I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘puppy mills’ for the last few days – what it means, really means, when we refer to someone as a ‘puppy mill’.
Some definitions are simple – places like the ones shown on Prisoners of Greed, for example, or the ones Kim Townsend exposes through No Puppy Mills. Sad, abused, neglected dogs, stacked in filthy crates or wire cages, and denied the very basic necessities of a humane life. No clean water, no veterinary care, no human interaction, no quality food. Breeding machines, used time and time again to produce a product that can be sold. This is what I think of when I hear ‘Puppy Mill’. I think it’s what we are meant to think of.
Wikipedia has this to say about puppy mills:
“Puppy mills (known as puppy farms in the UK and Australia) are dog breeding operations that are considered to be disreputable and sometimes hazardous to the health of the animals due to the conditions of the breeding kennel…The largest concentrations in the USA are allegedly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and rural Missouri”
What worries me, however, isn’t this definition of a puppy mill – blatant abuse, crowding, filth. Who could disagree, after all? No, I worry about the trend to toss the term ‘puppy mill’ at anyone whose breeding policies we dislike. Anyone involved in purebred dogs has heard it – that hissed whispers about another competitor, or another poster on an email list.
“She’s a puppy mill – she always has puppies available”.
“They don’t care who they sell to – they’re just a puppy mill, really”.
Puppy Mill, the worst slur we can use against another breeder, the one thing that will cause everyone to regard that person with suspicion, disdain. It’s the best way to shut the competition down, to ruin the reputation of someone you dislike. It can also represent true concern – concern that you don’t respect another breeders ethics, that you suspect them of giving less than stellar care to their animals, that you believe they don’t have the best interest of your breed at heart.
Once, years ago, I had a dog who was doing some incredible winning. It was made incredible by a combination of his age, and his color. In French Bulldogs, it’s a statistical fact that some colors are simply easier to show, likely because they are both what judges see most often, and because their simplicity masks faults more readily. My dog was young, and he wasn’t plain, and a couple of handlers didn’t appreciate at all that he was rapidly over taking the record that their much older, equally unusually marked dog had established. They’d been bad mouthing me, and my dog, across the country, and word of it had been trickling back to me from the show trail. I was equally as young as my dog, and unbelievably devastated by what I’d been hearing.
The final blow came when, at a weekend long cluster, these competitors had sat down with a large group of dog show attendees and regaled them with tales of how I was a “total puppy mill – dogs in chicken wire crates and the whole thing”. Luckily for me, and for my reputation, friends of mine were in the crowd who were gathered to listen to this slander. They were able to laughably tell my critics that they’d just dined at my house, and that I owned three dogs in total, all of whom slept in my bed, none of whom were crated unless I wasn’t home – and that the only thing in my yard was a well fenced pool and a gazebo. Unfazed, my enemies muttered about how “That was what they’d heard”, and slunk off in ignomy when the phrase ‘AKC representative’ and ‘complaint’ were then mentioned.
I’m not innocent, either. I’ve done it too – called someone I disliked a puppy mill, although mostly when I was younger, and more prone to judgmental behavior. I never called someone a puppy mill out of cruelty or spite, but rather out of a sense of moral superiority, a smugness that came from believing that my breeding methods were more pure, more ethical. I kept less dogs, fed them better, cared for them more. I’d never kennel them, or make them sleep anywhere but on the bed. I was a good breeder – not a puppy mill.
And it was wrong of me. It’s wrong of all of us. My point? We all need to stop – stop cheapening this phrase, which should have so much power. When we hear “puppy mill”, we should know exactly what is meant by it – Kim’s tortured dogs, bought at auctions in the heat of August. The dogs of Prisoners of Greed, dead eyes and feet ruined from living on wire. We should not ever, ever use this term unless we know exactly, precisely what we are referring to.
You want to call someone unethical? Fine. You want to say you disagree with how many litters they breed? Hey, me too. But ‘puppy mill‘? We need to reclaim that word, and use it for what it was always meant for – the worst of the worst – lest it loses its power to shock, dismay and call to arms.
I still have very strong ideas about what is, and isn’t right. About the obligations of breeders to, above all else, leave a breed in better shape than it was when we first started. About the karmic debt we incur when we choose to orchestrate the creation of a life. I still am disheartened at selling a living being, even though I know it is inevitable in choosing to breed dogs that we cannot keep them all. What I no longer do, however, is judge people whom I am not 100% sure of – and I never, ever call someone a puppy mill unless I’m really, really sure that that’s what they are.