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Cover Story

Puppy wars


Marilyn Soper and Breezy.

Marilyn Soper and Breezy.

With a name like Breezy, you’d think life would be easier. But the 9-year-old papered wheaten terrier purebred has, her entire life, suffered from ongoing bacterial skin infections, stomach ulcers and bouts of violent vomiting, says her owner Marilyn Soper.

But life could be worse. She could be like her mother, a breeder dog living in in a mess of her own feces and urine in a tight cage with damp, matted fur, hungry, thirsty, cold and without love in a “mill” of hundreds of others somewhere in Iowa.

Soper bought Breezy for $1,000 from Bob’s Feathered Friends, a pet store in Port Richey, Fla. Bob, who closed the puppy portion of his pet offerings years ago, had purchased the wheaten terrier pup from Hunte Corporation, a Missouri-based puppy broker. Hunte Corp., which claims to be the largest of its kind in the county and is considered by activists to be one of the greatest villains in the “puppy mill” market, had received Breezy from Sue Demichelis, a breeder in Iowa, according to the dog’s paperwork. Currently, Demichelis’ website page, at, is outdated. The phone number doesn’t work. She no longer carries a federal breeders license. No one seems to know what happened to her or her dogs.

Iowa is one of only five states (including Nevada, Alaska, Ohio and Pennsylvania) that schedules animal cruelty a misdemeanor. The rest list it as a federal offense. Find the entire USDA internal audit report online at

Iowa is one of only five states (including Nevada, Alaska, Ohio and Pennsylvania) that schedules animal cruelty a misdemeanor. The rest list it as a federal offense. Find the entire USDA internal audit report here.


Nine years ago, however, when Floridians John and Marilyn Sope purchased Breezy, Demichelis’ breeding kennel was licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which subjected it to random inspections, according to the Animal Welfare Act. Before she was sold to Hunte Corp., Breezy’s pure-breed status was registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC), which is often attached to the nation’s proudest show dogs.

After several years of on-site inspections and internal audits of federally licensed dog breeding facilities, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) last year released its findings in a report titled, “Horrible Hundred: Problem Puppy Mills in the United States.” Iowa was ranked No. 4 of 20 states listed behind Kansas (11), Ohio (15) and Missouri (24), with eight facilities specifically named.

The “Horrible Hundred” admittedly only listed some of the nation’s USDA-licensed facilities considered to be of “high concern” due to repeated problems with animal health and welfare. (See the list and read the report.) Iowa is home to the second largest number of USDA-licensed commercial dog-breeding kennels in the nation, yet, of the top four dog-breeding states, it is the only one without state-level oversight, according to puppy mill abolitionist Mary LaHay.

Iowa’s puppy mill bill

In 2008, LaHay and her husband decided to get a dog. A newspaper listing for a puppy led them to an Altoona breeder.

“I’d never even heard the words ‘puppy mill’ before,” she said. “We were appalled at what we saw and left without buying from them.”

Mary LaHay and her dog Eddie.

Mary LaHay and her dog Eddie.

While continuing her search, LaHay began to learn of an alleged “puppy mill problem” in Iowa. She also discovered that next to nothing was being done about it. Animal Control officials at the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, however, were in the process of drafting what came to be dubbed “the puppy mill bill” (HF 2280) in 2009, so she found ways to help with that. It passed in 2010, “but not without a huge fight,” she said.

LaHay quit her sales career to pursue the issue full time. She transformed her Des Moines home office into a headquarters for the cause and founded two organizations: Iowa Friends of Companion Animals (501c3) and Iowa Voters for Companion Animals (501c4). She’s been a thorn in the sides of the USDA and its licensed dog breeders ever since. With the passage of HF 2280 in 2010, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), for the first time, now had jurisdiction of USDA-licensed dog breeding facilities and could inspect them “upon receipt of complaint.”

“It was a good baby step, and it’s been effective to a degree,” LaHay said. “It’s greatest good that it’s done is raise awareness.”                 

Puppy market wars

Awareness may be all the Iowa Friends of Companion Animals cause needs. The photos taken from USDA inspections and supplied to the HSUS “Horrible Hundred” report are undoubtedly grotesque. Even Nancy Carlson can admit that. Carlson and her husband run a successful toy dog-breeding facility, New Designs Kennel, in Rockwell City. She’s also the official spokesperson for Iowa Pet Breeders Association lobbying group Iowa Federation of Animal Owners.

CVA_10 PAGE 15“Certainly no one can look at those pictures and not be sickened by them,” Carlson said. “But I can show you pictures of healthy and happy show dogs and pet breeds at dog-breeding facilities, but I’m trumped to the point where people stop listening once they see those outrageous photos. If it’s not sensational, it doesn’t make the news.

“It’s always a snapshot in time, and they (USDA inspectors) never seem to run out of red ink.”

The red ink, however, reports that, on average, 59 percent of breeders were being cited for violations by USDA inspectors, which still lacks the authority to enforce state code.

“Without state oversight, those cases involving violations to our state’s animal cruelty statutes go unaddressed,” said LaHay. “The USDA is not obligated to alert local authorities in these cases. In cases where we’ve approached local law enforcement to request their help, we’ve been turned away.”

