In the August heat, more than 500 dogs sweltered in un-air-conditioned kennels on a farm near the town of Mabank in Kaufman County. They panted in wire cages stacked atop one another, fleas swarming, many of the dogs sick, most of them filthy. Near the gate across the gravel drive, part of a dog’s skeleton lay like an omen.
Veterinarian James O’Bryan was part of the team that raided the puppy farm on Aug. 11. Afterward, he and others described in sworn statements the conditions they found. “It is my recommendation that every animal be removed from the premises,” O’Bryan wrote in his affidavit to the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department.
The action that day, by sheriff’s deputies and workers with local and national Humane Society organizations, was one of the largest puppy mill raids ever carried out in Texas. And yet it was almost identical in scope to another massive raid carried out only a month earlier, in which another nearly 500 dogs were rescued from a breeding operation in Montague County northwest of Fort Worth.
Across the United States, according to Humane Society officials, puppy mills – the term that animal welfare groups and others use to describe large and unsavory commercial dog breeding operations – are on the rise. The influence of the internet is a major factor, as is the development of pet store chains. Sites like Craigslist and nextdaypets.com, as well as web marketing by individual breeders, means that puppies increasingly are being shipped all over the country – and that unwary buyers usually have no idea of the conditions in which their new pets were bred and raised.
In Texas the problem is particularly acute, and it is placing a major burden on animal rescue groups and government regulators. Dogs confiscated from such operations are often malnourished or sick, having been housed in cramped and filthy cages, with female dogs birthing litter after litter of ill-bred puppies.
“Texas is definitely one of the top states for puppy mills,” said Kathleen Summers, who leads the campaign against puppy mills for the Humane Society of the United States.
Texas is one of a handful of states that have no laws regulating dog breeding operations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture only licenses breeders who sell to other companies – pet stores, chains, or pet “brokers” like the Hunte Corporation. Breeders who sell strictly to individuals are subject only to animal cruelty laws, where investigations are often left to animal welfare groups. The result is that breeding operations often go uninspected for years. Those facts, plus the abundance of open space in proximity to major cities and airports, make Texas ripe for such operations.
James Bias, president of the Dallas chapter of the Society for the Prevention and Cruelty of Animals (SPCA), said his group receives about 200 complaints a month about puppy mills in North Texas. In the last two years, the chapter has helped raid about 10 puppy mills a year, compared to an average two raids in other years.
Tammy Roberts, chief cruelty investigator for the Humane Society of North Texas, said her organization’s resources have been overwhelmed by the number of complaints needing to be investigated and the number of confiscated dogs that the organization has had to care for and find homes for. Nearly half the 2,000 or so animals rescued by the Fort Worth-based chapter this year came from puppy mills, she said. She estimates that there are hundreds of puppy mills in North Texas that haven’t been busted yet.
Even though large-scale breeding operations operate in rural areas, cities like Fort Worth often have to deal with the results, when unhealthy dogs end up in pounds and shelters. The animals seized in the Montague County raid were housed temporarily in a loaned warehouse in the Fort Worth Stockyards, where volunteers worked around the clock to provide food, water, and medical care until the dogs were adopted.
Some activists have taken another tack in the fight against such breeders. One group has protested every Saturday for the last two years at North Texas outlets of the Petland chain, claiming that the store sells puppies raised under inhumane conditions.
Petland spokespersons deny that contention, and in fact there is plenty of disagreement over what constitutes a “puppy mill.” Some breeders say that the Humane Society and similar groups are opposed to all commercial breeding operations, regardless of whether they are well run. There may be some truth in that – because many anti-cruelty activists believe that no such large, profit-oriented operation can be run humanely.
The argument continues in part because there is so little regulation of dog breeders. USDA regulations require commercial breeders to be licensed, but inspectors are spread thin, and puppy mills often operate for years before they are shut down.
Tony and Peggy Boyd, the owners of the Kaufman County farm that was raided, were arrested and charged with violating animal cruelty laws. Their case has not gone to trial yet – but Peggy Boyd says she intends to re-start her kennel operation as soon as possible.
