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July 21, 2010

Seeing the Suffering of Puppy Mills Firsthand

  • A terrier in a small cage awaits rescue from the Mississippi puppy mill. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • A small dog crouches among old newspapers and feces, before being rescued by an HSUS-led team. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • A rescued dog is carried by HSUS's Beau Archer, who is wearing a respirator to cope with harsh fumes from accumulated animal waste. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • Many of the dogs in this Mississippi case suffered from dental disease, skin problems, or other ailments. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • This dog rescued from the property had a visible eye injury. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • A dog rescued from this rural Mississippi puppy mill looks hopeful about a better life. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • This severely matted dog had his mats shaved off and will have the chance to be adopted into a good home. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

By Liz Bergstrom

After working at The Humane Society of the United States for more than two years, I had seen plenty of videos and photos of the squalid conditions at puppy mills across the country. I had seen images of dogs caked with their own waste, living in cramped conditions, or with rotten teeth and clouded eyes. Still, none of this made it easy to see the consequences of a puppy mill firsthand. Read more about the rescue »

I went along on my first puppy mill rescue in rural Mississippi after HSUS and its Wilde Puppy Mill Task Force were called in to help by local law enforcement. Our convoy of cars and transport vehicles, filled with HSUS staff and volunteers from other animal groups, pulled up to the property one muggy July afternoon.

Once the sheriff's department had served the warrant, spurred by concerns about the conditions of the dogs at the facility, I followed our team down the long, unpaved driveway hemmed in by trees. Though the sun had already started to get lower in the sky, the sweltering, oppressive heat showed no sign of letting up.

A disturbing scene

I saw the house come into view at the end of the driveway. I had just heard other team members describe how dog waste was piled on the floor inside and how the caustic air made their lungs and eyes burn.

Even from outside the house, I could smell overpowering ammonia from accumulated urine and hear the dogs barking and yipping nervously. They had no way of knowing that this would be the last day they would be forced to live in their own excrement, crowded together with other dogs and deprived of the care they needed.

While experienced animal handlers strapped respirators over their faces and went inside, I assisted at a table outside where team members recorded basic information about the animals, took photos, and attached collars for identification. Nearby, a veterinarian and transport vehicles were at the ready.

Breath of fresh air

Soon I saw the first dogs being carried out of the harsh fumes inside the house. They breathed fresh air for the first time in who knows how long. Nearly all the dogs were small breeds, so some of them came out two by two, the rescuers holding one safely in each arm.

A skilled veterinarian checked every dog for serious medical issues before either a volunteer or I secured a numbered collar around their necks. Though we were marking each animal with a number, I knew that before long, they would be adopted to a permanent home where they'd have a name and the individual attention they deserved.

I felt each animal's warm, dirty fur as I slipped the collars on and told them everything was going to be OK. Despite the blur of sweat, buzzing flies, and paperwork, I noticed little things like the unique dapple patterns on a dachshund's ears. I shuddered to see injuries like a dog with an open wound on her leg and a dog with a hole in the middle of his eye.

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Hope for mom and pups

The stream of photos and records paused as one of the rescuers carried out a large blue bin. I looked inside to see a weary-looking mother dog with eight puppies nursing among a bed of filthy towels. The vet estimated they were only about 16 days old. With so many dogs to identify and photograph at once, someone handed me a pure-white puppy who was barely bigger than my hand. I looked at his stubby legs and round belly while the shutter clicked.

Hours later, after the number of animals climbed past 100 and the house was finally empty, I walked back down the long driveway. It was completely dark and all the animals had been loaded into vehicles and taken to the temporary shelter.

Back at the shelter, where the dogs had clean crates, food, and water, they were already becoming more quiet and calm. Some of the dogs barked, but some were fast asleep.

Better things ahead

I noticed a Chihuahua with such a huge belly that I wondered if she would give birth at any minute. She seemed relieved to have a clean place to rest. When I looked at her and talked to her quietly, she looked back at me and wagged her tail in a circle. I thought about how her puppies would never have to live in the awful conditions their mothers had endured.

Instead they'll grow up as family pets with dog toys, leashes and walks, visits to a veterinarian, and plenty of attention. They won't have any idea what their life would have been like if not for this rescue.

There are so many other dogs in puppy mills who haven't yet been this lucky. Still, these animals' lives changed so much in a single day. I felt lucky too being there to see the dogs beginning to wag their tails and to know that their ordeal was over.

Liz Bergstrom is a public relations specialist with The Humane Society of the United States.

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