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Pete Paxton goes where most people wouldn’t dare. He’s an undercover investigator who works hard to expose the puppy mill industry.
On any given day, Paxton (a pseudonym) could be undercover at a puppy mill trying to gather evidence to shut down the horrific places that mass-produce puppies. These puppy mills often disregard the dogs’ health and basic care with one goal in mind: to sell the dogs for profit at the expense of their welfare.
If Paxton could have it his way, he’d shut them all down tomorrow.
He reveals everything you should know about puppy mills in his book, “Rescue Dogs: Where They Come From, Why They Act the Way They Do, and How to Love Them Well,” an exposé written with Gene Stone.
The dark side of puppy breeding
The book takes the reader into mostly unknown territory. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know where many puppies come from, how dogs end up in pet stores, and how dogs end up at the local shelter.
The author gives the reader firsthand accounts of how he gets inside puppy mills and how he gathers important evidence. Often, owners and workers are committing crimes against the animals, but the USDA and other enforcement agencies ignore those crimes.
He takes the reader into the deepest, darkest crevices of shocking puppy operations. Mother and father dogs are stacked in cages on top of cages. Many of the dogs have never touched the grass. Many pace back and forth or circle their cages barking incessantly, and many are sick. Some are abused by workers and some by owners of the mills.
The book is not an easy read. But it’s a necessary one for those who love dogs and care about animal welfare.
Years of hard work
Paxton got involved in this work 18 years ago when he tried to pursue a career in law enforcement while also learning about animal cruelty issues.
“I realized there were very few people doing investigative work of commercial animal operations but there were a lot of people doing law enforcement at all levels, so I thought it would be a good place to combine my two passions,” he said.
An entrenched problem
Many U.S. puppy mills are located in the Midwest or in Pennsylvania Amish Country, though they can be anywhere.
“Basically, I have been to well over 700 puppy mills,” Paxton said, which helped garner him the unofficial title of America’s leading animal welfare undercover investigator.
“I’ve done the only employment-based investigations of a puppy mill and of a broker selling dogs to research labs in the U.S., and I have also done a lot of employment-based investigations of commercial animal operations of all kinds.”
Paxton has been to the front lines of these places that sell and broker dogs. He has done his research, taken notes, shot video, taken photos of the animals in severe conditions, and photographed important paperwork and documents. He gathers the evidence in hopes of legally shutting down the puppy mills.
Unfortunately, many times the mills and brokers get a simple slap on the wrist and continue their work. But occasionally, justice gets served.
For CAPS, Paxton visits pet stores selling puppies from breeders to determine where the puppies originate. He “documents the lies that pet stores provide about breeding conditions,” he said.
It is a common practice for pet stores to show pictures and videos of breeders who have big dog runs and grassy yards. They say the dogs have playtime, that they only breed each dog for a couple of years, and that each breeder has just a few dogs.
Then Paxton goes to visit the breeders and documents the actual conditions, which typically contradict pet store claims.
It’s not a job for everyone and staying focused is imperative. While reading the book, it’s easy to think, “Why doesn’t Paxton just take the dogs?” but that would hinder his investigations.
“Above being an activist and above being a rescuer or even a dog lover, I am an investigator,” Paxton said.
“I cannot have a cruelty case turn into a theft case. I also can’t have an effort to pass legislation against puppy mills be sidetracked by any emotional response to the evidence. Besides that, if you steal a dog from a puppy mill, then the puppy mill will hold one of the puppies back as a breeder. If you steal a puppy already going to a pet store, the real effort is just in documenting the conditions to make public awareness, pass better laws, and above all make people adopt dogs.”
Paxton has nearly been caught by suspicious puppy mill workers or owners. “I’ve had a man chase me down and throw a shovel at me,” he said.
The police have also been called on him many times. He’s been detained while arguing his way out of trespassing accusations.
One of the hardest parts of his job is returning to a puppy mill he’d previously documented only to see that nothing has changed.
“The other hardest thing is when I see a dog that needs to be adopted, and how I wish that I had a way to document that dog in a way that would make people feel as much compassion for the dog in the shelter as the dog in the puppy mill because the truth is adopting dogs from shelters is what will save the dogs from puppy mills.”
The shelter dog connection
Sometimes the biggest challenge in adopting out shelter dogs has to do with public awareness. There’s a widespread misconception that these dogs have unknown personalities, making them difficult to train.
According to Paxton, the opposite is true: Shelter dogs are more likely to be a better fit for a family.
“The puppy who was just taken away from her mother, shipped across the country, shoved into a cage at a pet store, not to mention with an underdeveloped and suppressed immune system, is the one with the unknowns,” Paxton said. And for those insisting on a particular breed of dog, there are breed-specific rescues throughout the country.
Rescue Dogs explains the link between a puppy mill dog in Missouri and the dog at the local shelter. It explains everything from the science behind dog behavior and positive reinforcement training to the systemic cruelty that is part of the pet trade.
“Everything in Rescue Dogs is backed up with evidence so readers don’t need to take my word for any of it,” Paxton said, adding that all information can be validated by online video evidence.
How to help
When Paxton first started his work, it was tough on him, but he has seen a lot of progress.
“I’ve learned that to truly make the U.S. a better place for dogs, we can’t just expect for the government or law enforcement to handle every problem,” he said.
“We have to take it upon ourselves to become educated and to sympathize with a harsh reality that dogs are raised and bred like commercial livestock in this country. Everybody has the chance to save a life and solve that problem by adopting a dog.”
Rescue Dogs offers information from professionals who work in dog behavior with organizations such as Austin Pets Alive!, Animal Rescue League of Iowa, Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, and Pug Rescue of New England.
The biggest challenge to shutting down puppy mills? Public awareness. “It is people not understanding the connection to the dog at the shelter, the puppy at the pet store, and the dog locked in a cage hundreds of miles away,” Paxton said, adding that his biggest reward is getting a dog out of a puppy mill, seeing her rehabilitated, and then placed in a forever home.
“The reason it was written was to spread the word,” Paxton said. “I challenge you (the reader) to read this and verify the information.”
Paxton said he will continue to do his work as long as the animals need him. “If animal cruelty ends, I can retire,” he said. “I want to lose my job.”
For information go to CAPS-web.org, which has the biggest database of information on puppy mills anywhere in the world. The Humane Society also has The Horrible Hundred list, a database of puppy mills and information on undercover investigations at Petland Pet Stores.