With its narrow, winding roads dotted with horse-drawn buggies and signs for homemade quilts, candles, jams and jellies, Pennsylvania's Amish country in Lancaster County attracts millions of tourists each year. But giant billboards along a main highway call attention to a less appealing local industry. "WELCOME TO LANCASTER ... HOME TO 100'S OF PUPPY MILLS," reads one sign. It was paid for by Last Chance for Animals, a national animal-advocacy organization that opposes commercial breeding facilities where hundreds of puppies are raised in cramped metal cages without proper food, veterinary care and often even fresh air.
Activists estimate that 200,000 puppies are bred and sold each year in Lancaster County. The public's fascination with new designer dogs like the puggle (a cross between a pug and beagle) as well as the ease of buying a dog on websites like nextdaypets.com has only increased demand. And with that has come a backlash, especially in states like Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri, where there is a high concentration of breeders. There, and even at the national level, a movement is under way to ensure that the U.S.'s most popular house pets, many of which are purchased during the holiday season, are raised in humane conditions. "No pet store will tell you that its puppies come from a puppy mill," says Ed Sayres, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "but these animals are commercially exploited to generate the highest amount of profit at the lowest possible cost."
The exact number of puppy mills is not known, since offenders often fail to register their operations with the government, as required by law. But hundreds of violations are reported each year. The horrific conditions found in some mills can cause health and behavioral defects ranging from genetic problems caused by overbreeding, such as hip dysplasia, to overaggressive play. "In order for a dog to be a normal dog, it needs to stay with its mother and littermates for a good eight to 10 weeks," says Carol Araneo-Mayer, co-founder of Adopt-A-Pet, a rescue group in Freehold, N.J. She says many puppies are separated and even sold long before they learn how to play with other animals and not to be afraid of people. Also, health problems can pile up. In May, Lancaster County residents Raymond and Joyce Stoltzfus agreed to pay some $50,000 to reimburse 171 customers who claimed the puppies they bought from the couple suffered from pneumonia, heart defects and kidney failure.
Animal-rights advocates contend that commercially bred dogs can be spared much of their misery with just the most basic improvements. "Do they have to be confined to cages 24 hours a day, bred with no limit on the number of litters and no required socialization with other dogs or with humans?" asks Josette Aramini, cofounder of the new United Against Puppy Mills group in Lancaster. The organization has worked to shutter large-scale breeders by petitioning local zoning boards to deny them permits.