For over 25 years, Twin Cities veterinarian Linda Wolf has been summoned to rural northern Minnesota to investigate cases of animal cruelty.
She has gone to farms tucked back in the woods with hundreds if not thousands of dogs stacked in wire cages, high like a tower of blocks.
Federal regulations require only that the animal pens be six inches longer than the measure from a dog's nose to the start of its tail. Basically, that's the equivalent of a German Sheppard living in a cage the size of a bathtub.
The pens are dirty. Feces from the cages at the top drop into the ones on the bottom. When the animals try to move around, they get their limbs caught in the grid, sometimes breaking bones. Disease is rampant and dead carcasses line the ground. The putrid smell and loud cries that would overwhelm any human are nearly unbearable for dogs with heightened senses. The male animals fight; the females are left to live a life marked by repeated pregnancies, usually two a year. Their puppies are taken at just six weeks of age, put on trucks, and shipped to pet stores across the country. These are designer dogs that sell for up to $800 a pop.
"I really wish these conditions didn't exist, but the only reason they do is because there is a market," says Wolf. "These people aren't doing it for fun; they are doing it for profit."
Minnesota has become a haven for dog breeders because of its ample rural space and lax enforcement of animal-cruelty laws. The state is in the top 10 nationwide for commercial breeders; there are at least 66 licensed USDA facilities here, and animal advocates say many more are unaccounted for. Federal law requires licenses only for farms selling animals wholesale—internet sales and individual sales remain unregulated.
"We've got facilities here that are breeding 1,000 bitches," says Wolf. "It's crazy. Something needs to be done."
For years, animal welfare groups have lobbied state lawmakers to take control of the industry, and for years their bills have barely made it out of committee. Critics of previous legislation have come from the oddest places—veterinary groups, hobby breeders, and even cruelty investigators.
"There is a concern for many of us that there are people that don't want us to breed any dogs at all," says veterinarian Chris Gabel, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
Last year's bill would have defined facilities with as few as six dogs as commercial, hurting small hobby breeders. Meanwhile, it had a grandfather clause exempting large-scale breeders who already had USDA licensure, which would allow breeders like Kathy Jo Bauck to continue to operate.
In May, Bauck, who operates Pick of the Litter, Inc., one of the largest breeding facilities in the country, was charged with five counts of cruelty, two counts of torture, and two counts of practicing veterinary medicine without a license in Otter Tail County. Her trial is set for February.
Court documents allege horrific conditions at the kennel. Animals with injuries were repeatedly left untreated. In one instance, an undercover investigator says that Bauck was so zealous to get her hands on a new pup that she actually reached into the womb of a Bichon having trouble giving birth. After giving the mother dog calcium sulfate to aid contractions, Bauck tried pulling the puppies out. She did not wash or sanitize her hands.
"One puppy, which appeared partially flattened, was dead on the pen floor," court documents note. "Another live puppy was hanging by an umbilical cord."
The hanging puppy died, and as Bauck reached in for a third newborn using surgical clamps, she "tore off the tail of the puppy," court documents note. Bauck kept pulling "until [she] tore off the entire rear leg of the puppy, which came out dead."
The mother dog died four days later; her hindquarters were still covered with afterbirth.
Nonetheless, the USDA renewed Bauck's license this month, says her lawyer. Bauck has passed at least four inspections and not one animal has been taken from her property.
This is a problem, says Mike Fry, director of Animal Ark Shelter, which is one of at least two organizations that plan to introduce puppy mill legislation this year. "We have allowed these businesses to get larger than the local law enforcement can really regulate. The state at some point has to step in."
There are breeders in Minnesota that house up to 2,000 animals per day. For the state to shelter those animals could cost thousands if not millions of dollars. Not to mention the fact that most municipalities don't have the facilities or the staff to seize animals in that bulk.
Despite putting the issue on the cover of its winter promotional magazine and encouraging supporters to endorse its Puppy and Kitten Mill Bill, the Animal Humane Society refused to discuss the details of its proposed legislation. Spokeswoman Laurie Brickley said in early December that the organization is still working with its partners to finalize the language.
In promotional materials, AHS indicates that they are reintroducing a bill they worked on last year that would set care standards at commercial breeding facilities, increase inspections, and require state licensing.
However, after years of seeing the same bill knocked down as the problem continued to get worse, several rival organizations worry that AHS's approach, while based in good intentions, is misguided.
"The crux of the question is, how do you define a mill? There could be a breeder abusing a small number of dogs and another one could have 50 and treating them well," says veterinarian Teresa Hershey, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. "It's not a crime to breed dogs. One of the concerns is making sure that good breeders aren't criminalized."
For months, staff at Animal Ark has worked with the Minnesota Purebred Association and state veterinary groups to tackle the program strategically.
"If you take the idea that all breeding is bad, then you have cut out a very critical and important stakeholder with a large voice at the Legislature," says Fry. "The small breeders are very responsible and most have the same desires and goals that we do. The failure to include them in the planning for previous bills has really been bad. It's caused massive opposition, yet that's what they keep doing over and over again, and that's why they keep failing and failing."
Instead of defining commercial breeding facilities with a number, Animal Ark's bill would work to finance and enforce current state cruelty laws.
If there is a number that would require state licensure, it is likely to be around 100, says Beth Nelson, a personal lobbyist for puppy mill legislation and host of Animal Ark's Animal Wise radio show. "We are not trying to create a whole new set of rules. In fact, generally, our interpretation is that the state regulations that are on the books today are stronger than USDA requirements. They just have to be enforced."
And that is more likely to happen when there are fewer facilities to inspect, says Hershey. When the number of animals required to define a commercial breeding facility is so low that even the hobby breeders are included, it places an overwhelming burden on the state. There just isn't enough staff or funding.
"You might catch more people, but you might just overwhelm the investigators," she says. "You're talking thousands of facilities."