Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
The Humane Society of the United States wants shelters to start breeding puppies
With the national “shelter” death rate down 90%, fewer people buying animals and more people adopting, an increasing number of cities and even entire states banning the retail sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores, half of all Nebraska puppy mills shutting down, and towns making it illegal to commercially-breed in order to protect “the healthful and humane treatment of dogs,” The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) appears intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
HSUS wants shelters to start breeding puppies.
The proposal is being promoted at their 2022 national conference.
Specifically, the workshop’s presenters — including a pound director who kills six out of 10 dogs, a “behaviorist” who calls for killing rather than training dogs, and a professor who thinks shelters ought to provide free vaccination for the dogs of dogfighters rather than rescuing the dogs and arresting their abusers — are arguing that “shelters in high-demand areas” should “start[ ] their own breeding programs” in order to meet demand for puppies; a proposal Time magazine calls, “a shocking idea, like a cocktail hour at rehab.” But it is more than “shocking.”
It is a betrayal of the highest magnitude and it is based on several lies: that we are in the midst of a severe dog shortage, that breeding is the only way to meet demand, that purposely-bred dogs make better family pets than shelter dogs, and that shelters should be beholden to “consumer choice,” rather than shape that choice given their mission of animal protection.
The proposal for shelters to breed dogs and sell puppies (although euphemistically calling them “adoptions”) would be ludicrous, if it wasn’t so disturbing — and if the threat to the health, welfare, and lives of animals wasn’t so existential. Here’s why.
There is no existing or coming dog shortage
It is true that the movement to reduce pound killing has achieved great success. In the past two decades, shelters that have comprehensively implemented the programs and services of the No Kill Equation have achieved placement rates greater than 95% and as high as 99%. Collectively, these accomplishments have helped lead to a decline in killing nationwide of 90% from the 1990s. It has been called “the single biggest success of the modern animal protection movement.” But we have not yet achieved a No Kill nation.
To the contrary, shelters across the U.S. which have yet to fully embrace the No Kill Equation are complaining about the need for more adopters, with a coalition in South Carolina recently declaring a “state of emergency.” A spokesperson put it in stark terms: “The lives of thousands of animals in shelters across South Carolina are at stake.”
We’ve made tremendous progress to be sure, but upwards of one million dogs are still being killed. These dogs are neither sick nor dangerous. They are young: the average age is two years old. The vast majority are healthy. And they are friendly. In short, it is not only premature to declare victory, dogs and puppies are in no danger of disappearing.
Aside from reforming those shelters that are still mired in killing, dogs and puppies in high intake jurisdictions could and should be transferred to higher demand jurisdictions, not just within the continental United States, but also from U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where puppies abound. Once shelters have provided a safety net for all of those dogs, they can turn to saving dogs from other countries on or near our borders who are still dying or suffering due to a lack of necessary public institutions (with improved inspections and vaccination requirements as needed to address any perceived health issues). These solutions would protect already-born animals in need of homes today, without expanding the number or scope of exploitative breeders.
Purposely-bred animals do not make better family pets than shelter dogs
Continuing a long and shameful tradition of disparaging and misrepresenting the animals entering our nation’s shelters, HSUS’ workshop presenters are arguing that breeding is necessary because shelter animals aren’t worthy of homes, with one of them arguing that shelters are not killing enough of them. Such a view is not only dead wrong; it is pernicious.
The evidence clearly demonstrates that the vast majority of dogs in shelters are physically healthy and behaviorally “normal”. In fact, a growing body of literature should put to rest, once and for all, the false notion that dogs are in shelters because there is something wrong with them: “Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter… are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general.” These studies mirror the results of the most progressive and successful municipal shelters and “open admission” shelters under contract which are placing 99% of dogs and which put the percentage of “dangerous” dogs at roughly ¼ of 1% of intakes.
Ironically, research into dogs from commercial breeders shows the opposite: these dogs have deep psychological scarring as a result of the trauma they experience at the facilities. Compared to shelter dogs, commercially-bred dogs exhibited more fear, nervousness, health problems, compulsive behaviors, house soiling, and sensitivity to touch. Many of these dogs experience “regular and often persistent fear or anxiety, even after years in their adoptive households” as a result of stress-induced psychopathology and inadequate socialization. In layman’s terms, commercial breeding establishments engage in systematic neglect and abuse toward animals, causing severe emotional scars on the victims. The former breeding dogs living with those scars are a testament to that fact. Not only do one in four have significant health problems, many of them are psychologically and emotionally shut down, compulsively staring at nothing. HSUS’ “remedy” to the phantom nationwide dog shortage is a recipe for increasing the number of individuals engaged in the breeding and selling of dogs and therefore, an increase in the number of dogs who will likewise suffer.