To combat the spread of puppy mills, State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston sponsored legislation earlier this year that would have required breeders to meet minimum standards of care and limit them to a maximum of 50 breeding female dogs. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate near the end of the session due to opposition from a veterinarians’ group.
Even Willie Nelson came out in support of the bill. “Growing up in Abbott … I was taught to police my own area,” the legendary singer wrote to legislators in March. “When you see something is wrong, fix it. Well, something that needs to be fixed in Texas is the treatment of the dogs and cats in commercial breeding kennels or ‘puppy mills.’ Many states have enacted puppy mill bills requiring breeders to be licensed and to provide minimum standards of care. Texas is not one of these states, but common decency and the majority of Texans say we should be.”
The internet didn’t create puppy mills – that probably happened a few decades ago, first with independent pet stores and then, increasingly, with pet store chains. Before that, Summers said, folks looking for new dogs usually bought them from neighbors or local breeders whose pens and runs they could visit in person.
But the development of the web has greatly increased the buying and selling of pets at a distance – and therefore contributed to the problem of puppy mills. Web sites that post free classifieds are deeply involved in pet sales. On Craigslist alone, Summers said, thousands of ads for puppies are posted every day. And Texas ranks among the top four states for selling dogs via the internet.
Now people who want puppies can enter credit card information online, and within a few days, a puppy arrives at the local airport. They have no idea where the animal came from or what types of conditions it was raised in, Summers said.
The USDA requires dog breeders who sell to commercial pet stores and who have more than three breeding female dogs to be licensed. Five USDA inspectors in Texas do nearly 800 animal facility inspections each year, including breeders, research operations, zoos, and circuses (but not ranches, farms, or retail pet stores). Enforcement of animal cruelty laws is an important part of what they do, but the USDA seldom seizes animals. Instead, they usually work in tandem with local authorities and, in many cases, groups like the Humane Society.
Tammy Hawley said she was “one of those people who thought puppies came from satin pillows.” But she soon found out differently when she went to work for the Humane Society of North Texas, where she is now operations director. Hawley helped the group conduct its first puppy mill raid, in Johnson County in 1994. Since then, she said, the North Texas group has participated at least twice a year with law enforcement in rescuing dogs being kept in inhumane conditions.
In the last few years, however, the North Texas rescue group has been swamped by complaints about puppy mills. Tammy Roberts is a one-person investigative unit, driving hundreds of miles a week to look into complaints of animal cruelty.
Roberts moved here about three years ago from Indiana, where she had also worked as an investigator for the Humane Society. But she said the volume of complaints she deals with here is many times greater than what she dealt with in Indiana. She ranges across North and East Texas to the borders with Oklahoma and Louisiana, seeking answers from people who say they love their animals but whose care for their pets seldom matches their words.
“It’s a very frequent thing since I’ve moved here,” she said. “It’s financially and physically draining.”
The workload increased even more after July, when a judge gave the Humane Society ownership of the dogs seized from the Montague County breeding operation. Since then, Roberts said, she’s received an average of 10 complaints a week from people who say they know of puppy mills in their areas.
Roberts and other HSNT workers scrambled to find a place to house the 497 dogs from the Montague County breeder. Chesapeake Energy donated the use of a warehouse in the Fort Worth Stockyards, but the building had poor ventilation and no running water. Roberts lugged in water hoses and commercial fans, and the HSNT sent out e-mail blasts asking for round-the-clock volunteers to feed and water the animals. Veterinarians were brought in to rid the dogs of fleas and worms. Amazingly, HSNT says about 400 of the dogs were adopted locally in about a week; another 100 were sent to a Humane Society chapter in Atlanta to be cared for.
The Montague raid alone cost the group about $40,000, out of a total annual budget of about $2 million for all the HSNT’s activities. Hawley said that the increased burden of puppy mill rescues in the last two years has forced the group to put some other plans on hold, including a low-cost spay and neuter program and the updating of their livestock holding areas.
