Tillie is a black cocker spaniel with a blue bow in her hair. She's a pretty girl, but the bow doesn't disguise the fact that half of her ear is missing.
"Tillie came from an Amish puppy farmer who was getting rid of her because she wasn't producing," says Marti Houge. She and her husband, Jim, think this may be because Tillie is small for a cocker spaniel. People who run puppy mills often use dogs larger than the breed standard, which produce more puppies and have an easier time giving birth.
Tillie's ear was probably bitten off by another dog when it dangled down into the cage below. She also has deformed paws, from having stood mostly on the wire of a cage during her puppy-mill years. Tillie is now five or six years old; as a breeder dog she likely had a litter every six months. These are typical problems for a dog confined to a puppy mill; many have health issues that are far worse due to lifelong confinement in cages, never playing, never even going outside to go to the bathroom.
When I arrive at the Houges' home, in the country north of Madison, a rabble of dogs they've rescued greets me at the door. The barking is so loud that Marti wonders if we might have to move the interview outside. But things soon calm down enough to talk, although I end up taking notes with one dog on my lap and another licking my hand.
Each of the Houges' dogs has a story; not all have come from puppy mills. Little Peanut's face was burned, perhaps from having hot oil spilled or thrown on her. Willow was left locked in a house with another dog after the owners moved away; by the time they were found, the other dog was dead. Willow's eyes are brightly bewildered, a look you don't see in most household pets.
But even Willow and Peanut are more interested in checking me out than Tillie, who seems wary and disassociated from the scene. Marti nonetheless puts in a good word for her: "Tillie has come around faster than we'd thought."
Peaches, a purebred Lhasa apso - another rescued breeder dog from an Amish puppy farm - is especially skittish. She initially wouldn't approach any humans, and still doesn't like to be picked up.
When the Houges first got Peaches, four months ago, her fur was so matted it had to be shaved off. It's coming in nicely now, and they say she's much less "neurotic."
But Tillie and Peaches "seem to sense a shared experience," says Marti. They gravitate to each other, play with each other. In fact, while the other dogs are still jockeying to get on my lap, I see that Tillie and Peaches have retreated to a corner, curled up together, and gone to sleep.
You've probably heard it before: Don't buy animals from pet shops; they come from puppy mills. Animal welfare groups have been effective in getting this message out.
What is not well understood is that "puppy mills" are not just a few giant operations. Backyard breeders producing dogs for cash under unhealthy, frightening conditions are all over the state. Wisconsin, one of the few states with no regulations governing dog breeding, has become a haven for puppy production, as other states that were centers of puppy-mill activity, like Pennsylvania, have enacted stricter laws.
And even amid fresh efforts to regulate dog breeding in Wisconsin, breeders are finding new ways to mislead the public and sell their dogs.
Marti Houge was the kind of kid who was always bringing home stray animals.
"It started when I was about five," she recalls. "I always had a soft spot in my heart for special-needs animals."
Her first was Pegleg, a bird with one foot, followed by Gorgeous George, who had no feathers: "I thought they were extra-special." She says the challenge with special-needs animals is "to see if I can make them happy."
Now she and Jim have a house full of dogs. They go in and out through a doggie door to a large fenced area behind the house. The Houges never board their dogs and haven't taken a vacation in a decade.
Marti, a former professional horse photographer, rescues dogs from all kinds of bad situations, including puppy mills, and finds them good homes. Currently she's among a handful of Wisconsin residents taking dogs from an Amish farmer who's downsizing because he's no longer able to sell as many puppies.
Maintaining a good relationship with the Amish can be touchy. They're often suspicious of "the English," as they call the non-Amish, Marti says, because "they know people don't like the way they raise their dogs."
The farmers don't let the Houges see the barns where dogs are kept. Says Marti, "You drive up to the hitching post, and the farmer goes and fetches the dogs."
Jim Houge once arrived at an Amish farm when only the wife was at home, and was waved back to the barn. He found the dogs in cages, which they never leave. Although these cages were a reasonable size, compared to some, the dogs would never stand on ground. The barn had no heat or electricity.
"You can drive right past these barns, and they just look like a nice Wisconsin farm," says Marti.
It's a matter of perspective, Jim notes: "The Amish aren't evil people, and they don't hate dogs. The way the Amish keep dogs is often more humane than the way 'the English' keep their food animals." But both are largely hidden from public view.
"People wouldn't approve if they could see, and they don't really want to know," he says. "It's an inconvenient truth."
Eilene Ribbens is incensed. Even state Christmas tree growers, she notes, need to be licensed. Why not dog facilities and breeders? "They are businesses, make no mistake."
