Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Breathe: Behind the Scenes


I am angry.  Actually, I am outraged.  Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  We live in a great nation and I am proud to be an American.  However, a multi billion dollar industry makes me question how cruelty is slipping through cracks that appear to be as wide as the Grand Canyon.

I am referring to the commercial dog breeding industry.  I spent more than a year exploring this multi billion dollar business for the documentary, I Breathe.   My goal was to produce a balanced project from the viewpoints of professional breeders and rescue groups.  The cornerstone of journalism is accuracy and fairness.  It is important to remember that there are at least two sides to every story.  With that mission and objective in mind, I set out to research the topic.
Theresa Strader, director of NMDR


Rescue groups were more than helpful.  The people at National Mill Dog Rescue in Peyton, Colorado gave me access that is a journalist’s dream.  They understood from the beginning that this was not about choosing sides or being a champion for their cause.  My intention was to look beyond the “puppy mill” headlines and to investigate whether the professional dog breeding industry was a victim of propaganda by rescue organizations or if it placed the noose around its own neck.
During the production of I Breathe, three trips were made to Missouri which has more dog breeders than any other state.  After the first one, in which I was introduced to the business of dog auctions, I contacted some breeders and asked if I could videotape and profile their kennels for my film.  Shortly after my phone calls, I received an email that was circulating across the country.  It warned breeders about a producer that was making a documentary and instructed them not to talk to her.  It suggested the producer was working for the Humane Society of the United States.  Presumably, that producer was me.  I am not working for anyone, nor did any organization contract or pay me to complete this project.  After receiving this email, I did what any good journalist would do - I contacted Barb York, president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association.  She put me in touch with Frank Losey, the attorney and lobbyist for MPBA.
Frank Losey
I explained to Frank that I wanted to profile a top notch large scale breeding facility in Missouri and he went to work trying to find one that would allow me in.  Ultimately, Frank Losey was unsuccessful.  I suggested that Barb York, who is also a dog breeder, would be an excellent person to showcase.  My request was denied because she was renovating her kennel.  I explained that would be part of the story, but she still refused.  It was frequently mentioned that in the past, breeders who were eager to cooperate with the media and proud of their profession were not portrayed fairly.  I repeatedly asked for links to those stories and no one I talked to was able to actually provide one.

French Bulldog gets emergency care
I did get a firsthand experience in Missouri with large scale commercial dog breeders.  I was invited to go along with a rescue organization to kennels where the breeders were surrendering dogs to them.  It was like stepping right into the video or one of the photographs that are all over the internet. Smelly, dirty, loud and reeking of desperation are some of the words to describe the conditions.  It certainly was not the “puppies in a basket” picture that is portrayed on so many websites.  It is a mystery how these USDA licensed kennels pass inspection.  Perhaps the problem lies in the number of investigators charged with visiting these facilities.   There are 82 inspectors nationwide for thousands of kennels.

Barb York, president of MPBA
On my third and final trip to Missouri, I met with Barb York in Wheaton while attending Southwest Kennel Auction, where a couple hundred dogs from Prairie Bark Kennels in Denver were being auctioned off.  I had previously spoken to Chad Hardin, the owner of Prairie Bark Kennels.  Chad had a sad story to tell.  He was a victim and was being forced out of business by rabid animal rights activists.  I spent a few hours on the phone with him prior to the auction and tried to convince him to let me profile his kennel, which he insisted was well-run, clean and that he had “nice dogs”.  He wouldn’t agree to that, so off to the auction we went.  The dogs did not look mistreated, but they did not seem particularly happy, either.  In fact, they had the same blank look in their eyes that I had seen repeatedly during my journey into the world of commercial dog breeding.  His dogs were sold to the highest bidders, with rescue organizations taking some of them.  More about my experience with Chad Hardin later…   Earlier in the day, I met with Bob Hughes, who runs Southwest Auction.  Again, I explained my agenda to him and asked for an interview and to allow cameras in during the auction.  He declined the latter request, saying breeders would not attend his auctions if cameras were present.  He told me he’d think about the interview and get back to me.  Barb York drove a couple of hours from her home to Wheaton to meet me in person.  I found her to be very pleasant, professional and she seemed like an honest woman.  I believed she would do her best in finding me a large scale dog breeder to profile, even though she was unwilling to invite me to her kennel.  Barb went to great lengths to describe the fear that breeders felt for anyone seeing their operation because of the “bad rap” they had been given by animal welfare organizations, especially the Humane Society of the United States.  She told me we must take “baby steps” in order for them to trust me since they had been wronged so many times before.

