ABC 7.30 report; Reporter: Tracy Bowden
KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: It’s estimated that more than 60 per cent of Australian households includes a dog or a cat and for thousands of families the latest trend is to buy a mixed breed designer dog. But the RSPCA fears the demand for these cute bundles of fur is fuelling a cruel, underground puppy farm industry where dogs are used as breeding machines for profit. Dog breeding regulations vary from state to state and breeders doing the wrong thing are difficult to monitor and even harder to prosecute. Animal activists are calling for a ban on all mass breeding operations. Tracy Bowden reports, and I should warn that viewers may find some of the images in this story distressing.
LISA LINDSAY, INSPECTOR, RSPCA NSW: The actual rooms where the puppies were were so overcrowded, there were dead puppies lying around, just on cupboards in with the mothers. The smell was just unbelievable. Heaps of faeces, heaps of urine. We had to take a lot of breaks.
TRACY BOWDEN, REPORTER: After a career devoted to animal welfare, it’s hard to shock RSPCA inspector Lisa Lindsay, but the cruelty and appalling conditions she encountered on this puppy farm south of Sydney were difficult to stomach.
LISA LINDSAY: The biggest thing was just get the dogs out of there, get them somewhere safe.
TRACY BOWDEN: The RSPCA seized 190 dogs. The owner was fined total of $155,000 and banned from owning animals for 10 years. But scenes like this are not so unusual in a business described by the RSPCA as an underground industry, operating with few effective controls.
BIDDA JONES, CHIEF SCIENTIST, RSPCA AUSTRALIA: This has been a hidden issue. It’s really time that the Australian public understood that dog breeding in Australia is not always the happy family picture that people have.
DEBRA TRANTER, ANIMAL LIBERATION VICTORIA: We’re seeing dogs confined in dirt pens surrounded by electric fencing wire, the same way we keep cattle. We see dogs in tin sheds, in rows of stalls, the same way we see pigs in piggeries and we saw dogs in raised wire floor cages the same way we see battery hens.
TRACY BOWDEN: Frustrated at what she sees as an inability to expose and punish offenders, animal liberationist Debra Tranter has taken the law into her own hands, trespassing onto puppy farms to gather evidence of mistreatment.
DEBRA TRANTER: It’s a life of confinement and they’re either pregnant or feeding puppies, and this goes on for years and years. And the damage that does to the dog’s body, it’s incredibly cruel, not to mention the psychological problems that that does to an animal.
TRACY BOWDEN: No-one knows exactly how many puppy farms operate in Australia. The rules differ from state to state, monitored by a confusing mix of local and state and territory government. There is no association representing the puppy farm industry, but some breeders are keen to explain that the RSPCA images of cruelty are not the norm.
MATT HAMS, BANKSIA PARK PUPPIES: There are a lot of people that aren’t doing the right thing and we just wanna put our side of the story out there and let people know that dog breeding can be done on a large scale and can be done properly with animal welfare well in check.
TRACY BOWDEN: Banksia Park Puppy Farm east of Melbourne is one of the biggest the country. It’s owned by the Hams family, which has been in the dog breeding business for 50 years.
MATT HAMS: Pugaliers, cavoodles, spoodles, schnoodles – the oodle dogs are very popular. Labradoodles and groodles.
TRACY BOWDEN: Banksia Park produces around 1,500 puppies a year.
MATT HAMS: We’ve got around 300 breeding females and around 30 males. The property is 200 acres and of that probably 25 per cent is used on the dog farm.
TRACY BOWDEN: And how often do these dogs have puppies?
MATT HAMS: The girls can give birth twice in any 18 month period.
TRACY BOWDEN: The family has a clear conscience about the operation and the health and happiness of the dogs.
This area looks pretty dry and desolate. It doesn’t look like a great place for dogs to be living.
MATT HAMS: It’s not a picturesque place, but the dogs are happy here. They have all their needs are met here. Everything here meets the code of practice.