Ribbens, founder of the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project, has been working with the Houges and others to arrange Amish puppy transfers. She got involved with the issue the way many people do - after she unknowingly bought a puppy-mill puppy.
As Ribbens' dog got sicker and veterinary bills mounted, she looked for somewhere to complain. Eventually she reached Dr. Yvonne Bellay, humane officer at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Ribbens learned there was nothing illegal about the operation that produced her dog.
"It shocked me that dog breeding was not regulated in Wisconsin," she says. "I needed time to digest that."
The only laws governing dog breeding in Wisconsin are federal USDA regulations, which apply to operations that wholesale dogs to brokers, pet stores or research facilities. Smaller breeders who sell directly to consumers are free to do as they please. There is a state statute against animal cruelty, but it's vague and not specifically aimed at dog breeding or regulating animal facilities.
Ribbens adds that USDA regulations are only "the bare-bones minimum standards so an animal can continue to live. Cage size for a toy breed is not much bigger than a breadbox. And the inspection program is painfully underfunded."
In 2004, Ribbens organized the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project, "dedicated to ending the suffering in Wisconsin puppy mills through public education." She's also led efforts to pass legislation to regulate breeding.
Ribbens' group estimates that Wisconsin is home to 2,000 small dog breeders. Many of these are caring breeders, but, without regulation, there's no way to tell. Ribbens says it's "how the sale takes place and how the animal is treated," not necessarily the size, that make an operation a puppy mill.
Puppy mills are all over the state. "One could be operating down your street," in a basement or a garage, says Ribbens, "and you wouldn't even know it."
Frank Schemberger, who has been investigating for the Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project, interviewed a Mennonite puppy miller who regularly sells toy poodles through "a lady in Madison, who retails them, puts them in her basement until they are sold, and they go really fast."
Puppy mills are more common in rural areas, where land is cheap, barns are plentiful and the roads seldom-traveled. Ribbens names the areas around Richland Center and Monroe as having concentrations of puppy mills.
But the most frequently mentioned hub of puppy mill activity is in Clark County, a mostly rural area between Eau Claire and Marshfield.
Clark County is the site of the state's only dog auction, held twice a year in Thorp; it also hosts 24 of the state's 53 USDA-licensed breeding facilities. Chuck Wegner, director of the Clark County Humane Society, calls even the licensed facilities puppy mills. And, he says, "Plenty more are doing this on a hidden level."
As farms in Clark County have been foreclosed on or sold off cheap, dog breeders have moved in. Many are Amish or Mennonites coming from Pennsylvania, where puppy mills became such a problem the state finally clamped down. (Pennsylvania outlawed dog auctions in 2008.) In Wisconsin today, says Wegner, "it's a wild west scenario."
The Amish and Mennonite have become prominent in the dog-breeding scene, as Mary Van de Kamp Nohl discusses in a January 2009 Milwaukee Magazine article. There's little money in farming, and these groups don't see dogs the way mainstream America has come to, like furry children. To them, dogs are just like other farm animals.
And they'll sell to anyone, Wegner complains. "A quality breeder wants to know where each one of his dogs is going. If there's a problem, he'll insist that you bring the dog back, for the life of that animal. A puppy miller couldn't care less where the dog goes. There's no background check on the potential owner. Once you walk out of there, you are on your own."
Most quality breeders concentrate on a single breed. Puppy millers produce from three to 10 different breeds and provide minimal medical care. Often the dogs are poorly fed, and most are poorly socialized. Some, says Wegner, are terrified of people because "they have never had any human touch."
All of these problems come to a head at the Thorp dog auction, which will be held next Wednesday, March 11, at the Horst Stables in Thorp, Wis.
While the auction is advertised as featuring only puppies, from eight weeks to three years, dog rescue groups say many are five- or six-year-old breeder dogs that are no longer able to produce.
"Used up and burned out," says Wegner of the Thorp dogs. "Rather than find a home for it or give it to the Humane Society, they'd rather squeeze the last 50 bucks out of 'em."
Other dogs on the block may be formerly popular breeds eclipsed by the latest "designer dog." Ultimately, the auction is just another way to sell dogs.
The catalog on the Horst website from the last auction in fall of '08 lists dogs from 22 breeds and mixed-breed dogs from puggles to "PekePoo-Yorkies," with notations like "proven breeder," "good mother" and "whelper, large litters."
