Grim end for Christmas puppies

Nick Galvin, December 23, 2008, Sydney Morning Herald

It would be a hard heart that could resist the sight of puppies tumbling over one another in a pet shop window.

Many people do succumb to their charms, especially at this time of year, paying up to $1500 to take home an instant new family member.

But behind this heart-warming scene a venomous debate is raging about the way puppies are bred and sold. Opponents claim it is a profit-driven, inhumane business that indirectly causes the destruction of more than 60,000 unwanted dogs a year. But to the dog industry these critics are reckless extremists who will do and say anything to further their agenda.

Vickie Davy is a dog trainer, campaigner and creator of the website Where Do Puppies Come From (www.wheredopuppiescomefrom.com).

She and other campaigners claim many of the thousands of puppies required to supply pet shops come from so-called “puppy farms”.

“It’s quite a veiled industry in Australia,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realise where puppies do come from.”

The filmmaker William Wolfenden found out how secretive the industry was when he spent two years researching and producing his documentary The Puppy Mill.

“I spoke to many puppy farmers in NSW and none of them would allow me on to the properties to film them,” he said. “I was happy for them to state their case and have a reasoned argument, but none would.”

Debra Tranter prefers a more direct approach. Something of a star in the puppy rescue world, she has been conducting a personal crusade against large-scale commercial breeders for more than 15 years, frequently raiding premises at night to gather evidence of conditions.

“I started off with placards outside pet shops, but that doesn’t work,” she said.

“People need to see this. They need to see what’s going on and that’s when I started to go on the properties and show the conditions.”

Her biggest scalp has been a puppy farm near Ballarat. Called Learmonth Kennels, the business was owned and operated by Ron Wells, a former Victorian MP and vet. The farm, which bred more than 1000 puppies a year, attracted concerted opposition from animal activists. It was closed under a confidential agreement with Ballarat City Council.

At the time, Mr Wells said he was trying to run “a very scientific operation” and defended conditions at the farm.

“Dogs are not designed to live on satin cushions watching TV,” he said.

Ms Tranter continues her activism and claims there are many puppy farms operating in country regions of NSW and Victoria.

“These set-ups are not because they love dogs – they are designed for profit only,” she said. “The dogs are just breeding machines. I think what is happening to these dogs is an injustice and is unnecessary – we don’t need to do this.”

One problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes a “puppy farm”. The best working definition comes from a policy statement by RSPCA Victoria, which characterised them as being in the business of “large-scale commercial production of puppies for sale”.

“Puppies are churned out in large numbers to maximise profits for breeders with little regard for the welfare of the animals or pet overpopulation,” the statement said.

“Inspectors have seen puppy farms with hundreds of dogs used as breeding stock and some bitches forced to have litters of puppies every six months. The breeding dogs generally spend most of their lives in pens with very little social interaction or exercise. Many of the puppies are sold through pet shops, the internet, newspaper ads, or at the puppy farm itself.

“The RSPCA is totally opposed to these types of commercial breeding premises and [believes] they should not be able to operate.”

But, it continues: “The sad truth is that while we currently oppose such establishments, they are not illegal.”

One former pet shop worker, who did not want to be identified, confirmed many pet shop puppies come from large dog breeders and are distributed by air freight.

“I’d put my order in one week and get them delivered the next week,” she said. “They were meant to be eight weeks of age; some were five weeks, some were dead. The condition was absolutely disgusting. In one dog crate there might be eight puppies shoved in there.

“Sometimes the vaccination cards wouldn’t match up with the breed of the dog so we’d just make up the breed ourselves depending on what was selling at the time. Whatever would fetch the most money, that’s what we would call the dog.”

No more than about $200 was allowed to be spent on veterinary treatment for an individual puppy, after which it would be destroyed. She also said there was no attempt to match dogs to their new owners.

“The most important thing was, when a customer went to a cage, to get that dog out and put it in the customer’s hands. We really wanted kids in our shop. Once you got a kid with a dog in its arms the mother normally can’t say no. That was our aim – attack the kids to get to the parents.”

Another former pet shop manager recounted similar experiences.

“I’d often take puppies home because they were off their food and they wouldn’t be allowed treatment because they weren’t worth it. I had puppies die in my garage at night-time.”