“Obviously for 2009 none of us expected the surge of such large cruelty cases,” she said. “All we can do is be responsible for every penny we spend and manage that money and hope, pray, and rely on our donors.
“It’s frustrating because we’re treading water, and it’s scary because so many people and animals are counting on us.”
Wrapped up in a green sweater on a chilly November afternoon, 72-year-old Peggy Boyd pointed out the four kennel buildings behind her house on FM 90 in Mabank. Now empty, the kennels take up about an acre of the 30-acre farm that she and her husband Tony own.
The couple have bred dogs since the 1970s, formerly selling them from their pet store in Mesquite. Peggy Boyd said her kennel was never licensed by the USDA because she sold dogs only to individuals.
“We were not a puppy mill,” she said about the raid that shut down her business in August. “The whole thing was half-truths or lies.”
She does admit that their dog-raising business had fallen on hard times. When the economy went south, fewer people had money to spend on buying pets, and last year the Boyds found themselves with little money coming in. In June, Peggy Boyd called the Humane Society of nearby Cedar Creek Lake for help in feeding her 535 dogs.
Krista McAnally, who works at the Cedar Creek shelter, said in an affidavit that she gave Boyd 400 pounds of dog food, though the shelter usually doesn’t work with commercial breeders. On Aug. 4, Boyd returned, out of food again. That time, McAnally called the national Humane Society, which assigned an investigator to go to Boyd’s house two days later.
Armed with a hidden camera and audio equipment, the investigator reported seeing dogs with mange and missing fur, trash strewn throughout the property, a terrier with an open wound, and feces smeared across the walls of the kennels. One dog was found to have an untreated tumor.
“About 80 percent of the dogs I visited are fearful … and/or territorial,” wrote the investigator, who wasn’t named in sheriff’s department documents. “They appear to have had little to no human socialization in their lives.”
McAnally and the Humane Society investigator went to the sheriff’s department with the video recording. Accompanied by representatives of the Humane Society and the SPCA of Texas, Sgt. John Pillow of the sheriff’s department arrived at the Boyds’ farm with a search warrant on Aug. 11.
McAnally wasn’t the first person to complain about the conditions of Boyd’s dogs. In 2007, a customer who had bought a Yorkie from Boyd the previous year recounted her experiences in a web site posting. The puppy had “constant diarrhea” and was eventually found to be infested with worms. The dog later developed severe kidney problems and now has to have a special diet and can’t go outside, the customer said. The problems cost the dog’s owners several thousand dollars.
Boyd said she doesn’t remember any problems with puppies she sold in 2006. “If anybody had called me, I would have told them to bring it [the dog] back, and we would have made it good,” she said.
True, she needed help feeding them in recent months, she said, but she denied ever letting the animals suffer.
Sitting in her living room, full of furniture gnawed and mangled by her dogs, Boyd blamed the economy and health problems for her inability to care for her dogs. Her husband had a heart attack in June 2008, and she had a knee replacement in January, she said. The combination left them strapped for cash while at the same time needing to hire more outside help to get the work done around the kennels. She ran up a $2,000 vet bill getting shots for the dogs, she said. And eventually, lagging sales of the puppies forced her to lay off workers.
Boyd said she called the local Humane Society shelter for help, even though she was suspicious of their “snooping.”
“I know not to trust the Humane Society,” she said. “Why I did, I do not know.”
Boyd said she cleaned her dog’s cages every day and administered veterinary care herself. She petted each dog every day and even named them, she said.
What about the dog with mange? “He looked terrible, but he wasn’t uncomfortable, and he never bred,” she said. And the dog with the tumor? “She was a happy dog.”
Boyd said she didn’t take the dogs to the vet for minor ailments. “If your kid has a drippy nose, are you going to take your kid to the doctor or treat him for a cold?” she asked.
Kathleen Summers said that, based on the pictures, Boyd’s dogs were suffering from some of the worst conditions she has ever seen.
“If Texas could have a law like many other states do, where they at least have to be regulated and inspected once a year, it would have been caught a lot sooner, long before she had more than 500 dogs,” Summers said.