Clandestinely shot video of the September 2007 Thorp auction, posted on YouTube, shows a succession of dogs being held up in front of a mixed Amish and "English" crowd. (The dogs are held as they are auctioned "so you can't see that they can't stand up," says one anonymous rescuer trying to revive a dog, in a scene captured on another video from the 2007 auction.)
"Once it's sold, you own the dog," the auctioneer states as preface to the bidding. "Please take good care of it," he continues in a singsong, "they are man's best friend."
At one point the auctioneer, selling a miniature pinscher, assures the audience that "she just had seven puppies this spring." But his pitch fails to persuade; the dog sells for just $30.
Ribbens says the number of dogs sold during the three- to four-hour auction has varied from 138 to 234. Some are sold to other breeders; some to wholesalers. If it's like last September's auction, almost half will be sold to rescue groups.
The auction draws a fair number of protesters (including members of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals) and representatives of rescue groups. Many face a dilemma: Should a dog be purchased to save it, even if that profit encourages further breeding operations?
Becky Monroe, a volunteer with Illinois' Best Friend Network, plans to attend next week's Thorp auction, her third. The first time, her plan was to stand outside and protest. It didn't work.
"The protesters told me to go in and see what I was protesting," she recalls. "I stayed for the auction and bought a dog. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it changed my life."
Now Monroe has two dogs she's bought at the auction, and feels the protesters and the rescuers have come to an understanding: "We are all on the same side; we want to put an end to this, even though our strategies are different." Rescuers have learned to organize, meeting beforehand so they know each other and do not bid against each other for the same dog.
Ribbens understands the dilemma of rescuers who attend the Thorp auction. "If there's an opportunity to get a breeding dog out of the system, spay or neuter it, it's a mission of mercy," she says. "But we do not want to help a miller get rich. We do not want to help a miller continue."
Humane societies and breed rescues cannot afford to buy out puppy millers. And Ribbens says they shouldn't have to: "It should not be the responsibility of rescue groups and humane societies to shut down puppy mills."
Jeff Smith has visited puppy mills and attended the Thorp dog auction. It wasn't a good experience: "We got kicked out because we had a camera. They don't want any media, any cameras, and that's a red flag that something is wrong."
Smith, a Democratic state representative from Eau Claire, wants Wisconsin to regulate dog-breeding facilities. People, he says, "need to know that dogs have had shots, their background is clean, and that they are treated humanely."
The history of this type of legislation in Wisconsin is tumultuous. When a bill was introduced in the last legislative session requiring licensing of commercial dog breeders, even the state DATCP testified against it. The agency objected to the lack of pre-licensing inspections, as well as the lack of additional resources to run the program. Plus the bill would have required licensing only for operations selling 50 or more dogs a year, a high threshold.
This year, Smith is "speaking with groups that have an interest and working to make the legislation more palatable."
But he notes that some opposition comes from honest, small-scale breeders who fear they'll be regulated out of business. "You think, 'Who could be opposed to this?'" asks Smith. "But whenever the government gets involved, some groups become skeptical, even paranoid." He stresses that "legitimate breeders and hunters are not going to be affected negatively."
Smith's group will wrap up drafting the new legislation soon, and he expects it to see the floor before summer.
But will regulation help?
Mindful of their bad rep, many puppy-mill breeders try to pass their dogs off as home-bred. Some even pose as rescues. "They take advantage of people's sympathies," says Marti Houge. And without regulations, "Anyone can call themselves a rescue."
So what will put millers out of business?
"For it not to be profitable," says Jim Houge.
With the current state of the economy, fewer people will be buying dogs, and families in financial crisis may be surrendering theirs. Yet as more jobs are lost, breeding and selling puppies may seem like a good way to make money. Jim Houge predicts a glut of dogs on the marketplace: "It's not going to be pretty."
Red flags for dog buyers
Groups have done a good job getting the word out about not buying animals sold through pet stores. But there are other ways that puppy-mill dogs find their way to market.
Like the classified ads.
Good breeders don't advertise in the newspaper week after week; they wouldn't have that many puppies. Warning signs are when one ad advertises many different breeds and when several different ads contain the same phone number. (Try typing the number into Google to see if multiple ads come up.)
Some sellers state they'll bring the puppy to meet you at an agreed-upon location, but even those who allow you to see where they keep the dogs may not accurately represent the breeding situation.
Rescues should also be checked out. A rescue should not have too many dogs kept in one spot; most will place their dogs temporarily with families. Rescues spay/neuter their dogs before you adopt them. A rescue should have a pre-application process, check references and require a home visit before you even meet the dog.
One generally good source that lists animals available for adoption from shelters and rescues is the website PetFinder. But even this should not be taken as a guarantee.