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May 7, 2013

Anatomy of a Puppy Mill Raid

Shutting down each miserable mill is a struggle all its own

All Animals magazine, May/June 2013

  • An anonymous tip in 2011 lead to the rescue of 97 dogs living in rusted wire cages in a Tennessee puppy mill. One had lost a paw. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

by Karen E. Lange

The details are depressingly similar—sick, suffering dogs languishing in row after row of wire cages—but closing each puppy mill down is a struggle all its own for HSUS staff and partners.

Johnston, S.C. -- He is hungry in the weeks before the rescue—always hungry. The food they bring is never enough. Not for him and the other dog in the small chain-link kennel. Day by day, he grows weaker, thinner, though a thick coat of matted fur hides the way his ribs stick through his skin. Day by day, he waits, nearly forgotten, in the warren of miserable pens and cages that fill the back of Callie Abel’s yard in Johnston, S.C. The “Labradoodle” (Labrador-poodle mix) is way too old to sell. He isn’t that valuable a breeder. His condition might raise suspicions if he is passed on to a rescue. So he wastes away.

When rain falls, the kennel’s dirt floor turns to mud. When sun shines, the dirt turns to dust. For relief from the heat, the dog digs into the dirt. But the fleas bite him; there is no escape. Sometimes Abel or a helper brings fresh water. Sometimes not. Then the liquid left in the sawed-off barrel that is their bowl turns green with algae. He is thirsty, but he cannot drink it.

All around him, as September opens, other dogs suffer. Abel’s website gives this place a pretty name—Calabel Farms—and a nice story: “I have been a dog lover basically since birth. … My focus is on matching wonderful pets with loving homes.” From the fence by the road, all you can see are trees, Abel’s double-wide trailer, and further back more fences. Behind the façade, though, lies a puppy mill with more than 200 dogs: mothers and puppies kept in rabbit hutches, females bearing litter after litter until their health fails. A shelter would need four or five people working full-time, seven days a week, to care for these dogs (never mind the nine horses and 48 chickens and other birds also on the property). Abel is trying to do it largely by herself.

At one time, Abel, 54, had been an animal control officer. She had been married to a veterinarian. She should know the care dogs require. But she can’t or won’t provide it.

To save money, Abel supplements the dog food she buys with deer scraps from a local processing plant. She does her own veterinary work, though she is not a veterinarian (her ex-husband supplies prescriptions). Perhaps she takes puppies she plans to sell for the required shots, but she fails to treat most of the dogs for fleas or heartworm. Actually, she is having a hard time just taking care of herself. Her home is filthy and packed with clutter, her yard strewn with junk.

Sometimes dogs die on their own. Sometimes they are put down. Abel burns the bodies in a small pit steps from her door. When there are a lot of dead dogs, she buries them toward the edge of her property in a hole dug with a backhoe.

Abel leaves notes on the backs of envelopes for her current husband: “Jack—this is yesterday’s coffee—in this cup—Also please take 2 large dead dogs today Thanks Love U”; “Hope you feel better today. Can U take dead pup in box on drum by shed with motorcycle—also one in here by heater if dead”; “Please load rifle which is by your feet now on crate Hope you have a good day.”

At a Tennessee raid, "dogs were so filthy and uncared for it was difficult to tell what breed they were."

Neighbors complain about barking and foul odors and fleas. Later, they’ll say they smelled burning flesh. In 2009, an animal control officer visits, but the dogs he sees appear to have food and water. None are dead or dying. And he doesn’t have the means to rescue that many animals. So he goes away. The sheriff’s office knows the situation isn’t right, they just don’t know what to do about it. In 2005, Abel had evaded charges in next-door Aiken County of keeping dogs in unsanitary conditions. She moved to Edgefield County and kept selling puppies online for $200 to $500 apiece.

“Designer dogs,” she calls them—a mishmash of all the different breeds imprisoned on her property. She photographs puppies using a makeshift studio in her home and brightly colored cloths as backdrops, captioning the pictures with cute comments written as though in the dogs’ words. She invites people to visit her farm. In reality, the dogs are driven or flown to customers. The only people who get past the no trespassing signs that ring her property are her ex-husband, her current husband, her two sons, a hired helper, and a local woman Abel met at an auction where she brings puppies to sell.

Abel has been passing the woman older dogs she no longer wants—females who have failed to breed or care for a previous litter, 3- to 4-month-old male puppies who have grown too big to easily ship to buyers. After about a year, Abel lets the woman into her yard. The woman tells a local rescuer about the conditions. In late May 2012, that rescuer calls the HSUS puppy mill tip line. Her message goes to Ashley Mauceri, manager of animal cruelty response for the Animal Rescue Team. In July, at Mauceri’s instruction, the auction acquaintance takes seven small dogs from Abel to a vet. The animals have matted fur, rotting teeth, fleas, and ears filled with dark fluid. This is the evidence The HSUS needs.

On the morning of Sept. 11, a sheriff’s car leads a convoy of SUVs, a truck for hauling horses, and two specially equipped tractor trailers down Holmes Pond Road in Johnston. Inside ride members of the HSUS Animal Rescue Team, South Carolina director Kimberly Kelly, trained volunteers from 14 states, and staff from the Humane Society of Charlotte (North Carolina). Mauceri, the “incident commander,” is hopeful but nervous. “I’m very anxious. I feel like I swallowed a frog.” The week before, someone in the sheriff’s office, trying to reassure a woman who called about the condition of a dog from Calabel Farms, revealed a raid was about to take place. Had word reached Abel?

But when deputies arrive, Abel is still at 200 Holmes Pond Road. If she’s tried to clean up, it’s not apparent. They serve a search and seizure warrant as she steps out of the double-wide with a cup of coffee. She argues with the officers. Before the convoy has even parked, deputies arrest her and take her to the county jail. For the starving Labradoodle and all the other animals, it will soon be over.

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