Non-profit “shelter” breeding operations will be just as cruel as for-profit commercial breeders, as many of them already are
The moment a shelter stops rescuing and rehoming animals who are already born in order to breed animals for sale to the public, it ceases being a shelter or part of the animal protection movement. Instead, it becomes the movement’s enemy: part of an industry that is the source of some of the greatest suffering for dogs in the United States today.
There is no basis to accept the claim that there would be a difference between for-profit commercial breeders and what HSUS proposes: non-profit commercial breeders, as there is no evidence that tax-exempt status alone confers integrity. HSUS, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association, Austin Pets Alive, Best Friends, and regressive shelters across the country are non-profit organizations and they are also rackets, filled with “career-firsters” — individuals who sacrifice the mission and the animals in service to personal ambition and the almighty dollar. Indeed, the limelight and the lure of power and money have already caused many individuals in the animal protection movement to abandon their once professed pro-animal values in favor of championing animal abusers and promoting policies that likewise upend the mission of animal shelters — such as telling people who find lost and stray animals to leave these animals on the street to die. It is therefore naive to assume that breeding and selling animals would not lead to suffering of dogs as it would find fertile ground among the very worst elements in the animal protection movement today — corrupt individuals such as the former head of the ASPCA who is a paid spokesperson for the puppy mill industry.
Despite the progress our movement has made in reducing killing and increasing both transparency and accountability, there are still too many shelters across the nation which neglect and kill the animals in their care, including some of the very shelters making the claim that they should be allowed to start breeding puppies.
In fact, the most regressive shelters in the country already house and care for animals in deplorable conditions not unlike conditions found in puppy mills. This includes shelters where animals cannibalized other animals because staff did not feed them; animals starved to death; animals had their jaws broken by staff; puppies were drowned in trench drains; animals were left in pain with untreated torn ears and gouged eyes; animals were warehoused in filthy conditions; and, animals were left in imminent harm while staff simply clocked-in and immediately went home, rather than doing their job. Almost certainly, these very same facilities would embrace killing already-born young adult, adult, and senior dogs in favor of breeding and selling puppies.
HSUS threatens to derail hard-won progress
For the past 50 years, animal welfare organizations have been educating the American public on the need to sterilize animals so that they do not end up in shelters where they are killed. The American public has responded. Today, Americans are sterilizing and adopting in greater numbers, rather than breeding and buying. They are also supporting legislation that bans the sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores, with half a dozen states and hundreds of cities across the nation divesting themselves from this pernicious harm. In short, the humane movement is winning the war against killing in pounds and breeding in mills. Yet the very outcome that demonstrates the gains made because of those efforts — fewer “shelter” animals in need of homes in some communities — is being used by HSUS and others to suggest we should backtrack — rather than double down on our efforts — when our labor bears fruit.
Not only does this view threaten to undermine existing progress, it precludes future success. If the very organizations the American public and legislators (erroneously) view as the standard-bearers of how we should treat animals now say that the main reason sterilization was important — to reduce the number of animals being killed in shelters — no longer matters, not only will the general public interpret this as permission to breed or buy animals, too, but the puppy mill industry will wield a powerful new weapon with which to fight further regulation: the stunning hypocrisy of the “animal protection” movement itself.
Just as they now pay the mercenary former head of the ASPCA to be a lobbyist in the hope of burnishing their cruel image, so, too, will the puppy mill industry cite support for breeding among shelters and large national organizations as proof that any further attempts to regulate them are not only insincere and unnecessary, but boil down to a matter of consumer choice. In other words, if bringing animals into existence because they take homes away from other animals and increase the number of animals entering kill shelters is no longer a moral issue, and if the breeding and selling of animals is likewise no longer unethical, voter and legislator support for pet store sales bans and other animal protection laws will be eroded.
