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Protesting for puppies

Posted: August 9, 2008 4:52 p.m.
Updated: October 11, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Caroline Squires, left with Otis, and Debbie Rosato with Stella, at Squires' home in Saugus.

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Debbie Rosato, of Canyon Country, drives around town with an "Adopt-Don't Shop!" sticker on the back of her van. The posters she uses during local pet store protests read "Puppies Are Not Products." The Last Chance for Animals brochures she passes out to possible pet store shoppers each weekend say "Ban Puppy Mills."

That is the main message of a local animal rights campaign that Rosato recently became involved in. The campaign attempts to boycott pet stores that sell dogs and puppies because of the alleged use of puppy mills, or large commercial breeding facilities that many pet stores legally buy their animals from.

"These dogs that are kept in puppy mills, the mothers are bred back to back to back," Rosato said. She added that despite federal inspections, violations still slip through the cracks. "They don't have good veterinary care ... (They get) the minimal amount of food, the minimal amount of water, no special diet or anything."

Rosato also described small cages stacked on top of each other where she said some dogs spend their entire lives.

"Animals in general should not be abused and taken advantage of, and because they are weaker, we need to take care of them," said Rosato, 49, who owns six cats and two dogs, mostly rescued animals.

Rosato, owner of Debbie's Best pet-sitting service and a volunteer at the Castaic Animal Shelter and various animal rights organizations, has been protesting for the past five weeks. Her awareness of puppy mills was sparked through growing media attention given to the issue - an exposé aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show and other recent investigative reports. However, her involvement did not begin until she received an e-mail from a fellow shelter volunteer linking her to local animal rights advocate, Caroline Squires.

Squires, the 25-year-old canine coordinator for Simi Valley-based Animal Rescue Volunteers and a foster parent for at-risk puppies and kittens from Los Angeles county shelters, was looking for others to help her spread the word about puppy mills. During the seven months she was out of work due to a back surgery she had in January, Squires spent hours on the Internet researching where particular pet stores in the area purchased their puppies.

"I knew what I needed to do was get my facts straight, learn as much as I could about it," Squires said. "I didn't want to go in there ranting and raving and going as some crazy activist because that's not who I am. I'm a very diligent person and very detail-oriented."

Squires, who used to work as an animal technician, visited pet stores, wrote down the breeder information that was posted on puppies' cages, and took it home for scrutiny. She said she looked up inspection reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that monitors commercial breeding facilities, and she did not like what she found - reports of overcrowded facilities, failed inspections, unhealthy living conditions and sick animals.

"What I found in the inspection reports (was that) a lot of the facilities are not kept clean," she said of the commercial breeders. "The cages that they're in are dilapidated, there are sharp edges pointing out (and) dogs that need veterinarian care they aren't receiving."

That was when Squires decided to take action. She teamed with Rosato and contacted other animal care workers and volunteers. Squires said that every weekend, she and two or three others talk to Santa Clarita Valley residents in public locations, explaining the issue of puppy mills and urging dog-seekers to stop buying from pet stores that sell dogs and puppies.

"People think that because they're paying $2,000, they're getting something of quality ... but unfortunately, with this industry, it doesn't mean that," Squires said, adding that many pet store puppy buyers discover health problems with their puppies months after purchase.

Squires and Rosato explained that if people want to buy puppies from breeders, they should find reputable private breeders in their area, making sure to visit the breeding location so they could see the dog's parents and living conditions.

At their weekend protests, Squires' crew displays a poster board with photos of adoptable dogs available at local shelters that people can purchase for about $60, compared to the hundreds or thousands of dollars often spent in a pet store or online for pure-bred dogs and special hybrid breeds.

"It's a very peaceful protest," said Lisa Hurdiss, a professional pet-sitter of Canyon Country who attends the protests every other week.

"It's more to educate people ... if they really would like a dog, there are so many other rescue organizations out there, (or) you can rescue from the Castaic Animal Shelter," she said.

Twenty-five percent of dogs in animal shelters are pure-bred, according to the Web site of Humane Society of the United States, which has conducted various investigations revealing inhumane and unsanitary treatment of animals at puppy mills, which are commonly found in the Midwest.

Both Rosato and Squires, who have worked in veterinarian clinics and shelters, said they have seen firsthand what happens to animals left in shelters as puppies are shipped into California.

"It's heart-breaking to see that we're importing puppies from out of state when we have thousands of dogs and puppies that need homes locally," said Squires. "Unless you've been to the shelters, you've seen these dogs are on the euthanasia list and you go back the next day and they aren't there ... you don't know the impact that the pet stores have."

Michelle Roache, the deputy director of Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, agreed that puppy mills negatively affect dogs in shelters.

"The animals get shipped to states like California where people are very into purchasing these little pocket pets, the designer type dogs," Roache said. "And unfortunately now that floods the market into the state of California where you have shelter animals that are less likely to get adopted. It really exasperates the problem of pet overpopulation in this state particularly."

Los Angeles County shelters currently house about 1,300 dogs and 800 cats, according to the county department's Web site.

More than 18,000 dogs and 26,000 cats were euthanized in Los Angeles County shelters last year, according to county data provided by Roache.

About 2 million to 4 million puppy mill puppies are sold each year in the United States, according to the Human Society of the United States' Web site.

However, the news of puppy mills is spreading. A Palmdale puppy mill in violation of capacity codes was exposed by a CBS News report in recent months. News outlets also reported in December and following months on a Humane Society investigation exposing a high-profile Bel Air pet store that bought puppies from puppy mills but led customers to believe they were from private breeders.

Roache said she has seen the public's awareness of puppy mills increase over the past 18 months, and she credits a higher level of attention from the media. However, she also said the problem is nothing new, but rather it is something animal control officials have been dealing with for years.

Yet even with the heightened exposure, Squires and Rosato say there are still many people who do not know about puppy mills, and they plan to change that.

"Are we going to put an end to puppy mills just from our little protest? No, but we'll definitely be helping to educate people," Squires said. "If they tell 10 people and those people tell 10 people, then that's kind of how information spreads."

All she wants, she said, is to give people the knowledge to make an educated decision.

"If they want to go buy a puppy after they've heard both sides of it, that's their choice," Squires said. "But I think they should have the opportunity to hear both sides."

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