On Saturday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill, initiated and pushed by three third-graders, that sets steeper fines for violators of the Animal Welfare Act.
In particular, the ordinance aims to further discourage puppy mills, commercial breeding facilities that mass-produce dogs for resale, in the state of Illinois. And while Illinois, and other states around the nation, are beginning to recognize what puppy mills look like and how their poor conditions can effect the well-being of the family pet, it’s been a long, tumultuous road for those seeking to shed light on the inhumane treatment.
In 2011, the USDA, based on evidence provided by the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) revoked the license of a puppy mill owner and operator who was running a puppy mill called Pick of the Litter in Minnesota. But this wasn’t the owner’s first run in with CAPS. She’s been investigated by the non-profit organization since 1997, altering aliases and changing states, each time they disclosed her whereabouts to the authorities. It’s been a veritable dog chase, one that requires countless hours and sleepless nights from those determined to show the public, where their puppies are really coming from.
For over 20 years, Deborah Howard, founder of CAPS, and her team of investigators have been going undercover, under the guise of employees, in an effort to disclose inhumane and squalid puppy mills and the most egregious offenders of the Animal Cruelty Act. She, along with her team, have witnessed such horrible conditions, including emaciated and mentally anguished dogs, that the scenes haunt them for years.
But the organization has been largely successful in revealing the truth behind the origins of the pet store puppies. Since 1992, they’ve conducted over 150 investigations throughout the U.S., in Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa and more. And they’ve successfully shuttered many of the puppy mills they’ve investigated. Deborah first became aware of puppy mills in 1989, after witnessing shocking conditions at a Docktor Pet Center store in Georgia. In 1993, as a result of CAPS’ work, Doctor Pet Centers, Inc. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Deborah is a tenacious woman. When you talk to her, you realize, that she doesn’t like to do anything superficially. Before dedicating her life to bettering the lives of animals, Deborah was a radio host, lawyer and worked for one of the largest public relations firms in America, before beginning her own public relations firm. It was her work in public relations that helped her start the successful national campaign, Models Against Pet Shops and Puppy Mills.
The idea for Models Against Pet Shops and Puppy Mills came from model, Kiley Wirtz Jennings. Jennings had watched one of CAPS’ investigative reports and was spurred to action. She called up Deborah and offered her time to CAPS. The team eventually found 7 more models willing to donate time and attention to the campaign. The campaign then brought Beatrice on board, an 11-year-old Basset Hound who was rescued from a puppy mill in South Dakota at just 4-months-old.
CAPS began placing the ads about a year and a half ago on commuter trains in Chicago and throughout New Jersey. They soon were offered free and discounted ad space on television and in magazines. They were also offered billboard space. ”We targeted pet shops that have billboards near them. We want to educate the population about that happy puppy in the window,” Deborah said. “Because what we see, is the happy puppy in the window, but we don’t see where they come from.”
“Our Models Against Pet Shops and Puppy Mills campaign is designed to make sure that beautiful animals like Beatrice are treated with kindness and the utmost respect no matter where they are and who is caring for them,” she said in a CAPS public statement.
Putting pretty faces on an issue that is often difficult to look at (CAPS’ investigation reports show grossly inhumane conditions at some of the worst puppy mills), proved to be a powerful communication tool for the campaign. “With the puppies and the models, we made it pleasant to look at,” said Deborah. High-profile media outlets such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, ABC, NBC, Dateline, and 20/20 have covered CAPS’ undercover investigations.
The fight remains a very daunting, tumultuous task, Deborah says. Just when you think you’ve successfully shuttered an inhumane shelter, the owner or owners reappear under a different name and in a different state. But Deborah says she’s still encouraged. “I’m inspired because people are beginning to recognize that puppy mills exist and what they are,” she said.
And progress has been made. Chicago banned all puppy mills in March of this year, and the ordinance Governor Quinn signed on Saturday, solidifies his stance in following Chicago’s lead, and transforming Illinois into a puppy-mill-free state.
And CAPS has helped to write and pass several ordinances around the country, including an ordinance passed in 2010 that banned the sale of pets in pet shops entirely in West Hollywood. Which is CAPS’ ultimate goal: to encourage the public not to purchase pets at all, but to adopt from shelters and rescues instead. Because if there is no income going into the pet stores, suppliers such as puppy mills will no longer serve a purpose.
There are new challenges ahead. Though many ordinances address the sale of puppies from puppy mills, they do not address the sale of pets over the Internet. The Animal Welfare Act does not cover Internet breeders. And CAPS fears some of the puppy mill owners they helped to shutter, will submit for an online license. But with Deborah’s immense compassion, and the determined undercover investigators at CAPS, the organization has proved time and again that they are never far behind these offenders.