Breeding animals for sale turns the mission of shelters on its head
The abuse, neglect, and cruelty to dogs in the commercial-breeding industry are the result of dogs being viewed as property and status symbols with no interests independent of their relationships or usefulness to humans. Commercial breeders have long leveraged regressive attitudes that a dog’s “pedigree” or how well they embodied an arbitrary checklist of human prejudices — a process that historically involved drowning puppy after puppy who did not fit the standard until the desired look was achieved — is what mattered most, even if it led to dogs spending their lives in misery or suffering untimely deaths. They harmed dogs because the outcome of harming dogs was profitable.
But human mores can change, for the better and for the worse. Right now, it benefits dogs that rescue and adoption are prized. In creating the environment that confers reputational success when a person makes the kind choice to adopt/rescue, the humane movement accomplished a tremendous feat: transforming animal companionship from a display of wealth and status into a display of compassion and the recognition of dogs as unique individuals with moral worth. What is now good for people — with adoption earning people the respect and admiration of their peers — is also good for dogs as they are not killed in pounds or bred in the equivalent of factory farms. But it wasn’t always so and there is no guarantee that it will be in perpetuity.
If having a mixed-breed, purposely-bred puppy becomes the new status symbol, there is no reason to assume puppy mills won’t attempt to capitalize on this change and start breeding mixed-breed dogs, too. Moreover, nothing will stop puppy mills from incorporating as non-profits, calling themselves a “humane society” or rescue group and selling puppies to the public as “adoptions.” And what will be our moral argument against that breeding if they are behaving in the exact same way as shelters?
It is also not the job of shelters or rescue groups to ensure that the public has plenty of puppies to choose from when adopting. Animal welfare organizations are supposed to model and encourage ethical behavior. They should view the public as a tool to help them provide better lives for at-risk animals irrespective of the kinds and ages of animals in the shelter. In other words, shelters — with the help of adopters — exist to help animals, not the other way around.
Citing a lack of available puppies as evidence that we need to backtrack and breed more puppies not only ignores the positive message implicit in that shortage — that we are successfully moving toward the achievement of a long stated aim of the animal protection movement — but ignores the important messages implicit in that success: that the American public cares about dogs and cats, and therefore their attitudes and actions in relation to animals are open to influence and further improvement. HSUS’ sky-is-falling rhetoric about an absence of puppies is at odds with our evolving and more enlightened cultural attitudes and laws.
To the extent that these changing attitudes have yet to influence a subset of the American public which continues to demand puppies, the effort that is currently being directed at the suggestion that our shelters be turned into commercial breeding operations could be humanely and compassionately redirected toward building the infrastructure necessary to get at-risk puppies in shelters throughout the country and the world to American homes that want them; a win-win.
Instead, HSUS asks shelters to breed puppies for sale in one part of the shelter while juvenile and adult dogs are put to death in another, not only devaluing dogs and underestimating the public’s capacity for love, but most importantly, taking homes that should go to already existing dogs and filling them with not yet born purposely-bred animals which, through their very breeding, shelters imply are the “better” choice.
A history of corruption continues
Our society is on a positive trend against the exploitation of dogs both in law and in practice. One of the most exciting manifestations of this is the decline in pound killing. One of the reasons for that decline is that the message that adoption and rescue are ethical imperatives is taking hold (the other being the nationwide embrace of the No Kill Equation).
Of the nearly $100 billion spent on caring for animals last year, the amount spent to purchase animals continued to decline and is “the smallest area of total pet industry spend.” When it comes to adding a new animal to their household, more people are “turning to shelters and rescues.” Why acknowledge that success and then turn around and offer a prescription to undo it? At best, it is schizophrenic. At worst, it is dangerous to the trajectory of further success and the current population of dogs to which we have an ongoing obligation.
In fact, that HSUS is now pathologizing success at achieving the very aims upon which they have greedily fundraised for more than half a century not only shows how little they were invested beyond lip service to those goals, but how little we should doubt the sincerity of their stated aims right now. We have been here many times before, with HSUS and other large groups actively undermining the means by which we achieve the goals with which they are erroneously associated in the imagination of a generous, animal-loving American public.
