Vermont State Police and an animal rescue task force from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) seized 54 dogs Tuesday from a Bakersfield puppy mill, where the animals were allegedly being housed in cruel and unsanitary conditions. (Watch an HSUS video of the rescue here.)
Police and animal welfare workers arrived at the Bakersfield home of Karen Maple, 48, to find scores of Labrador retrievers, both adults and puppies, crowded into small, wire, feces-encrusted pens, as well as numerous dogs running free. Many were malnourished and suffering from a variety of medical conditions, including dehydration and untreated wounds. The HSUS alleges that the property owner was illegally selling puppies over the internet and via local classified ads to unsuspecting consumers. Maple now faces charges of animal cruelty as well as assault on a police officer.
"I can’t tell you what the scene was like. Words just fail me," says Tom Ayres, president and CEO of the Chittenden County Humane Society, which participated in a rescue operation that stretched from Tuesday morning until late in the night. "The conditions that these dogs were in and the condition of the property was just horrific."
According to Ayres, an animal control officer in Bakersfield was tipped off by "an anonymous but very, very detailed" informant living near the property. The informant's report went so far as to include the names of individual dogs and specific descriptions of their conditions.
The animal control officer subsequently contacted the Vermont State Police and HSUS, the latter of which sent in a specially trained puppy mill task force from Washington, D.C. Workers and volunteers from the Humane Society of Chittenden County and the Franklin County Humane Society were also on hand to provide animal handling and transportation assistance.
"There were a lot of other dogs of varying ages, in a number of outbuildings on the property," Ayres adds. "Those were the animals of the greatest concern. They were living in pretty dire straits."
Once safely removed, the 54 dogs were transported to an undisclosed location. There, the dogs will be thoroughly examined by a team of veterinarians and provided with medical treatment. The HSUS will oversee the shelter and care of the dogs until their custody is determined in an upcoming disposition hearing.
According to Ayres, about a dozen other animals had to be left on the property in the custody of Maple's children. "I wish we could have gotten all the dogs off that site," he explains, but under the terms of the search warrant issued to the state police, only those that were deemed to be in "imminent danger" or clearly being held under inhumane conditions could be seized.
Although large-scale puppy mills of this kind are rare in Vermont, HSUS reports that cases like this one are on the rise. As Seven Days reported in March 2011, the HSUS and other animal-welfare advocates have been trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to beef up Vermont's laws governing unlicensed dog-breeding operations, more commonly referred to as "puppy mills."
Specifically, H.340, also known as the "Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act," which was introduced earlier this year, spelled out the conditions under which breeder animals may be kept and would have capped at 50 the number of sexually "intact" dogs that may be kept for the breeding and selling of offspring.
A second bill, H.303, would have required anyone who sells more than one litter of puppies per year, or two or more dogs older than six months, to be licensed as a pet merchant and inspected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. A copy of that license would be sent to the Vermont Department of Taxes; the merchant’s license number would be required in any animals-for-sale advertisements. Under current law, legitimate pet stores and commercial breeders are already regulated and subject to inspection. However, a loophole in the law allows for a personal-use exemption for the breeding of "personal pets."
Both bills died in committee this year but are expected to come around again when the Vermont Legislature reconvenes in January. As Ayres put it, "This proves that this kind of thing in going on in our midst and really calls for more stringent pet merchant legislation."
The HSUS encourages people to adopt dogs from animal shelters or buy from reputable breeders they have screened in person rather than purchasing a puppy from a pet store or online seller, where dogs may come from puppy mills.
How do consumers know if they’re dealing with someone who may be operating a puppy mill? One red flag, according to HSUS's Joanne Bourbeau, is when the pet seller adds a surcharge for providing pedigree papers — a violation of American Kennel Club rules, she says — or offers to conduct the transaction off site, such as in a parking lot or shopping center.
"A responsible breeder will be more than happy to show you their facilities and let you meet the sire and dame," she says. "These dogs are often living as their family pets."
All photos by David Sokol, courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.