Joe Watson, VP of Petland
I returned to Denver with high hopes.  I was wrong.  Bob Hughes stopped returning my calls and emails, Barb York was unable to find a breeder willing to cooperate, Joe Watson, the vice president of Petland, never responded to my acceptance of his invitation to tour the flagship store in Chillicothe, Ohio, and the Hunte Corporation refused to honor my request for a visit to its facility in Goodman, Missouri.  The Hunte Corporation is a large scale puppy broker and according to reports, ships up to two thousand puppies each week to pet stores throughout the United States.  The website extends an offer to tour the facility, but clearly, I was not welcome.

So, I was back to square one.  I contacted Chad Hardin, who still had several dozen dogs at his facility in Denver.  He agreed to meet with me.  When I arrived, video camera in hand, he told me I could not shoot video because he was ordered out of the building.  At this point, I was debating whether this was an unlucky man who was truly a victim of overzealous animal welfare people, a very accomplished liar or a really dumb guy.  He agreed to let me into Prairie Bark Kennels, but not with a camera.  Once inside, what I observed was exactly why critics hammer this industry.  There were filthy, overcrowded cages, newborn puppies in with other adult dogs, and no sunlight filtering into the building.  It was a warehouse for dogs and their puppies. Chad was moving his operation to Arkansas, newborns and all.  I offered to contact some rescue groups to help him out, particularly with the puppies.  He declined.  I wonder how many puppies survived the trip and how many could have been saved if he would have accepted help, put the welfare of the dogs first and left some of his pride behind in that dark, dank warehouse…

Dawn Craig, kennel owner
Eventually, a dog breeder in Eastern Colorado agreed to a videotaped tour.  She had about sixty dogs and they appeared to be very well cared for and nicely groomed.  It was the complete opposite of what I witnessed at other facilities.  Yes, the dogs were in cages but they were clean and appeared socialized.  The owner seemed to really care about them and truly love dogs.  This kennel is not an example of the large scale facility that mass produces puppies.  I was not allowed in one of those with a camera.  It is mind boggling to fathom the energy it would take to properly care for hundreds of dogs and their offspring.  I would personally like to shake the hand of the person who can do that and give each one of the dogs the love and attention they deserve. 

Symposium in Denver 
Obviously, I was missing a key component of my documentary.  Not one person from the commercial dog breeding industry from the state of Missouri had spoken on camera.  As a last ditch effort, I invited them to Denver for a symposium.  To their credit, Barb York and Frank Losey attended.  Also in attendance were Bob Yarnall, president of the American Canine Association, two hobby breeders, a commercial dog breeder from Colorado, and two people from National Mill Dog Rescue.  The symposium was scheduled to last two hours and it ended up going four and a half.  All attendees agreed they deplore substandard kennels and they should be put out of business.  Barb York and Frank Losey insisted the majority of breeders in the state of Missouri were good ones who loved their dogs and spent thousands, tens of thousands of dollars on their care.  Barb York stated that she spends 24 hours a day in her kennel because she loves her dogs, most breeders do. 
Barb York
She also claimed that she had a vet bill she could retire on and that all of her dogs are loved.  In the end, they all agreed to work together to make the industry better.  To date, none of the participants from the breeding industry have been in contact with the rescue group that was represented.  In fact, shortly after, Barb York sent out an email instructing breeders not to give their dogs to rescue because they tell lies and besmirch the industry.

At this point, I had enough material to complete my documentary even though it fell short of my original vision.  It was written and ready to edit.  Then, I received a call from a rescue volunteer.  They had just returned from Southwest Auction in Wheaton, Missouri, where they paid one penny for an eight-year-old Miniature Pinscher.  They named him “Copper”. 
Copper
He was lame, had horrible teeth and a retained testicle which is genetic.  Copper should not have been bred.  The breeder who sold him for one penny was Barb York, president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association.  Upon learning this, I contacted Barb.  She readily admitted to selling him for one penny because she was reducing her stock.  She denied that he was lame and said his teeth were like that when she got him two years ago.  She purchased him at an auction in Oklahoma and “only paid fifty bucks for him.” 
Barb York's email
After we hung up, I immediately got an email from her stating that she never got any puppies from him, just a lot of love.  I asked her for a clarification, since the auction listing claimed he was “proven”, which meant he sired litters.  I did not receive a response.  Later, I was invited to videotape Copper’s surgeries.  I watched as his poor hip, which was bone on bone, was repaired.  I cringed as fourteen of his horribly decayed teeth were removed.  One of them fell out by itself. 
Copper's surgery
I was angered as his retained testicle was fished out of his abdominal cavity and wondered how many of the male puppies he sired had the same genetic problem.  I am happy to report that Copper is doing well and has a family that loves him very much.  He is using all four of his legs, not hobbling on three which he did for Lord knows how long, and he can eat without pain.

