Backyard puppy factories just waiting for the next bitch on heat

The Age, Carmel Egan, Nov 23, 2008

SHE is a dog with no name who lives in a bric-a-brac jumble by her master’s back door. Her owner appears surprised when asked her name and seems to pluck “Suzy” from the air. A small, grey-andwhite crossbreed with matted hair, she doesn’t respond to Suzy. She snarls and squabbles with her litter of hungry pups over a bowl of dog pellets.

Like thousands of fertile bitches across Victoria, Suzy earns her keep by delivering puppies. This time, her brood of five is selling for $300 to $400 each, potentially earning more than $1500 of untaxed income. The operation is illegal, her owner unregistered. He says at first that Suzy has bred before, and will again, but he changes his story when confronted with the illegality of his business, claiming that this litter is Suzy’s first. A faded “puppies for sale” sign outside the suburban unit tells a different story.

The illegal supply of appealing, often fluffball, crossbreeds by unregistered backyard breeders is booming. Yet the State Government refuses to act against the practice, barely acknowledging it exists, despite pleas from animal welfare agencies.

It is illegal in Victoria to breed dogs for profit unless the breeder is registered with the local council as  a domestic animal business or is a member of an organisation with a breeding code of ethics approved by the Minister for Agriculture. Illegal breeding – rife, according to animal rights groups – is conducted without regard for an oversupply problem that sees thousands of animals abandoned and put down each year.

“There has been an explosion in the dumping of dogs in the last 18 months — the RSPCA and dog shelters are deluged,” said Dogs Victoria chief executive Elizabeth White. “The worry is that we don’t have any idea how many of these unregistered breeders there are. ‘Designer dogs’ is a joke, but it is very lucrative business for the backyarders.”

Last week, Suzy’s puppies were advertised, along with hundreds of others, in the Trading Post. Her owner was selling the six-week-old pups, described as Maltese cross, unvaccinated and before they were weaned. Not so long ago, crossbred dogs were mongrels. Now they’re designer dogs called schnoodles, groodles, cavoodles, labradoodles and even moodle crosses.

Maltese is mated with shihtzu, Labrador with poodle, bishon frise with schnauzers to produce aesthetically appealing puppies, often without regard for genetic defects or temperament. Claims are made about pedigree, usually without supporting papers, along with glowing predictions of adult characteristics – “ideal children’s pet”, “special companion”, “nonshedding coat” and “won’t be a yapper”.

In the unlikely event of prosecution, an illegal breeder can be fined about $1200. Only four cases of unethical breeding practices have gone to court this year: two for contravening the code of practice for dog breeding and two for conducting a domestic animal business from an unregulated premises.

Living conditions were as varied as the personalities of their owners. Some like Suzy were in cramped and disorganised arrangements; others were adored family pets whose offspring were sold to supplement household income. Some were in clean, professional kennels, while others were seemingly at the mercy of unscrupulous traders. One puppy for sale in Greensborough had “a naturally docked tail”, according to its owner. Tail docking is illegal in Victoria and the puppy whimpered when its stump was touched.

Animals Australia, Dogs Victoria, the RSPCA, Lort Smith Animal Hospital and animal welfare groups have long argued that only licensed breeders should be allowed to sell animals and their premises should be open to inspection.

Under such a system, the breeder would have to publish a registration number when advertising, similar to the law for used car dealers.

The Government maintains that the Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is adequate and that backyard breeders are only a small portion of the pet market.

“We have quite strong legislation to cover domestic animal business which is enforced and backed up by councils,” said Tracy Helman, manager of policy and education at the Bureau of Animal Welfare in the Department of Primary Industry.

“The bottom line comes down to whether they are selling for profit,” she said. “It is not illegal to sell to recoup costs, but if they are breeding with the intent of making a profit and are not registered with a council or applicable organisation, then it is illegal.” When pressed, Ms Helman admitted councils did not have the resources to properly investigate.

“The council is not in a position resource-wise to be monitoring local papers and assigning teams and chasing up whether these are backyard breeders,” she said. “They (the councils) are relying on the public to be informing them.”

Critics say the fault lies with the act, which is vague and full of loopholes.

For Lort Smith’s deputy head vet, Dr Sasha Herbert, the worst offenders are the backyarders, who return with sick animals. “It is intense breeding in unethical conditions where they are treated like a production line,” she said.

“We offer a cheaper caesarean if we can sterilise the mother, but the breeders would rather have her euthanased if they can’t breed from her any more. They just want the animal as a breeding machine.”

According to Dr Herbert, the backyard breeders are not only ripping off the public, who have no idea what they are really buying. They are also using the services of charitable organisations such as Lort Smith and the RSPCA to support their unethical trade.

“You have people who come in again and again with unvaccinated puppies, puppies with parvovirus,” Dr Herbert said. “They build up bills of $4000 to $5000, with no intention of paying. They want Lort Smith to subsidise their breeding programs.”

For Glenys Oogjes, executive director of Animals Australia, inertia in the face of unethical breeding is inhumane.

“There is an avalanche of puppies being bred and yet tens of thousands of animals don’t have homes and end up in shelters,” Ms Oogjes said.

“Then there is the overbreeding of females. So many people talk about picking up these poor ragged females who have delivered litter after litter until they have nothing left to give.”

Animals Australia argues that only licensed owners should be allowed to breed dogs and that no pet should be sold unvaccinated. It believes animals should be desexed unless the owner applies to the council for a licence to breed.

“The Government is simply fearful of some individuals making money out of animals and the outcry they would cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, bitches such as Suzy continue to pump out production line puppies.

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