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Finding a Balance Between Pets and Profits

A fire at a Bland County, Virginia kennel raises questions about morals, animal rights and economic freedom.

By Donna Alvis-Banks
The Roanoke Times
June 25, 2007

Live animal sales in America account for $2.1 billion, most from puppy purchases.

Is it any wonder that puppy farming has become an enticing enterprise for thousands of breeders across the land?

Many are legally licensed commercial operations sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell to brokers and pet stores. Many others are "backyard breeders," raising dogs to sell directly to the public with no federal regulatory oversight.

Both, dog welfare advocates say, are "puppy mills." Purebred puppies produced in large numbers, they argue, lack socialization, exercise and monitoring for genetic defects. And the dams who give birth to the puppies, they believe, are the real sufferers. Female breeding dogs may live their entire lives in cages where their only function is to reproduce.

People wanting to buy puppies, critics say, should get them only from responsible breeders or rescue organizations, or from shelters, where it's estimated that one out of four adoptable dogs is a purebred.

That's poppycock and propaganda, say those in the puppy business.

For years, activists in other states have been railing against puppy mills, especially in Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have large concentrations of USDA licensed breeders. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell fired all 14 members of the Dog Law Advisory Board last year in an effort to clean up the puppy mill problem there.

In Virginia, where there are only 14 USDA Class A licensed breeders -- not all of which deal in puppies -- the issue has not been so visible.

That changed on March 21 when Dogwood Kennels, a USDA licensed facility in Bland County, went up in flames. In the early morning hours, firefighters rushed to the Ivan Schmucker Jr. farm on Byrnes Chapel Road. As they approached the burning kennel -- j ust yards from the Schmucker family home -- some reported hearing the yelping of dogs trapped inside.

The exact number of canine casualties still isn't known.

Bland County animal control officer James Belcher at first said 167 dogs died. Later reports listed 192. At least 100 dogs outside the kennel were spared.

Belcher, like many in Bland County, didn't even know the operation existed. The Schmuckers did not have the county's required conditional-use permit to run such a kennel.

The exact cause of the fire isn't known, either. Ruled accidental, it was thought to have started with a kerosene heater used to warm the kennel's whelping facility. Because Dogwood Kennels was uninsured, an official investigation wasn't conducted.

Now, Schmucker says he wishes the fire had been fully investigated.

"The activist people have actually burned down places in Missouri," he said.

Neither Schmucker nor his family was prepared for the angst sparked by a fire that, according an incident report filed by Belcher, cost them an estimated $49,000 in lost dogs and $60,000 in lost property. They had no idea they would be criticized by activists all over the country, have television cameras shoved in their faces and be grilled over the way they earn their living.

The Schmuckers -- like many commercial breeders around the country, particularly in Ohio and Pennsylvania -- are Amish.

"Our aim is to live peacefully with all," Schmucker said. "If it's legal to do this, why would anybody hinder us?"

"We don't want special consideration because we're Amish," he insisted.

But he doesn't want persecution, either.

Putting Out Fires

The women piled into Lila Borge Wills' Nissan Pathfinder like soldiers clambering into a tank, coming directly from work for the 90-minute drive from Christiansburg to Bland County.

On this day, they were set to do battle with the puppy mill issue. Another day, it might be a covert sting operation to bust a disreputable backyard breeder or infiltrate the home of a cat hoarder.

There's an underground railroad of sorts, operated by a network of people who call themselves animal welfare advocates.

"We just keep networks up through all of the animal welfare groups," explained Wills, a wildlife biologist at Virginia Tech's Corporate Research Center. Wills and Floyd County veterinarian Kathy Davieds founded the Virginia Partnership for Animal Welfare -- or VA PAWS -- in 1998 with a mission of offering education and public outreach on a local level.

Most days, Wills says, she feels like she's just "putting out fires."

She says laws protecting companion animals are weak, local animal control offices are stretched thin, shelters are overcrowded and euthanasia commonplace, federal bureaucracy is massive but ineffective in regulating the humane treatment of pets, and courts are powerless to impose sufficient penalties on the few who are apprehended for animal cruelty.

So she and her small group of friends do what they can. They put out fires.

But the fire on the Schmucker farm fueled outrage.

"It's horrific," Wills said when the news broke. "This situation is a perfect example of the tragedies of puppy mills. The public should demand that these injustices stop before more animals die."

Members of VA PAWS rallied, raising money for ads in local newspapers opposing the puppy mill practice and organizing an online petition signed by advocates from all over the country. Many wrote to Bland County Administrator Jonathan Sweet, protesting the Schmuckers' request for a permit to rebuild their kennel.

Sweet spent an entire day responding to e-mail. He stopped counting after 200. Finally, he stopped answering.

"It's not fair to the Bland County citizens that I need to be serving," he said of the time involved in the responses. Sweet accompanied members of the Bland County Planning Commission to the Schmucker farm so they could see the place themselves before a June 4 public hearing when the commission decided it would recommend that the board of supervisors allow the Schmuckers to rebuild. The supervisors are scheduled to vote on the issue Tuesday following a 7 p.m. public hearing at the county courthouse.

An Amish tradition

Like other Amish who raise dogs, Ivan Schmucker Jr. sees it as a way to unite his family in their religious heritage while earning a living. He and his two oldest sons share ownership of the dogs.

"We like to work with dogs," he said. "God said we have dominion over the animals."

The soft-spoken Schmucker knows about puppy mills. He says he has seen them.

"I got disgusted," he said. "I thought, 'I can raise puppies healthily.' "

His family, he says, cares for hundreds of small dogs -- representing at least 15 breeds -- by keeping their cages clean, providing them with a continuous water source, providing veterinary care and following the standards set by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the federal agency that oversees mass breeding operations.

