By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
An HSUS undercover investigator has recorded video footage of animals living in dismal conditions at puppy mills in the Midwest that have never or only rarely been cited for neglecting the animals in their care by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency whose job is to ensure these operations abide by the Animal Welfare Act.
The images you will see are heartbreaking: day after day, dogs held in cramped, rickety cages and pens gaze longingly at green, grassy land they might never set foot on. Some dogs circle and pace in their cages repeatedly—a surefire sign of psychological deterioration. At some of these federally licensed mills, the animals have nothing but blue plastic barrels for shelter.
Our investigator visited dozens of USDA-licensed dog breeders in the Midwest and found conditions were a far cry from the roomy, home-like environments that pet stores selling dogs from puppy mills claim to source their animals from. The video we are releasing was shot outside puppy mills in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.
We followed up our investigations by reviewing three years of USDA inspection reports for each of the breeders we visited, and by studying recent shipping documents that show which pet stores some of the breeders were selling to.
Our research presented additional proof of what we and the news media have been reporting for the last several years: that the USDA is utterly failing to protect animals in puppy mills. While all of the mills we investigated have a license from the USDA, almost none had been cited for recent “critical” or “direct” violations by USDA inspectors, even though many appeared to be dismal operations. “Critical” and “direct” USDA violations are some of the most serious citations the USDA can apply but in recent years, the USDA has rarely issued such citations and as of Nov. 1, 2020, it had not revoked a single dog breeder license in more than two years.
We also found that documented USDA violations at pet breeding facilities have plummeted more than 60% since 2016, and enforcement actions have declined by about 90%.
Among our other noteworthy findings:
- At least two of the breeders we visited sold to a total of three Petland stores in 2020, including stores in Florida, Kansas and Missouri. Petland claims only to buy from breeders with no critical or direct USDA violations, but since the USDA has virtually stopped issuing such violations in recent years, almost any USDA breeder can claim this distinction.
- Eight of the breeders we visited sold to a total of 20 pet stores in New York within the last two years. New York state has the largest number of pet stores in the nation.
- The breeders sold to more than 50 pet stores in all. In addition to the 20 pet stores in New York, they also sold to 18 pet stores in Florida, and two each in Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey.
- Four breeders we investigated had already appeared on our annual Horrible Hundred reports between 2013 and 2020, and conditions at their operations don’t seem to have improved much; despite this, most of them did not receive any recent significant USDA violations or penalties.
Clearly, the USDA is sleeping on the job, but fortunately there is hope. Thanks to efforts made by animal advocates and the Humane Society of the United States, more than 360 localities have cut off the puppy-mill-pet-store pipeline so far. California, Maryland and Maine have passed similar laws statewide that, we hope, will accelerate an end to the problem of puppy mills, and New York is considering such a bill right now. We will be fighting for every U.S. state to pass a similar law.
At the federal level, we are pushing for passage of the Puppy Protection Act, which will ban the use of stacked cages and wire flooring at USDA-licensed puppy mills, require breeders to protect dogs from harsh weather, mandate veterinarian care for significant illness or injury, and give them access to attached exercise runs. With a new administration about to take office, we are hopeful that the USDA will dust itself off and get back to the job of ensuring—on behalf of American taxpayers—that those responsible for the neglect and suffering of animals in puppy mills are held fully accountable for their actions.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.