Welcome to the puppy farm capital
1 Feb 2004
The Irish Times
By Karlin Lillington
When they raided the house, the dachshunds were everywhere -- in sealed containers, closed boxes, dumped in a van, in stinking dark rooms in an unheated, derelict house, clumps of hair missing, ribs showing, infested with lice.
Over a hundred little sausage dogs, adults and tiny puppies, were being "farmed" in County Tipperary. The story of last week's raid by the ISPCA in conjunction with the Ulster and Dublin SPCAs was prominent in the news, triggering 5,000 compassionate calls to the ISPCA, offering homes to the dogs. *
But the miserable dachshunds are part of a grim industry that must rank as Ireland's darkest, bleakest "agricultural" secret. Not only are such farms not unusual, but, say international animal welfare authorities, Ireland is Europe's -- perhaps the world's -- puppy farm capital. Here, cheap, poor quality purebred dogs are mass-produced by the hundreds in cages, bitches bred and bred successively until they drop. Ireland also has the highest per capita rate of stray dog euthanasia in the EU, with 23,000 dogs put down annually.
"What this is, is the factory farming of puppies," says Alastair Keen, head of operations for the ISPCA and the man who closed down the dachshund farm. "These are immoral breeding operations." He estimates Ireland has as many as 100 such operations, some with as many as 500 to 700 dogs. Closing them is an ISPCA priority.
Ireland is a haven for puppy farms because not a single piece of legislation exists to control them or protect the welfare of the dogs, besides the Dog Act -- intended for pet owners, not commercial operations that operate in a grey area of legitimacy. Nothing limits how long the dogs may be bred, or how many times. They can be kept in any enclosure; there's no rule that they must have outdoor runs or -- in the case of indoor breeds -- that they be kept warm indoors. EU chickens have more rights; livestock farmers have more legal responsibilities.
Until last month the ISPCA had only a single inspector (now there are five). As a result, says Keen, few puppy farmers (called "millers" in the US) have to fear a raid, and keep the dogs in dreadful conditions, often ill and unkempt and filthy in their own feces, held in wire crates or makeshift kennels in cold, damp farm outbuildings, some held inside in dark, windowless rooms.
They are sold through brokers to pet buyers, at premium prices but always just below what reputable breeders charge, in Britain and North America, and to a lesser extent, Europe. Profits can be huge.
Keen, who came from the RSPCA and who has a pet mongrel himself, knows of four puppy farms in close proximity in the Midlands, where he recently tried to close down the worst. Though conditions were grim, Keen can only act on clear examples of cruelty, and keeping dogs in what many would consider revolting circumstances does not, in Ireland's unlicensed, unregulated system, constitute cruelty.
"He has 500 breed dogs. I doubt any are vaccinated or have ever been seen by a vet. It's a time bomb waiting to happen. Yet I had to walk away because there's no 'cruelty'."
"Ireland is synonymous with puppy farming. It is the most vile despicable trade in misery," says one reputable dog breeder in Northern Ireland. "Here in the North dealers are bringing puppies from farms in the South to either sell here or take them by ferry to the mainland via Scotland."
One such puppy transporter is Irish farmer John Walsh, the man who was jailed for illegally importing sheep into Armagh during the foot and mouth epidemic, sheep that later were found to have the disease.
In November he pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to 49 puppies, found in poor condition in his van arriving by ferry into Scotland. Nine needed emergency vet treatment.
The BBC reported last month that raids had netted "hundreds of Irish puppies in shipments of 50-100 at UK ferry ports, from Irish puppy farms comprising hundreds of dogs" kept in squalid conditions.
Reputable breeders in the US say brokers -- middlemen who buy up the puppies for resale -- regularly receive large shipments of* Irish puppies of breeds that are costly in the US, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. These dogs are shipped without quarantine requirements or scrutiny because Ireland is a rabies-free country.
According to Gabriele Pollmeier, a US-based breeder who lived in Ireland for 10 years and is familiar with the system, "a fairly large number of brokers regularly bring [Cavaliers] in from Ireland, and sell them here via the Internet or the newspapers to unsuspecting buyers." She has witnessed a shipment of 25 puppies at Atlanta's airport that were underage* and sickly.
"What a sight. Poor things. They were on their way from a [puppy farm] in Ireland - had left Shannon that morning and were to fly on to Dallas to a well-known broker," she says.
Irish dogs are also used to stock US puppy mills because, unlike dogs that come from reputable breeders, they carry no breeding restrictions (a "neuter" clause). US sources feel some reputable Irish breeders are unknowingly selling dogs to mills and brokers in the US, believing they are for American families.
Says one US breeder:"Here in the Minnesota area Irish dogs have such a bad rap that if buyers find out your foundation stuff came from Ireland they class it with trash." Another reports her friend's sickly, Irish "champion-bred" dogs bought from a puppy farm broker had worthless, forged Irish Kennel Club papers. Such dogs are frequently offered on US websites by known brokers who claim "Irish relatives" send them the dogs. The trade is hugely damaging to the many reputable professional Irish dog breeders.