She said there was pressure to sell dogs with no regard to whether they were suitable.

On one occasion, she said, a young tradesman came to her shop wanting to buy an akita, a large dog that needs an experienced owner and would be unsuitable as a dog to go to work with a tradesman.

“I ended up having a really good chat and sending him home with a little cattle dog cross puppy, which cost $295 as opposed to the $1500 price tag [on the akita]. I got into a lot of trouble for that.”

Opponents of sales in pet shops say this casual approach to matching dogs and owners makes it much more likely the dog will be abandoned when it becomes too much for the new owner. “Often these puppies don’t make good pets,” Ms Davy said. “The types of people buying these puppies usually do not have a lot of knowledge about dogs. They don’t know what to do, so these pets end up back in rescue.”

Behavioural experts also say that “classic” pet shop puppies are often not adequately socialised, making them poor candidates for family pets.

Associate Professor Paul McGreevy, of the faculty of veterinary science at Sydney University, said the socialisation “window” for a dog was between about six and 13 weeks of age.

“Someone who wants to prepare a dog well for its future as a calm and pleasing member of society would be taking the dog out every day and socialising it with different people and objects,” he said. “Pet shops do not undertake to do that. Behavioural problems are the main reasons dogs are surrendered or dumped.”

Wendy West, a veterinary nurse, is the owner of a Victorian business called ACA Breeders Kennels. Each week she supplies between 50 and 100 puppies to pet shops around the country as well as selling them through her own shop in Melbourne. The dogs come from up to 40 different breeders of all sizes. She rejects completely the critics of commercial breeders.

“You can do everything right but there are always groups with their own agenda that will give you grief. We have a great commitment to health and wellbeing and to helping people get the right pet.”

ACA Breeders Kennels breeds a range of crosses, often called designer dogs and given exotic names such as groodle (golden retriever/poodle) and pugalier (pug/cavalier King Charles spaniel). Ms West said there was a great demand for these types of dogs, and because of this they rarely add to the growing numbers of dumped or surrendered dogs.

“These dogs have been around for a long time now and they are rarely given up because they suit people’s situations.”

But more and more pet shops are refusing to stock animals, taking their cue from stores in Britain and the US.

Lisa Wolfenden has operated her shop, Dogs and the City, in Double Bay since 2004. It stocks everything dog-related except for dogs and puppies.

Ms Wolfenden strongly opposes dogs in pet shops, and steers anyone who comes in wanting to buy a dog towards one of the many rescue shelters that try to find homes for unwanted dogs.

“No dollar is worth treating something that badly. Dogs and the City sells everything but the dog, as it is our firm belief that animals do not belong in shops.”

The whole issue was brought into focus by a bill introduced by Clover Moore late last year. The Animals (Regulation of Sale) Bill seeks to end pet shop sales of mammals, and to direct intending owners to RSPCA pounds, rescue groups or vets.

The bill’s supporters believe it will put a big dent in the commercial puppy breeding business and help reduce the number of dogs that are put down each year.

But the bill has caused soul-searching within the RSPCA, which recently softened its policy on animal sales in pet shops away from outright opposition, which has upset many people.

The chief scientist of the RSPCA, Bidda Jones, said: “What we have done is to move from that blanket opposition to a position where we think firstly people should get their animal from us and if we don’t have an animal that is suitable we think they should go to a breeder.

“The fact that we don’t have a statement in policy saying that we oppose all sales of animals from pet shops does not mean that we support the sale of animals from pet shops. It absolutely does not mean that.”

The Australian Veterinary Association opposes Ms Moore’s bill. It says there is not enough evidence on how many animals bought in pet shops are surrendered and killed, and that if such sales are banned, “pet sales may be driven underground”.

But critics of the association’s position say it is set against a background of an accelerating decline in the numbers of dogs owned in Australia – animals that are an important source of income for most vets.

“Promoting pet ownership is the stuff of professional bodies, but I personally think we should be promoting responsible pet ownership,” Professor McGreevy said.

“If that means there are fewer dogs kept I wouldn’t worry at all, as long as the quality of care is better for all of them.”

 Sydney Morning Herald. To access original article, click here….

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