But the agency, APHIS for short, is criticized by animal activists for having inadequate standards for care of companion animals and for keeping the public in the dark. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States filed suit against APHIS in 2005 for failing to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.
Teresa Simpson, assistant director of the agency's FOIA Privacy Act office, said APHIS remains in litigation with the Humane Society.

On average, Simpson said, her office receives about 1,000 record requests each year, mostly for inspection reports of facilities licensed by the USDA.

"Those numbers are increasing," she added, "primarily from animal rights groups."

The Roanoke Times filed a FOIA request with Simpson's office on May 16 and again on June 1 for inspections dated from January to December 2006 pertaining to the 14 Class A licensees in Virginia. In both instances, the newspaper received a form letter stating that the agency would "be unable to comply with the 20-working-day time limit in this case, as well as the 10 additional days provided by the statute."

Nolan Lemon, regional USDA spokesman, said there are 4,840 Class A licensed breeders nationwide.

The 14 in Virginia are served by three inspectors.

Kay Carter-Corker, veterinarian with APHIS' Animal Care Program, would not comment on any particular breeder or allow reporters to interview inspectors.

Carter-Corker said inspections are conducted according to a "risk-based assessment" depending on the breeding establishment's compliance history and "potential for violations."

Lemon said the Schmuckers' facility was inspected after the fire.

"APHIS ... ruled it an accident," Lemon wrote in an e-mail. "Therefore, APHIS will not assess any fines or penalties."

Schmucker said an APHIS inspector visited his kennel when it opened in February 2006 and again after it had been in operation for six months.

"We've passed USDA inspections with flying colors," he noted.

When he started the business, Schmucker said, he knew he needed the USDA license to sell to pet stores. But now, he says, he mainly sells to individuals and brokers because he isn't happy with the pet stores he has visited. His puppies sell for $200 to $500 apiece. Pet stores usually double that.

Curtiss Thornton of Shawsville bought a West Highland terrier for $275 from Schmucker last June and was impressed with the cleanliness of the kennel and the health of the dog.

But Thornton did say he was concerned that the dogs did not get enough human contact.

"They didn't look at them as pets. They looked at them as livestock," Thornton observed. "But I'm not going to condemn someone else for making a living."

When he started Dogwood Kennels, Schmucker said he wasn't told that the county required a permit.

"I went to the courthouse," he said. "A lady there said, 'We'll send someone over.' Nobody ever came over."

So when his family decided to rebuild after the fire, Schmucker said they wanted to do it right.

That's why he -- and a whole bus load of Amish supporters -- spoke to the planning commission in support of issuing a permit.

Face to Face

The Amish climbed off the bus with their beards, bonnets and babies.

Animal advocates climbed out of cars with their facts, figures and findings.

Both sides filled the June 4 commission meeting to capacity.

They spoke about responsibility and irresponsibility, God and guidelines, cages and conditions.
Frances Yates spoke of discrimination against Schmucker.

"He almost lost two sons who rushed that fire," she said. "These people have been treated like dirt ... but they are able to forgive the people who have wronged them and slandered them so."

Russ Mead, an attorney with Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare organization boasting 300,000 members, flew in from Utah, where his organization operates the nation's largest no-kill animal sanctuary.

"We see the product of these types of breeding operations," he said. " 'All politics is local,' so the saying goes. This is as local as it gets. This is the battleground for animal welfare."

The Next Move

Virginia no longer has state inspections for kennels or pet stores. Elaine Lidholm, communications director for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said they were halted five or six years ago because of budget cuts and personnel losses. Now, she said, state inspectors are called only if a local animal control officer asks for help or if a disease in a kennel poses a threat to humans.

Virginia groups have tried unsuccessfully to get legislators to study what they call irresponsible breeding practices in the state. Virginia Voters for Animal Welfare persuaded state Sen. Russ Potts, R-Winchester, in 2004 to propose a study assessing the problem, but it was voted down in the Senate after opposition by hunt and gun lobbyists, breeders and even the state veterinarian, according to Lillian Clancy, a member of the animal welfare group.

"I wish I could wave a magic wand and clear the mists from the brains of these people," lamented Clancy's husband, Don Marrow. "We've tried to persuade, to educate, to no avail."

Marsha Perelman, a member of a new dog advisory board in Pennsylvania, said the most effective change already under way in Pennsylvania is posting inspection reports on the Internet.

"The transparency of having those reports online has made everyone more accountable," she said.
Her advice to Virginia?

"Look very carefully at this issue and what other states are doing. This will be a growing problem if unregulated. If Virginia does not regulate this industry, then puppy millers who don't want to have to deal with regulations will move to Virginia."

Already, the Schmucker family is planning to move. Not out of state, just across the Bland County line into Giles County's White Gate community. Their 31-acre farm is for sale.
When they moved from Wisconsin in 1995, Schmucker said there were 10 Amish families nearby.

"They all moved except us," he said, explaining that his church owns 600 acres in Giles County where many of his neighbors now live.

But Schmucker doesn't know when -- or if -- his farm will sell, so he wants to continue the family business in Bland County.

He will face the last hurdle Tuesday when supervisors meet.

"All we want is what's legal and what's right," Schmucker said. "God knows the verdict already. If this does not go through, God already has something else for me."

For him, keeping his kennel means keeping his family close. They'll tend to the animals and mind their own business, out of the limelight he so abhors.

"This has been greatly upsetting to us," he said. "We don't like the media attention."

There's another thing upsetting to him: America's changing value system.

"We're in a society today that treasures pets more than children," he said. "I could have lost two of my children and it wouldn't have gotten this much attention."

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