Of course, in America, we industrialize anything that turns a profit. Beginning in the 1950s, struggling pig and poultry farmers began breeding puppies for extra income. "It was a cheap and easy fix: You just converted your coops into indoor-outdoor kennels," says Bob Baker, the executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. Baker, an animal activist for 40 years and a walking encyclopedia on the commercial dog business – he's been a senior investigator for the ASPCA and the HSUS – watched the trade evolve from a mom-and-pop sideline into a multinational behemoth. "Pups cost nothing to raise, you'd sell them for $50 a head in town, and every five months you had a whole new litter – then dozens, as the puppies began breeding," he says. What followed was a 40-year explosion of puppy mills, which are defined by HSUS as commercial kennels where profit counts more than the dogs' well-being.
There are, by HSUS's estimate, about 10,000 puppy mills in America, though the organization concedes that no one knows the real number: It's an industry born and raised in shadows. The USDA only licenses a fraction of all kennels, about 2,500 of various sizes, which can range from five adult breed dogs to more than a thousand. States also license and inspect kennels, accounting for another 2,500 breed sites that aren't registered with the feds, says Kathleen Summers, the director of outreach and research for HSUS's puppy-mills campaign. "But in rural communities, there are thousands of backyard kennels selling online and evading government regulation." A breeder only needs a federal license if he or she sells the dogs sight unseen, i.e., through a middleman like a pet store or a puppy broker. But if the seller deals directly with the puppy's buyer, either selling face to face, through classified ads or, increasingly, via pop-up websites, there is little or no oversight of their business.
Three years ago, the USDA passed an amendment requiring online sellers to get federally licensed, which would submit them to annual inspections and standard-of-care rules. At the time, the department expected thousands of breeders to step forward and comply with the law; to date, less than 300 have. When asked about sellers who disregard the law, Tanya Espinosa, a USDA spokeswoman, says, "It is virtually impossible for us to monitor the Internet for breeders. . . . [We] rely heavily on the public and their complaints." Good luck with that: Open your browser, type a breed in your state and thousands of websites appear. All claim to be local, loving and humane. Far too often, they are none of the above.
"If you ask to see their property and they say, 'Let's meet in a parking lot,' you're likely dealing with a puppy-miller," says Kathy McGriff, a reputable ex-breeder of clumber spaniels who kept a close eye on her trade while she was breeding. "And if you want to write a check but they only take PayPal, you're dealing with a puppy-miller." As a rule, she says, breeders who are even the least bit evasive are millers raising dogs in deplorable places. "Reputable breeders don't deal in volume, and we only sell to people we've checked out. It's the most basic rule in our code of ethics: Never sell a puppy sight unseen."
With dog sales, as with any commodity of late, the Internet has been the great disrupter. The HSUS estimates that roughly half of the 2 million pups bred in mills are sold in stores these days; the rest are trafficked online. The number of stores that still sell puppies has cratered over the course of the past decade, as groups like HSUS, the ASPCA and CAPS (Companion Animal Protection Society) have conducted stings of high-priced stores across the country and found them packed with sick puppies from Midwest mills. "We filmed undercover, got endless tape of purebreds in terrible shape, and followed up on buyer complaints," says Deborah Howard, the founder and president of CAPS. Howard sends investigators out to infiltrate mills, exposes the stores that do business with those breeders, and coordinates with advocates across the country to ban the retail sale of puppies in big cities. "We've got reams of complaints from people with sick puppies, and they all say it was an impulse buy," says Howard. "I mean, a dog is a commitment for 15 years – at least Google-search the seller for complaints."