Welcome to the puppy farm capital

 

The dog-breeding operation raided in Tipperary last week is not unusal.Karlin Lillington reports on a bleak secret industry.

When they raided the house, the dachshunds were everywhere - in sealed containers and closed boxes, in a van, in stinking dark rooms in an unheated, derelict house. Clumps of their hair were missing, their ribs were showing, and they were infested with lice.

More than 100 little sausage dogs, adults and tiny puppies, were being "farmed" in Co Tipperary. The story of last week's raid by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA), in conjunction with the Ulster and Dublin SPCAs, was in the news triggering 5,000 compassionate calls to the ISPCA offering homes for the dogs. But the miserable dachshunds are part of a grim industry that must rank as Ireland's darkest, bleakest "agricultural" secret.

Not only are such farms not unusual but, say international animal welfare authorities, Ireland is Europe's - perhaps the world's - puppy farm capital. Here, cheap, poor-quality pure-bred dogs are mass-produced in their hundreds in cages, with bitches bred successively until they drop. Ireland also has the highest per capita rate of stray dog euthanasia in Europe, with 23,000 dogs put down each year.

"What this is, is the factory farming of puppies," says Alastair Keen, the ISPCA's head of operations and the man who closed down the dachshund farm. "These are immoral breeding operations."

Keen estimates that Ireland has as many as 100 such operations, some involving as many as 500 to 700 dogs. Closing them is an ISPCA priority.

Ireland is a haven for puppy farms because no legislation exists to control them or protect the welfare of the dogs, except for the Dog Act, which is intended for pet-owners, not commercial operations taking advantage of a grey area of legitimacy.

Nothing limits how long the dogs may be bred, or how many times. They can be kept in any enclosure, and there is no rule that they must have outdoor runs or - in the case of indoor breeds - that they be kept warm indoors. EU chickens have more rights; livestock farmers have more legal responsibilities.

Until last month the ISPCA had only a single inspector (there are now five). As a result, says Keen, few puppy farmers (called "millers" in the US) fear a raid. They keep the dogs in dreadful conditions, often ill and filthy in their own faeces, held in wire crates or makeshift kennels in cold, damp farm outbuildings, sometimes in dark, windowless rooms.

They are sold through brokers to pet-buyers, at premium prices but always just below what reputable breeders charge in Britain, North America and, to a lesser extent, Europe. Profits can be huge.

Keen, who came from the RSPCA, knows of four puppy farms in close proximity in the midlands, where he recently tried to close down the worst. Though conditions were grim, Keen can only act on clear examples of cruelty. As a result revolting circumstances do not, in Ireland's unlicensed, unregulated system, constitute cruelty.

That midlands puppy farmer has 500 breed dogs. "I doubt that any are vaccinated or have ever been seen by a vet. It's a time-bomb waiting to happen. Yet I had to walk away because there's no 'cruelty'."

"Ireland is synonymous with puppy farming. It is the most vile, despicable trade in misery," says one reputable dog-breeder in Northern Ireland. "Here in the North dealers are bringing puppies from farms in the South to either sell here or take them by ferry to the mainland via Scotland."

One such puppy transporter is Irish farmer John Walsh, the man who was jailed for illegally importing sheep into Co Armagh during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, sheep that later were found to have the disease. In November he pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to 49 puppies, found in poor condition in his van arriving by ferry in Scotland.

In December the BBC reported that raids had netted "hundreds" of puppies in shipments of 50 to 100 at UK ferry ports, from Irish puppy farms comprising hundreds of dogs "kept in squalid conditions".

Reputable breeders in the US say brokers - the middlemen who buy up the puppies for resale - regularly receive large shipments ofIrish puppies of breeds that are costly in the US, such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. These dogs are shipped without scrutiny or quarintine requirements as Ireland is a non-rabies country.

According to Gabriele Pollmeier, a US-based breeder who lived in Ireland for 10 years and is familiar with the system, "a fairly large number of brokers regularly bring \ in from Ireland, and sell them here via the Internet or the newspapers to unsuspecting buyers". She has witnessed a shipment of 25 puppies at Atlanta airport that were under-ageand sickly.

"What a sight. Poor things. They were on their way from a [puppy] farm in Ireland, had left Shannon that morning and were to fly on to Dallas to a well-known broker," she says.

Farmed Irish dogs are also used to stock US puppy mills for breeding because they carry no breeding restrictions. Reputable breeders would normally apply a rigorous screening process before selling a pet quality dog, including a neuter clause in the sale contract to prevent indiscriminate breeding. US sources believe that some reputable Irish breeders are unknowingly selling dogs to mills and brokers in the US, believing they are for American families.

Says one US breeder: "Here in the Minnesota area Irish dogs have such a bad rap that if buyers find out your foundation stuff came from Ireland they class it with trash."

Another reports that her friend's sickly Irish "champion-bred" dogs, bought from a puppy-farm broker, had worthless, forged Irish Kennel Club (IKC) papers. Such dogs are frequently offered on US websites by known brokers who claim that "Irish relatives" send them the dogs. The trade is hugely damaging to the many reputable professional Irish dog-breeders.

"The dogs that come from the farms are typically ill or inbred or behaviourally disturbed," says Keen. With little human contact in the crucial early weeks, animal welfare workers say such dogs end up difficult to housetrain and socialise, and are then abandoned.

Keen wants commercial operations to be licensed by the State, with clear rules on how dogs should be housed and maintained, and mandatory inspections. Reputable breeders say mass shippers of dogs should need vet clearances from a certified State vet. And auctions of breeding dogs should be made illegal.

Breeders in Ireland also say the IKC could do more by publishing a gazette of IKC puppy registrations, which would reveal the farms and their bloodlines for buyers and sellers. Many US and UK breed clubs, as well as reputable kennel clubs, do this.

Keen says that during his time with the RSPCA, dogs they seized that came from puppy farms - even UK-based farms - typically had faked IKC registration papers. The IKC says it is aware of the puppy-farm issue and fake registrations.

"The problem is there's very little legislation," says press relations officer Wendy Jackson. The IKC would support a licensing and inspection system, she says. The club has only recently begun to computerise its registration records, which will help it identify possible puppy farms. But Jackson says it is not knowingly processing registrations for farmed dogs, and that it only registers a modest number of dogs annually.

The Department of the Environment, under whose aegis the Dog Act falls, says it is in discussion with the ISPCA on steps that could be taken. But like the Irish people, the department seems unaware of the scale of operations here.

A real problem in Ireland is that many people "don't see anything wrong with what the puppy farms are doing", sighs one animal welfare worker who has seen the horrors inside the farms."Animal welfare in Ireland is quite behind the times. Just look at how many dogs we put down every year."

But that may be changing. The ISPCA has introduced a National Cruelty Helpline, which in January alone clocked 8,000 calls. But without greater legal powers, the ISPCA will have little chance of combating the misery of the puppy farms and, for now, we seem content to turn our backs on thousands of small lives.