Last week, I finally forced myself to read the Washington Post’s exposé of the animal rescue industry, particularly as it relates to rescues paying for animals. If you haven’t read it or you’re not familiar at all with the practice, I encourage you to read the story first, as I’ll be referencing certain points without enough summary to give you good context. You should read it anyway, just to be informed, but I realize that in today’s news cycle, you have to pick your battles. Without further ado, my thoughts.
Yeah, they are, for the most part. If you thought this would be a passionate defense of animal rescue, it mostly isn’t. Animal rescue is an unregulated mess before we even get into paying for animals, and the first people who will tell you that are the rescuers who actually know what they’re doing. A quick Google search will bring you dozens, if not hundreds, of stories about shelters, rescues or sanctuaries being raided and their members charged with abuse or neglect. In some organizations, paid leadership and volunteers are all equally clueless about the handling and care of the animals they have. People have been mauled because shady rescues claim to have “rehabilitated” dangerous dogs using outdated and debunked training methods, and then adopted them out to unsuspecting families.
“Unsuspecting” is the nicest way I can say it, but the general public can be absolutely stupid about this. Recently, I saw a Facebook review praising a shelter because “none of the animals were in cages; they were all free to roam!” That kind of person is exactly why that post about 52 thoroughbreds in need of homes still makes the rounds, years after it was debunked or resolved or whatever the hell. That kind of person is why graphic photos of animal abuse — captioned “share if you’re against animal abuse!!!” — gets shared instead of reported. It’s all about myths and good intentions, and these people are frothing (and sometimes throwing money) at every sob story they see rather than educating themselves on the reality of the situation and the most effective and ethical way to help. Sometimes (often?), these people are the ones who end up volunteering or starting their own ill-fated rescue.
That kind of person is exactly how rescues end up with thousands of dollars to buy dogs from anyone they think won’t do as much for the dog as they will. As the article points out, this has created a new industry, a whole subset of breeders targeting rescuers and getting hundreds or thousands more for a dog than they would have otherwise. According to the story, breed-specific rescues seem to often be the culprit, desperate to provide a purebred or trendy dog with the feel-good rescue story.
I’d be remiss not to pause here and mention that there are, of course, excellent rescues and shelters headed by knowledgeable, experienced, good people. These people and organizations are maintaining professional and ethical standards no one is holding them to, refusing to pay for dogs and providing the dogs they do have with science-based training and enrichment. They are out there, they are helping their communities, and you should support them. Many people won’t, however, because these organizations typically only have a few dogs at a time (you know, instead of packing warehouses full of ’em), and if there isn’t some hook about starvation or a bait dog, well, that’s just boring.
The WaPo story is already long, and to adequately explore the issues of animal welfare would probably take a book. Also, I know it’s easy to be an armchair journalist, but I think it’s important to point out where this story failed.
First off, it downplayed the problem of puppy mills, big time. The absolutely rancid and inhumane conditions in mills were almost implied to be a figment of rescuers’ imaginations, or glossed over to focus on just how much more rescuers were paying than other puppy mill owners. Let’s be clear: Puppy mills are not a myth. The conditions are not exaggerated. If a rescue does, in fact, buy a dog from a mill that would have otherwise gone to another mill, that dog was, in fact, rescued from a life of misery. The rescuers just further enabled the piece of scum running the mill in the process. The article completely ignored the fact that many rescuers feel driven to this because the USDA and state and local governments continue to, at best, ignore the problem, and at worst, encourage the existence of these disgusting farms. Some of these rescues and shelters may be off the rails, but it’s hard to blame them for wanting to get those dogs the hell out of there, no matter the cost. Organizations that don’t pay for dogs recognize what their decision means for those dogs. However, they also recognize they can’t save them all, and thus choose to focus on dogs they can save without lining the pockets of human garbage.
In a similar vein, the article 1) assumes any breeder not a puppy mill is A-OK, and 2) exempts these breeders from any blame in the situation. One breeder who sent her dogs to auction was described as having “grassy, sun-drenched enclosures…the size of a baseball field,” and this was, apparently, proof she was a good breeder, and surely there must be others.
Against, let me be crystal clear: Good breeders do not send their dogs to auction. I believe good, ethical breeders exist (in fact, I think they’re the long-term solution to this problem), but there is a big ole’ spectrum between them and a puppy mill, and many breeders fall a good deal closer to the mill side of things. Dogs are not livestock, so no, that big grassy dog run the size of a ball field doesn’t impress me. What makes a good breeder probably warrants a whole post of its own, but I can almost guarantee not one breeder mentioned in this article is one. If someone is sending their dogs to auction, they don’t give a rat’s flying ass where they end up, and those dogs might merit a rescue just as much as a mill dog.
Furthermore, if someone is preying on the good intentions of rescuers, holding back puppies to send to auction specifically so rescues will pay a higher price, they’re a piece of shit. Capitalism, supply and demand, blah blah, fuck that noise. This article treats those breeders like some kind of natural outcome of animal rescue, completely unavoidable, and I think that’s a load of crap.
Lastly, this article excuses the consumers for their role in this. Yes, people have the right to pick a dog based purely on aesthetic and not give a damn where it come from, just like they have the right to believe the Earth is flat. That doesn’t mean they should be encouraged. Dogs are not products, and when I say that, I don’t mean “You shouldn’t think of dogs as products.” They are not, full stop. If you think of a dog solely as a thing whose appearance you like, you will be unpleasantly surprised when it bites your kid or barks incessantly or somehow deviates from the breed description you read on Wikipedia. When we think of dogs as products, we are entirely unprepared for the reality that dogs are living, thinking, behaving things whose needs can run counter to our immediate — or even long-term — desires.
I’m not saying that if you like a certain breed, you’re thinking of dogs as products. Lord knows, I love me some Dobermans and Rottweilers and Irish Wolfhounds and other dogs that look like they were designed to make you crap your pants on sight. I also love greyhounds and Salukis and Ibizan hounds and other dogs than look like the canine version of a Tolkien elf. But it can’t just be about that. It can’t be aesthetic above all else. If you’re looking at what you think is a good breeder of [insert dog breed here], and you’re thinking, “Golly gee, I can’t really afford a $3,000 puppy,” and the next thing you do is buy a $900 puppy from the first slob you find, you haven’t just made a financial decision. You’ve made an unethical one.
I wish I could say I went a bit off-track at the end there, but I really haven’t. It’s all connected, this business of how we think of dogs, how we obtain them, whether and how we train them, how many we kill. If you want a takeaway that really correlates, just do your research. Whether you want to buy, adopt, donate, volunteer, or go to training, do your research. Use your brain. Check the credentials. Review the tax-exempt status. Don’t just throw money at sob stories. Don’t give your bank info to a Nigerian prince. Don’t believe fake news. Don’t be a dummy.