amish proprietors into giving up five puppies.
By nightfall, Main Line has visited five kennels and retrieved 12 dogs.
Back at the shelter, Anderson tests the pooches for parvo, a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease. Exams reveal the puppies from Scarlet-Maple have ear infections and intestinal parasites; the Georgetown poodles likewise need deworming. It's clear that none of these dogs have been groomed in a long time, if ever. Their fur is dirty and matted, their nails long, their ears filled with muck.
But these, in fact, are lucky dogs. They've made it out.
"You can see the fleas. I'm drowning them!" Smith announces cheerfully as he rinses shampoo from a poodle.
Substandard kennels targeted
The new state regulations have teeth, but only if they are enforced.
In that vein, the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement has been forced to turn a critical eye on itself, says Sue West, who became its director in January 2008. There was a widespread perception among animal welfare groups that dog wardens had become too cozy with the breeders, too willing to overlook infractions. Prior administrations focused on compliance, not enforcement, she says.
"You would get them licensed no matter what the condition was and then work with them to try to get them into compliance," says West, former president of the Humane League of Lancaster County. "There weren't consequences, and the kennel owners pretty much got to know that."
With the new regime came a new message to the wardens, she says: Crack down on substandard kennels.
In 2006, the bureau revoked only three kennel licenses. In 2008, it took away 20, shutting down several of the state's most notorious puppy mills. And now, it has started enforcing the revamped dog law. By the end of December, all large commercial kennels (those selling more than 60 dogs per year or selling to pet stores) seeking a 2010 license were examined for compliance.
Yet few breeders improved their kennels in the run-up to Oct. 13, the date the new provisions went into effect.
State veterinarian Danielle Ward and kennel compliance specialist Kristen Donmoyer, teaming up to inspect two kennels that first day, were dismayed by what they saw. The dogs remained in cramped quarters and on wire flooring, with no access to the outdoors. Both of the kennel owners expressed frustration with the new law, and one said that it might be easier to close than to comply.
Ward expressed disappointment: "I think the hope and the expectation was that we would go out there and find that kennels would take the law seriously and do the work necessary to come into compliance."
Instead, 89 commercial kennels said they would shut their doors by the end of the year, joining 29 that had already done so through mid-December, according to the agriculture department. Pennsylvania began 2009 with 303. Bill Smith believes the bad economy may be playing a role in the kennels' demise; consumers may no longer be willing to pay top dollar for a Yorkshire terrier or some other trendy breed.
In early October, Pennsylvania kennels shipped hundreds of dogs to an auction house in Baltic, Ohio, to be sold to out-of-state breeders.
Smith, who has long complained about state inaction on puppy mills, still doubts that government regulators will do right by kennel dogs. Hundreds of smaller kennels are exempt from the toughest provisions of the new law. And breeders who do have to comply with them were permitted to ask for more time to improve their facilities — up to three years. The state granted 81 of those requests — denying 102 — giving some of the waivers to kennels that Smith considers puppy mills.
"They are handing these out like candy," he says.
But West says the dog law bureau has made great strides.
"We're doing more now than we ever have, and I think people have to stop and understand, too, (that) it takes time to turn a whole bureau around, to change the mindset of people who work here and make people understand the bar has been raised," she says. "I feel we've come a long way. I think we still have room to improve but we're going to get there."
Preparing dogs for adoption
The two dogs obtained from Daniel Esh's kennel are spayed and neutered, treated for their ailments, and adopted out. Compared to dogs previously taken from Scarlet-Maple, these pooches — both designer mixes — are in good shape. And they're friendly. No evidence of animal cruelty.
Adopting an abused dog? What to knowThe poodles from Georgetown, rescued the same day, will require a lot more work to prepare them for life outside the mill. Nearly two weeks after their rescue, the poodles — dubbed Mr. White and Mrs. White — are still very skinny, they haven't been eating, and they're terrified of humans. But volunteer Deb Hankins has built up enough trust to coax them out of their crates.
And that means it's time for "shy dog" class.
Main Line volunteers gently massage the poodles, trying to calm their frayed nerves. At first, Mr. White is frozen and unblinking; Mrs. White shakes violently. Neither poodle will take the treats being offered to them — small pieces of poached organic chicken that any family dog would drool over. Volunteer Faye Donovan tries to put Mrs. White on the wooden floor and the dog flips out, hopping around like a rabbit.
None of this odd behavior fazes class leader Mary Remer, a renowned trainer and behaviorist with 28 years of experience and more than 15 Westminster dog show titles to her credit. She's seen plenty of puppy mill dogs in far worse straits that have wound up as great family pets.
It just takes time and patience, she says. And plenty of love.
"Their experience with humans has been very, very negative and one of mistrust from their earliest memories," Remer says.
The other dogs in class — all further along in their socialization than the poodles — are busy performing small tasks for treats. Eventually, they'll be suitable for adoption. The same will hold true for Mr. and Mrs. White, the trainer says.
Indeed, by the end of the 45-minute session, Mrs. White is walking, not hopping. Mr. White, an older dog, remains cradled in a volunteer's arms, still too frightened to be put down. But he is blinking normally and taking stock of his surroundings; his nose twitches, a sign his olfactory senses are awakening.
It's not a lot, but it's something.
"It's a beginning," Remer says.