A sad day at NMDR
Yes, I am angry.  I’m angry enough to publish a blog that is much too long with the hope that it will give insight into an industry that has been allowed to run rampant for too long.  I am angry that my good intentions were met with suspicion and deception.  I am angry that I wasted so much time in the pursuit of fairness and basically ended up empty handed.  Are there good breeders out there?  Yes.  Do they deserve to be painted with the same broad brush as substandard breeders?  No, but it is their responsibility to separate themselves from the pack and stop protecting people who don't deserve it.  They should welcome restrictions and changes to commercial dog breeding because it will eliminate bad kennels and ultimately, the good dog breeders will make more money for their quality puppies.  When it is time to retire their breeding dogs, they will be properly socialized and healthy.  The current laws clearly do very little to get rid of or punish the bad breeders.
Blind Bulldog released to rescue
There are far too many examples of terrified and sick dogs that have received little or no care to draw any other conclusion.  It is easy to blame others and to claim the role of victim.  My journey ends with the facts.  There is a reason for the secrecy that shrouds the commercial dog breeding industry.  As I said many times during the production of I Breathe, silence screams.  It usually screams a message of guilt.





12 comments:

  1. Thank you so much!!!

    My family and I fostered 3 Westies from the Schindler Puppy Mill in Mexico Missouri. I cannot begin to express my how thankful I am on their behalf that you have taken this stand for them.

    I write a Blog for my foster "Logan". I started it as a way to express the horrors he had been through and to document his journey to freedom. You can view it here:

    http://loganfinallyfree.blogspot.com/

    Thank you from Logan, Monty, Angus and Freedom and especially for all those that were left behind.

    Robin

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  2. Jene,

    I used that same quote:

    Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

    on a Facebook Prop B page last October and was attacked by people who opposed the bill and accused of not being Christian.

    The rudeness of their statements only proved my point further... but they were too short-sighted to see it.

    Robin

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  3. Robin -
    Thank you for your comments. It's obvious the current system is not working. As in any profession, there is good and bad, but when the bad comes at the expense of living beings, the good also ends up paying the price.
    I enjoyed your blog and the pictures very much! Thanks for sharing the link.
    Jene

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  4. You're Welcome! In the Spirit of Valentine's Day! Here's hoping Rescue's Everywhere.. and those waiting for Rescue more importantly will one day feel our love <3<3 Your's in feeling the love of these precious companions!

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  5. Jene, thank you so much for spotlighting the activities of these puppy mill apologists! I've just ordered my copy on Amazon, and I can't wait to see it!

    I've encountered Barb York and Frank Losey's lies on many occasions, and their eagerness to defend profits over the welfare of their dogs sickens me.

    They give all breeders a bad name. Hopefully the responsible breeders out there will come to realize that associating with folks like Losey, York, and other defenders of animal cruelty destroys their credibility and reputation.

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  6. Thank you for your order, John. The production of "I Breathe" was an eye opening experience in many ways. Every effort was made to deliver a fair and balanced documentary. Please post your feedback after you watch it. Again, thank you!

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  7. I really want to see this. I live with a rescued puppy mill dog, so I have a personal interest in the subject. Will it ever be released theatrically? I know it's available on Amazon, and I'd like to buy it, but films about this subject deserve a wider viewing. Maybe film festivals? Or Animal Planet?

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  8. Thank you for your order! There are plans in the works for wider distribution. Keep your fingers (and paws) crossed!

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  9. Not all dog breeders are bad; and those that are don't intentionally get that way. At least that is the way I have to look at it. There are a lot of breeders that just get too big and don't realize it before it is too late. I am a small dog breeder in Arkansas. I hold my dogs to the count of 30. Because I work a part time job at a veterinarian's office and there is only so much of me to go around. I find that I am at my maximum amount of dogs for me to continue to give my dogs the love and attention that every dog should have. My girls come into my home to have their puppies, and stay in for 3 months. All of my dogs know there names, and are allowed to run the farm regularly. But they do spend time in large pens during the day and often spend time with only other dogs for companions. It is not surprising to me that people would not let you in their kennels. Publicity of kennels in general is usually negative. People are proud and do not want to admit they have gotten themselves into a situation they are not happy with or willing to let anyone else help them out of. But not all of us are bad.

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  10. I could not agree with you more. The breeders who are responsible need to step up and stop making excuses for the ones who are bad and do not have the betterment of the breed or the animals welfare as a priority.
    I did get into a kennel and it was a good experience for the breeder. She takes pride in what she does and had no problem letting us showcase her operation.
    Thank you for your comments and my best wishes to you for healthy, happy dogs that have all of the love they so richly deserve.

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  11. Your documentary was excellent. Theresa Strader is my hero. She is unafraid of these evil people who call themselves human. Barb York, on the other hand, is a BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM. Thanks for exposing some of the wrong-doers. I also am learning much from your blog postings.

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