Last January investigators in Mount Vernon raided one of the largest puppy mill operations in state history. They found close to 400 animals. Many of the dogs were sick, in filthy cages, and had insufficient food and water. Days later a similar raid in Snohomish County of a site linked to the Mount Vernon business revealed another 200 animals.
Puppy mills are large-scale dog breeding operations where dogs may be denied their basic needs including proper medical care, sanitary living conditions, and adequate shelter and exercise. The businesses, which sell puppies to individuals as well as to pet stores, can be multi-million dollar operations. This year several mills across the state in places like Kennewick, Gold Bar, and Mount Vernon were exposed and raided.
The first week after a raid is probably the hardest, says Jake Searle ’96, DVM ’00, one of the veterinarians at Chuckanut Valley Veterinary Clinic who helped treat the dogs from Mount Vernon. Now, months after the raids, veterinarians and volunteers, as well as the community and the courts, are still dealing with the case. There’s so much more to it than just rescuing dogs and finding them new homes, says Teresa Steiner ’97, one of the volunteers who led the rescue operation. “It’s not like Animal Planet where the officer goes in and rescues the dogs and then it’s over.”
One of Searle’s junior colleagues went to the farm to decide which dogs had urgent medical concerns and needed to be removed immediately. Then the rest of the clinic shared what has turned out to be a six-month-long burden of caring for the animals. Some had life-threatening conditions. One male was missing his lower jaw. Others had genetic deformities, and some had teeth that were so rotten they couldn’t eat. While the team treated the animals, veterinarian Peter Brown DVM ’91 documented their ailments and prepared reports for the criminal case against the owners.
“The people that made it happen were S.P.O.T.,” says Searle. “Without them it would have been a nightmare.” Saving Pets One at a Time is a local volunteer group that Steiner and others founded in 1999 to provide companion animals with foster care in private homes and placement, as an alternative to a traditional animal shelter.
The volunteer group did get a call warning that there were animals to be rescued, says Steiner. But they had been expecting 40 small dogs. On the day of the raid they discovered there would be over a hundred more. “We were scrambling,” she says. With the help of volunteers with crates and vans, they moved animals from the farm south of Mount Vernon to the Skagit County Fairgrounds a few miles away. From there they could begin assessing the animals’ needs and assigning them to foster homes. A few days later, the more than 200 remaining dogs were handed over to the volunteers.
“Fortunately we had a huge outpouring of support,” says Steiner. “Well over a hundred people came to help.” But they were also facing crowds of people wanting to adopt the dogs that night. The mini-Aussies, Chihuahuas, Corgies, and Shih Tzus are highly desirable animals, and some people saw the raid as a means to the dog they wanted.
Coping with droves of volunteers and eager owners-to-be, and at the same time trying to protect the animals, was overwhelming. They moved from the fairgrounds to a private farm. “That way we were able to limit the people and the confusion,” says Steiner. “We needed to spend the first few days logging in the animals, getting them cleaned up, and taking pictures of their problems.”
The veterinarians and groomers worked in shifts. They didn’t want to do too much for the dogs, because they were evidence in the criminal animal cruelty charges against the owners. “We tried to handle the train wrecks,” says Searle, The less serious cases like malnourishment, neglect, poor socialization, rotten teeth, and no muscle tone came later.
Fortunately it happened in the winter when things are generally slower at the veterinary office. “We have five veterinarians here, so it didn’t necessarily overwhelm our practice,” says Searle.
The Mount Vernon raid, and the connected raid in Snohomish County, provided evidence for a new state law to set tighter controls on dog breeding operations, says state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles. The Seattle senator tried promoting a similar bill in 2008.
“The laws were different in each local jurisdiction,” she says. “We had no state-wide regulation of large commercial dog breeders at all.” Kohl-Welles and her coauthors put forward the bill just days after the Mount Vernon raid. “We still had resistance,” she says. But the issues were so clear and the testimony of the animal control officers, community members, and veterinarians so strong that the bill succeeded.
The law now states that no one may own more than 50 dogs that haven’t been neutered or spayed. (The original version limited the number to 25.) It also includes rules for crating the dogs so that they can turn around and lie down. And it stipulates that animals get at least an hour of exercise a day.
While the new law helps to limit the mistreatment of animals, more could be done to educate the public about puppy mills, which can be pretty sophisticated operations, says Steiner. She knows of one that raised the dogs out in the country, but sold them from a house in town. The new owners never saw the true conditions in which the animals were kept.
Because of the poor conditions at the Skagit Valley operation, many of the dogs will face socialization and maybe lifelong health issues, says Steiner. S.P.O.T. has carefully screened the families interested in adopting the dogs to ensure they are prepared for the challenges a mill dog might bring. Now animals from the raid in Skagit Valley have new homes around the Puget Sound, and the volunteers and veterinarians have a chance to catch their breath. “It has been a very frustrating year,” says Steiner. “Overall, though, we’re grateful to be able to help in this situation and see something good come out of something so horrible.”