MEG DOBSON: I started to suffer badly from panic attacks and I worried about the little dogs the whole time and the puppies. I really didn’t like doing what I was doing anymore.
TRACY BOWDEN: Meg Dobson ran a puppy farm for 10 years, but she had a change of heart and now operating a grooming business.
MEG DOBSON: They become quite institutionalised, very untrusting. Probably that’s the saddest part of it is the end product of those dogs.
TRACY BOWDEN: The mums.
MEG DOBSON: Yes, the mums.
We’ve all done it for the money, but there’s a thing where you’ve gotta have some principles about it. And that’s where some of those places fall down: there are absolutely no principles.
TRACY BOWDEN: Any industry is fuelled by demand and the demand for small, fluffy dogs is soaring. Consumers buy the puppies often online or from a pet shop with little knowledge of the operation which produces them.
LISA LINDSAY: A lot of the puppy farms will use pet shops and have consignments sent to the pet shops. The internet has made a huge difference. Because people see a cute picture of a puppy on the internet, “Yep, OK, we’ll buy that,” and then the puppy can be just sent to them.
MATT HAMS: There’s a lotta tricks they’ll do to hide the conditions that their dogs are raised in. They’ll often say for quarantine reasons they’ll meet you at a shopfront or somewhere other than their farm, and that is because – a lot of the time because they don’t feel comfortable with the public seeing the way their dogs have been brought up and all that sort of thing.
TRACY BOWDEN: Critics say pet shops are also part of the problem with passing shoppers falling in love with the furry bundles and buying on impulse.
But Steve Austin from the Pet Industry Association says members must abide by strict regulations.
STEVE AUSTIN, PET INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: We only buy our dogs from registered breeders that are either pure bred dog breeder or a registered business to breed dogs. I prefer them not to be in the window, certainly, but as long as they’re looked after correctly – water, clean, etcetera – I don’t see any major issues in it.
DEBRA TRANTER: I think the entire industry is a problem. I don’t think we should be factory farming companion animals. We’re killing so many dogs in pounds and shelters; we certainly don’t need to be breeding any more on such a massive scale.
STEVE AUSTIN: We hear this all the time: that pet shop puppies end up in shelters. It’s not true. Because all pet shop puppies are microchipped. So if the dogs were coming back, we would hear about it.
TRACY BOWDEN: Puppies are certainly profitable. Money is a touchy subject for the breeders, but if a designer dog is worth, say, $800 and each dog has an average of five pups per litter, even with overheads the numbers add up.
How lucrative was it for you?
MEG DOBSON: Quite lucrative. Yep, it’s lucrative for everybody involved. It’s lucrative for the shires, for the breeders, for the vets, for the dog food chain and the pet shops as the end result.
TRACY BOWDEN: The RSPCA faces significant legal hurdles in trying to prosecute puppy farmers and close poor operations. It’s calling for a series of changes, including government licensing of breeders, conditional with a code of practice and a broader education program.
BIDDA JONES: We really want the public to actually understand how bad this problem is and to be able to be much more careful about where they’re getting their puppies from.
MATT HAMS: The demand will be met, so it’s far better to be met in a controlled environment with people who have to answer to code of practices and laws and things like that than to go underground and be met the way it has been in the past, perhaps.
DEBRA TRANTER: They’re all as bad as each other. Any person that can confine hundreds of dogs and use them as a breeding machine, to me that is just abhorrent and I just want to see it abolished.
MEG DOBSON: As the designer puppy business thrives, it’s estimated that every week in Australia hundreds of dogs are euthanised because homes can’t be found for them. Sadly, euthanasia was the only option for some of the dogs RSPCA inspectors seized in the raids south of Sydney.
LISA LINDSAY: Sometimes I still shake my hand and close my eyes and go home and give my dog a hug because sometimes the only best outcome for an animal that I come across is to be put to sleep. They’re the hard days.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Tracy Bowden with that report.