A few weeks after the visit at her farm, Boyd sent a letter to the Weekly. In it, she said she loved her dogs more than her own children. “They were the most important thing in my life,” she wrote. “I miss them desperately.”
Gary Tracy of Whitesboro, near Gainesville, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes eight years ago. A strong, tall (6′ 11″) man who towers over his wife and most of his friends, he nonetheless feared the disease might rob him of his livelihood. He was a veteran truck driver, making about $85,000 a year with good benefits. But he knew that, if his diabetes progressed to the point that he had to take insulin, the condition would disqualify him from driving for a living. He needed a fallback plan.
About the same time, Tammy Tracy was begging her husband for a pug dog. When Gary finally agreed, Tammy brought home five pugs, bought from a woman who told her, “You want one, you gotta take ’em all.” And in the puppies, Gary started to see the beginnings of another career.
What he heard at a breeders’ convention sponsored by the Hunte Corporation in 2002 convinced Gary he could make about $80,000 a year breeding dogs – enough to support his family if he lost his trucking job. He knew he’d have to build kennels, buy quality breeding animals, and spend hundreds of dollars a month on food and veterinary care, but he thought that after a couple of years, he could start turning a healthy profit. And he’d be surrounded by one of the things he loves most – dogs.
Gary spent months and about $130,000 building a 3,200-square-foot metal barn for his dogs. He drove his semi truck during the week, returning to Whitesboro to spend his weekends working even harder on the kennels.
In 2003, he filled the building with 70 pugs, miniature schnauzers, French bulldogs, poodles, and Boston terriers. Tammy took photographs of the puppies playing in front of pictures of beaches and mountains and posted them on the couples’ web site, countrypuppies.com. She also posted them on Craigslist and other web sites, and soon the couple was shipping puppies all over the country, even as far as Alaska. Gary bought the dogs high-quality food and medicine, he said, and learned about veterinary care and how to give them shots himself. He did his best to keep the kennels clean, pressure-washing the floors three times a week.
Tammy learned how to groom the dogs, spending hours each week shearing and clipping to keep the adult dogs’ coats from getting matted. She feeds and waters the dogs each morning before heading to her job at a local printing company. The couple pays their grandchildren to play with the adult dogs and puppies to socialize the animals. The couple has spent thousands of dollars trying to rid the carpets in their house of fleas; Gary’s legs are covered in red welts from the biting bugs.
Tammy estimates that each of them spends 30 hours a week caring for the dogs. “They’re like a bunch of babies,” she said.
Over the years, the couple has sold some puppies to the Hunte Corporation and to pet stores around the Metroplex, including Petland. But they say they sell about 95 percent of their dogs to the public.
Gary doesn’t like selling to Hunte because they don’t pay much, he said, and because the company sometimes rejects the dogs. Selling to individuals is easier, he said, and he likes knowing where the dogs are going.
Tammy explained that dogs sold to Hunte are shipped in large air-conditioned trucks and that the “severe temperature change” sometimes causes the dogs to develop runny noses and diarrhea. That’s when Hunte refuses to accept the dogs, she said.
Their dogs are healthy and well bred, Tammy said, and they’ve never had a complaint from individual customers.
But when jobs started disappearing in the deep recession, so did the demand for cute puppies, no matter how healthy and well bred. Gary said that since the couple is still recouping the cost of building the kennels, they’ve never done better than breaking even on their dog breeding business. It certainly hasn’t been profitable enough to feed a family, he said.
Gary’s trucking work has dried up, too – he’s worked only five days in the last three months. So he’s tried to cut corners. He bought cheaper dog food and switched to a cheaper version of worming medication. But it didn’t work, he said. He eventually went back to his original brands.
The couple is considering filing for bankruptcy next year, Gary said. “If we’re in it for the money, we’d need to [sell] about 400 [puppies] a year,” he said. Last year, they sold about 120.
The Tracys say their operation is not a puppy mill, but Kathleen Summers says they are on her radar. “This is clearly a mass-production facility,” she said of Country Puppy Kennels, “not a small family breeder where the mother and father dogs are cared for and given individual attention.”