CVA_10 PAGE 162The standards are minimal and outdated, too, LaHay said. The 1966 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) outlined the rules for kenneling, cleanliness, animal health, etc., and gave the USDA the authority to fine repeat violators and eventually revoke an operator’s license. However, the process often involves legal processes that can drag on for years. For dogs kept in inhumane conditions, time is as limited as the space in their cages.

According to the Iowa Pet Breeders Association’s 2012-2014 directory, of the approximate 230 USDA licensees in Iowa, only about 85 (37 percent) of them belong to IaPBA, LaHay said. Of those, 27 (32 percent) have been cited for AWA violations.

“The group sends copies of their directory to vet clinics all across the state; seemingly so it will be used to refer potential customers to the member breeders,” she explained. “In other words, it’s an advertisement for retail sales.”

There hides the underlying money motive that pits the breeders against the rescuers, according to Carlson.

“There exists in this country a huge retail pet rescue business,” Carlson said. “Half a million animals come in the United States from other counties and are sold to the rescue system, because there is a market for them.”

CVA_10 PAGE 152

Carlson argues even LaHay’s Iowa Voters for Companion Animals claims a stake in the puppy market, as its Facebook page touts a “mega pet adoption event” of imported puppies via the North Shore Animal League.

From January 2007 to August 2009, HSUS data shows that Iowa was exporting about 100,000 puppies annually, totally approximately $17 million in revenues for breeders. *Current data is no longer available, because licensed breeders appealed to the USDA to have this information closed to public review.

From January 2007 to August 2009, HSUS data shows that Iowa was exporting about 100,000 puppies annually, totally approximately $17 million in revenues for breeders. *Current data is no longer available, because licensed breeders appealed to the USDA to have this information closed to public review.

“The North Shore Animal League’s a multi-million dollar rescue shelter from the East Coast, which is going to import highly marketable dogs and puppies for sale in the Cedar Rapids area (on April 19),” she said. “This rather lays the claim of pet overpopulation in the local shelters to rest, or perhaps simply is a splendid marketing campaign. Ask yourself, what would happen to a (local) breeder who offered this same type of event?”

It seems the breeders, brokers and retailers are in direct competition now with rescuers, who are lobbying against pet stores with rescue and spay/neuter campaigns. In fact, some cities now ban pet store-owners from the sale of puppies. Des Moines is not one of them.

“How, in a free-market society, can we tell retailers where they can and cannot obtain their product?” Carlson said.

LaHay counters that pet breeding is bad business. She submitted 85 USDA-licensees’ names to the Iowa Department of Revenue, which reported back that only about half of them possess a state sales tax permit.

CVA_10 PAGE 153“They’re not paying sales income tax, they aren’t employing many people, they subject their animals to inhumane treatment and they distribute faulty product,” LaHay said. “Is this really the kind of business we want to support in our state?”

States where agriculture drives the economy tend to be a hotbed for dog-breeding and puppy-milling. Piggy-backing on livestock breeding laws, dog breeders can get away with a lot more substandard practices in the Midwest than anywhere else, LaHay claims.

“They’ll say, ‘being licensed by the USDA makes us good; we have a happy and satisfied clientele,’ but I can tell you about people from all over the country who end up with puppies that are sickly and diseased that they received from these Iowa mills,” she said.

In fact, consumer reports were a big reason why some of Iowa’s breeders were inspected and listed in the “Horrible Hundred.” Many, if not most, of the breeders sell puppies with AKC registration papers, which guarantees the puppy is a pure breed. However, it does not guarantee the health of the puppy’s parents. In fact, the AKC lobbies in support of dog breeding, puppy milling and puppy brokerage, according to Kathleen Summers, director of outreach and research on the puppy mill campaign for the HSUS, which is set to release a second “Horrible Hundred” report this May.

“We’ve got a whole new list of 100 breeding facilities,” she said. And Iowa is still on the list.

Horrible Hundred again

The HSUS offers several explanations as to why operations continue at many of these “horrible” kennels, despite USDA sanctions: lax animal protection laws; subjective definitions of what constitutes as animal cruelty from state to state; protection from local authorities, which often rebuff shut-down efforts; and limited powers of inspecting agencies.

Further, it defends that the HSUS is not a law enforcement agency and therefore lacks the authority to close kennels without the help of local authorities. The only thing the HSUS can do, she said, is continue monitoring problematic kennels and pressing local and Congressional officials to take action.

CVA_10 PAGE 16

Optimistic, LaHay said, “I think we’re at a tipping point. Missouri passed legislation very similar to what we’re pursuing now. It’s done a lot to help clean up the industry down there.”

Regardless of whether one sides with the rescuers or the breeders, one thing is certain: Puppy breeding is big business in this country, and making a bad purchase can be more costly than one might think.

In Florida, the Sopes have learned the hard way. Breezy’s veterinarian recently found an abnormal lump in her breast area, which will likely require surgery. They have to administer medicated drops ($54) daily into Breezy’s severely dry eyes, and she recently was prescribed a pharmaceutical compound to prevent her vomiting attacks at another $370 a month.

“I would do whatever necessary to ease her suffering,” Marilyn said. “After it’s all said and done, she’s worth every penny.

“But what these breeders do to these dogs is unmerciful. Action needs to be taken.” CV

One Comment

  1. Linda says:

    I don’t know what happened, but I have one of Sue’s Pups since 2005. Best dog imaginable! Was hoping to find more dogs from Sue. Sad to hear this news… So very sad.

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