HSUS, for example, has:
Given a local pound a “shelter we love” award even though staff not only killed nine out of 10 animals but put a mother cat and her kitten in the gas chamber with a raccoon to sadistically watch them fight before they died (while employees laughed);
Embraced and forgave Michael Vick who beat dogs to death, electrocuted dogs, drowned dogs, shot dogs, and hanged dogs, but refused to extend compassion to the surviving dogs Vick abused by lobbying the court to kill them;
Protected staff who repeatedly sexually assaulted female employees and interns and those who tried to traffic female employees by demanding they have sex with potential donors in order to “take one for the team.”
Likewise, the presenters HSUS chose to lead the shelter breeding workshop include:
Karina King, the director of operations at a pound that kills roughly six out of 10 adult dogs;
Joyce Briggs, a former official of the American Humane Association, an organization which has a long history of betraying animals for money;
Trish McMillan, the former “director of dog behavior” for the ASPCA who has called on shelters to kill, rather than rehabilitate, dogs; and,
Andrew Rowan, a professor, who argues that shelter workers should lower their standards, even when doing so is “at odds with the humane society’s own core beliefs about how animals should be cared for,” such as agreeing to provide free vaccinations for “bait” and “fighting” dogs used by dogfighters — dogs who will be ripped to shreds — rather than rescuing the dogs and having those dogfighters arrested and prosecuted.
In other words, the tremendous success this movement has achieved in changing public attitudes, increasing adoptions, reducing killing, curtailing commercial breeding, and punishing cruelty has occurred in spite of — and often in direct opposition to — HSUS and other large, corrupt organizations, not because of them.
And therein lies the silver lining: despite the fact that these large organizations act as the proverbial “albatross about our necks,” it also means our continued success is not dependent on them, either. We have succeeded by ignoring (where possible) and fighting (when necessary) the terrible and counterproductive advice cooked up by self-professed “experts” in insular echo chambers before — places where organizational wealth is confused with leadership and self-important titles are confused with ability and expertise despite forever being on the wrong side of ethics, evidence, logic, and history. Ignore and fight them again we must.
Animals deserve proven solutions and time-tested advocacy
Rather than embrace what New Jersey Animal Observer rightly called the “idiotic idea” of shelters breeding puppies, shelters can do a better job of marketing the ethics and benefits of adopting young adult, adult, and mature mixed-breed animals so that we can continue to shape community preferences for the benefit of at-risk animals.
We need to embrace and nurture the growing trends in progressive attitudes about rescue vs. buying and embrace the means and tools necessary to achieve real and lasting change in shelters as well — government accountability, a reinvestment and faith in public institutions as a force for public good, and shelter regulation — that will create a more compassionate and just world for dogs (as well as cats and other animal companions). For while the vast majority of dogs entering shelters are young, friendly, and healthy, even those who arrive in shelters with health or temperament issues are finding homes in those cities where the shelter has embraced a culture of lifesaving that includes rehabilitative care.
Likewise, we must expand our efforts to educate the public about commercial breeding mills, the physical deformities or defects that result from inbreeding, the immorality of commodifying animals, the unscientific nature of discriminating against animals on the basis of how they look, the false view of “shelter” animals as damaged goods, and the equally false view that purposely-bred animals are more “predictable” and make “better” family pets.
We must continue to pass bans on the retail sale of commercially-bred animals in pet stores (not just for dogs, but also cats, rabbits, hamsters, fish, and other animals). We must end the internet trade in commercially-bred animals. We must expand our efforts to regulate commercial breeding — setting limits on the number of breeding females, creating dog-generous housing, care, veterinary, exercise, and socialization requirements, and ensuring cruelty laws apply to them and are robustly enforced (including one-strike rules for serious offenses) — until we muster the political will to ban it altogether.
And we must ensure that no already-born dogs and puppies die or suffer for want of a home, regardless of where they live.
Because regardless of what HSUS, its presenters, and any of the other large groups argue, until all 50 U.S. states are No Kill, its districts, territories, and reservations are No Kill, its neighboring countries and then the rest of the world are No Kill, adoption of already-born dogs remains morally obligatory — and it should be legally mandated, too.
Addendum: Tragically, the proposal to breed and sell puppies has been endorsed by Maddie’s Fund and was featured in a zoom webcast by Austin Pets Alive. APA’s director not only shared the idea with a nationwide audience, in that webcast and elsewhere she said that the “pet shortage” was a “real issue” for her “respected colleagues” and we “should give them the benefit of the doubt.” We should not. The health, welfare, and lives of animals are at stake.