Told that the Humane Society considers his kennel a puppy mill, Gary lowered his head. “To me, that’s an insult,” he said. “I don’t have 500, 600 [breeding] dogs. I just have 70.”
But the USDA inspected his kennels in February and cited him for several violations. Three pug puppies were sick with demodex, a form of parasitic mites, and hadn’t been seen by a veterinarian. Chemicals were stored next to the dog food in the whelping room, where the mother dogs and new puppies are kept.
The inspector also cited the Tracys for allowing dog feces to build up in the kennels’ drainage system, which “needs to be cleaned more frequently.”
Gary said the report was accurate but that he fixed the problems as soon as they were pointed out. He said he pressure-washes the trough more frequently and has moved the chemicals to a different room. The sick puppies were immediately treated, he said.
Gary thinks the Humane Society labels all commercial breeding operations as puppy mills. But he believes he is a responsible breeder. His dogs aren’t in cages – each set of four dogs lives in an 8-foot-long, concrete-floored run, half indoors and half out.
On a recent visit, the dogs looked well fed, though some of their coats were dirty and matted. The scent of feces and urine hung in the air like smoke in a burning house. But the pens seemed relatively clean, and the yelping dogs were friendly, pressing against the fence for attention.
“The big drawback” is that the dogs “don’t get the individual attention they should,” Gary said.
He said his dogs are certified by the American Kennel Club and that he exceeds USDA requirements for floor space.
According to the AKC web site, breeders must comply with the organization’s “care and conditions policy,” which states that dogs must have access to food and water at all times, feces must be picked up frequently, and kennels must allow enough room for dogs to “sit, stand, lie down, or turn around comfortably at all times.” Breeders are inspected at least once a year, depending on the number of litters their dogs produce, and breeders must keep health records on every dog. The inspectors also randomly select dogs to verify parentage, as a check on inbreeding. Breeders who don’t comply can be suspended, and the suspension published in the AKC magazine.
“We want the dogs to be cared for and in proper conditions,” said AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson.
Not many animal lovers would quit their jobs to follow that cause, but John Pippin, 59, of Dallas, did. A cardiologist, he quit to form Texans Exposing Petland, a group that parades in front of Petland stores in North Texas every Saturday, carrying signs with slogans like, “Pay Petland, Support Pet Prisons!”
Pippin says the fact that Petland buys puppies from Hunte Corporation is enough to keep him standing outside the stores for years. In October, the posse gathered outside Petland in Arlington, brandishing signs that said, “Petland: Buy One, Get one Dead,” and “Puppies aren’t Products.”
“Puppy mills are concentration camps for animals,” he said.
Pippin and the Arlington Petland store owner, Paul Thomas, got in a fight in front of the store in September, throwing punches and rolling in the grass. Both men were cited by the police for fighting in public.
Thomas wouldn’t comment for this story, but Pippin said he won’t stop protesting until Petland agrees to stop selling puppies and to start adoption programs for rescued animals instead.
Animal welfare groups say big pet stores and pet brokers are another part of the puppy mill problem in Texas. More people complained to the national Humane Society last year about sick dogs bought from breeders and pet stores in Texas than any other state, Summers said.
The national Humane Society has sued Petland, which has five stores in the Metroplex. The suit alleges that Petland and the Hunte Corporation, based in Goodman, Mo., “have conspired to misrepresent to consumers that their puppies are healthy and from high-quality breeders, when many of them really come from squalid mass breeding facilities known as puppy mills.” Summers said about 800 people have complained to the national Humane Society since last November about puppies they bought from Petland.
She said owners often complain that their Petland-bought dogs have congenital knee, hip, and eye problems that require expensive veterinary care and surgery. Sometimes buyers bring home puppies with the sniffles, which turns out to be kennel cough or pneumonia. And frequently the dogs suffer from parvovirus, which causes diarrhea and heart problems.
“Sometimes [the dogs] do die of that within days of weeks of purchase,” she said.