"The dogs that come from the farms are typically ill or inbred or behaviourally disturbed," says Keen. With little contact with humans in crucial early weeks when socialization to humans is essential, animal welfare workers say such dogs end up difficult to housetrain and socialize, and then are abandoned, dumped in shelters and pounds (see accompanying story below).
Keen wants commercial operations to be licensed by the State, with clear rules on how dogs should be housed and maintained, and mandatory inspections. Reputable breeders say mass shippers of dogs should need vet clearances from a certified state vet. And auctions of breeding dogs should be illegal.
Breeders in Ireland say the Irish Kennel Club could do more by publishing a regular gazette of IKC puppy registrations, which would reveal the farms and their bloodlines for buyers and sellers. Many US and UK breed clubs, as well as the reputable kennel clubs, do this.
Keen says that during his time with the RSPCA, dogs they seized that came from puppy farms -- even UK-based farms -- typically had faked IKC registration papers. The IKC says it is aware of the puppy farm issue and fake registrations.
"The problem is there's very little legislation," says press relations officer Wendy Jackson. The IKC would support a licensing and inspection system, she says. The club has only recently begun to computerize its registration records, which will help it identify possible puppy farms. But Jackson says it is not knowingly processing registrations for farmed dogs, and that it only registers a modest number of dogs annually.
The Department of the Environment, under whose aegis the Dog Act falls, says it is in discussion with the ISPCA on steps that could be taken to address the farms. But like the Irish people, the Department seemed unaware of the scale of operations here.
A real problem in Ireland is that many people "don't see anything wrong with what the puppy farms are doing," sighs one animal welfare worker who has seen the horrors inside the farms. "Animal welfare in Ireland is quite behind the times. Just look at how many dogs we put down every year."
But that may be changing. The ISPCA just introduced a National Cruelty Helpline, which in January alone clocked 8,000 calls. But without greater legal powers, the ISPCA will have little chance of combating the misery of the puppy farms, and, for now, we seem content to turn our backs on thousands of small lives.
ASH Animal Rescue, Co Wicklow
By Karlin Lillington
Remi and Helena Le Mahieu live their lives to a daily chorus of dozens of barking dogs. The Dutch couple are high in the Wicklow Mountains where, on the first day that they moved here over a decade ago, they took in a stray chicken, a cat and a sheepdog.
That was the beginning of ASH -- which stands for Animal Sanctuary Hubasha -- which now looks after and, hopefully, place on average 70 dogs and another 20 cats. Some are permanent residents, along with a goose, a donkey and a horse.
"We absolutely love animals," says Helena. "And there is a huge, huge need for someone to take care of stray and unwanted animals."
Voluntary rescue groups like ASH, Kilkenny's Inistioge Puppy Rescue, PAWS in Co Kildare, and West Cork Animal Welfare Group provide essential services to an Irish animal welfare system that is underfunded and understaffed compared to most EU countries.
Helena contrasts Ireland, where 20 per cent of dogs are impounded and 85 per cent of those -- an extraordinary 23,000 dogs annually -- will be euthanised (the highest per capita rate in Europe), to the UK. There, only 5 per cent of dogs end up in shelters, and only 20 per cent of those will be put down.
A huge part of the problem is that people seem determined not to spay and neuter, she says, adding the excuse is often that "it's not natural. But look: it's not natural to put down so many dogs a year."
People sometimes call ASH to see if they can leave in a now-unwanted pet, typically using the excuse that "it needs a better home than the one I can provide" -- in lieu of actually trying to provide that home themselves.
Even worse is when the animals are dumped in their yard. ASH ends up with boxes of tiny puppies, traumatized unwanted pets, and sick animals in this way. ASH now has a van it uses to collect animals as well.
"In October in one long weekend, we picked up 14 unwanted collies, all from local sources," sighs Helena. "It's getting worse and worse." Irish people particularly seem indifferent to their pet collies, lurchers and Labradors -- dogs that ASH can sometimes place in UK homes.
Remi earns some income for ASH -- €80 per dog -- by bringing dogs from the various rescues over to UK families in the van. They also receive a small grant from the Department of the Environment. Otherwise, ASH is funded entirely through donations, and the money the Le Mahieus got from remortgaging their house after Remi left his job to help Helena out full time.
The cost of running ASH annually? €15,000 each in vet and transport bills, €10,000 in food, and €6,000 in miscellaneous costs. At the moment they are so swamped with dogs that they cannot take in any more and are asking for volunteers to help walk dogs, clean kennels -- anything to lessen the burden placed on these custodians of others' irresponsibility.
ASH Animal Rescue: +353 (0)59 647-3396, www.ashanimalrescue.com
Other animal rescue information: www.irishanimals.com