The Arlington Petland store has bought puppies from the Hunte Corporation, according to HSUS documents. USDA inspection reports show that Hunte was cited once in the last three years for keeping puppies in undersized cages and selling puppies too young.
Elizabeth Kunzelman, director of marketing and communications for Petland, said that the stores follow USDA guidelines and buy only from USDA- licensed breeders and local “hobby breeders.” Oftentimes, Petland inspectors visit breeding facilities themselves, she said. “I’ve been in the Hunte facility. It’s absolutely immaculate.”
But Summer said Petland’s rules for breeders don’t measure up.
“Very often the Petland stores claim they know their breeders and they deal with good breeders,” Summers said. “The particular [stores] in Texas deal with a broker, and they don’t meet the breeders. How can they make that claim?”
Kunzelman said, “If we were selling those types of animals, why would we still be in business?”
Summers said that if buyers saw the conditions in which Petland dogs are raised, they’d be horrified.
A Plano woman wrote to the Humane Society in May to complain about her dog, Buddy, bought from the Lewisville Petland store. She noticed that the German shepherd was having trouble walking and soon discovered that he was suffering from hip and elbow dysplasia, a genetic disorder. Cysts grew on his back, and he ran a constant fever. She and her boyfriend still love the dog, she said, but “Had we known what Petland is really about, we would have never set foot in that store.”
Kunzelman said that she couldn’t respond specifically to the complaint, but that congenital defects are covered under Petland’s warranty for up to a year. “Puppies, like babies, have immune systems and can get sick,” she said.
Hawley, the operations director for the Humane Society of North Texas, said Hunte also refuses to provide information that would help return lost dogs to their owners. The company does implant microchips in the dogs they sell, an increasingly common way to keep track of pets. But Hawley said the company doesn’t register information on who buys the dogs, so the microchips do no good.
“I’ve never returned a Hunte dog to its owner,” she said.
Char Duncan of Denton, 53, has been a member of Texans Exposing Petland since it began two years ago. She believes people should adopt animals from shelters. “Mutts make the best dog,” she said, pointing to her dog Casey, who sat slumped on the grass, sporting a hand-made scarf that said, “Free the animals.”
On one October Saturday when the protesters were outside, not one person entered the store in a two-hour period. Pippin said that is a common experience when his group protests.
Senfronia Thompson thought her House Bill 3180 was a sure bet. It passed the Texas House last spring with little debate. Her colleague, Charles “Doc” Anderson of Waco, worked closely with Thompson’s staffers to tweak the bill’s language to gain the support of his fellow veterinarians, who had originally opposed the “puppy mill bill.”
But when the bill reached the Senate, the veterinarians still opposed it, and the Senate balked. It died in Senate committee. “We were taken off guard,” said Colleen Tran, the policy analyst who worked on the bill.
The bill would have regulated dog breeders whose animals produce more than 20 litters per year and required them to obtain state licenses. Breeders would be required to provide adequate food, water, and shelter to their animals and could not have more than 50 breeding females.
Anderson said the veterinarians thought the bill was still too harsh on breeders. It would have imposed fines and made animal cruelty a more serious misdemeanor, with possible penalties of up to 180 days in jail and fines of up to $2,000.
“They thought the bill was overreaching and would be an impediment to those who are doing a good job,” Anderson said.
Thompson said she will re-introduce the bill when the legislature convenes again in 2011. And Anderson said he is already working with the veterinarians’ group to win their support.
Ten states, including Washington and Oregon, passed laws this year requiring the inspection and regulation of dog breeders. But the number of breeders licensed by the USDA has declined, and Summers fears that more breeders are going underground.
“If Texas doesn’t pass a law to regulate breeders, puppy mills in this state are only going to continue to get worse,” she said.
Back in Mabank, 10 yapping dogs – pets, not breeding stock, she says – circle Peggy Boyd as she points out improvements to a visitor. She figures the court may stop her from breeding dogs for profit for a couple of years but plans to be ready to go when that time is up.
“I’d love to have some puppies,” she says.
You can reach Sarah Perry at