Well-intentioned officials in my home state of New Jersey are combining forces to exile Vincent LoSacco and his Just Pups stores, where, among other things, 67 puppies and dogs were left outside in a 38-degree van earlier this year. First came hundreds of animal cruelty charges, followed by the closing of Just Pups pet shops in Paramus, East Brunswick and Emerson. Most recently, the state attorney general and Division of Consumer Affairs filed a complaint in Superior Court in Hackensack, trying to ban LoSacco from doing business anywhere in the state, ever again.
Animal-welfare advocates are cheering a blow to a distributor of “puppy mill dogs,” a victory in the War on Cruelty thanks to their protests and complaints.
All of us who care about animals want to believe that’s true, and certainly, LoSacco’s business practices deserve the intense scrutiny they have received.
But is what’s happening now, really, a victory for the dogs themelves?
The frustrating truth is that for many of them, the answer is no.
THE PART OF THE STORY NOBODY TELLS
LoSacco, like most pet-store owners nationwide, sourced his puppies from rural breeding farms well beyond New Jersey’s borders, including a kennel in Missouri. Today, August 6, the dogs from that kennel are scheduled to be at the county fairgrounds in Milan, Missouri, for a common and legal event in that part of America: a dog auction.
The “Just Pups Total Kennel Dispersal,” as headlined in the promotional flier from Southwest Auction Service (page one is at right), will include two auction rings and more than 450 dogs. The breeds to be auctioned run the gamut from Akitas to Yorkshire Terriers, along with dozens of other purebreds and crossbreeds (such as Goldendoodles and Morkies) that fall alphabetically in between.
In reporting my book The Dog Merchants, I attended an auction that Southwest put on, where about 300 dogs were auctioned. I then returned to Missouri to spend a full day with the auction’s owner, learning about that end of the dog business—the part that rescuers protesting at New Jersey pet stores never see.
I can tell you that if recent trends hold, more than six figures in cash is going to change hands at the Just Pups dog auction in Missouri today. And the vast majority of that money will strengthen, not weaken, the commercial dog-breeding business.
HOW THE MONEY REALLY WORKS
A third or so of the buyers at today’s auction will likely be rescuers. In fact, I’m told, some rescuers in New Jersey have been soliciting donations to try to buy the dogs at today’s auction in Missouri. When these rescuers win the bids, they’ll market the dogs for adoption nationwide, telling families the dogs were “saved from a puppy mill.” That’s also a common practice (click on the caption at right to learn more). In reality, the dogs are being purchased, and all of the money will go through the auctioneer, who takes a cut, and then straight into the pockets of the Just Pups team.
In other words, rescuers may buy 100 or 125 dogs today and get them into good homes, for sure, but in the process, they will strengthen the finances of their Just Pups adversary. In fact, according to the founder of another dog auction I interviewed, the rescuers’ very presence at today’s auction will actually drive up the per-dog prices and increase the total amount of money collected.
For the majority of the Just Pups dogs at today’s auction, though, a different fate is likely in store. The remaining two-thirds of auction bidders are likely to be breeders who run commercial-scale kennels, including the kind regularly called “puppy mills.” With more than 450 dogs for auction today, some 300 of them will likely go to breeders.
If each of those breeders buys, say, 10 dogs, then no less than 30 breeders will boost their kennel production and future puppy sales because of today’s Just Pups auction.
THE LESSON OF HYDRA
Once you understand that business reality and apply it to the War on Cruelty, it’s hard not to think of Hydra, the creature from Greek mythology. Cut off one of its heads, and two grow back.
Animal-welfare activists, like all soldiers in the War on Cruelty, have honorable hearts. They are right to cry out against dogs being treated badly, and to demand change. But their current nationwide strategy of targeting pet stores like Just Pups makes as much sense as cutting off a single Hydra head.
Advocacy groups including the Humane Society of the United States, which is the driving force behind “pet store puppy mill ban” legislation that targets stores like Just Pups, continue to pursue this strategy in part because it generates tons of headlines. It’s great for raising public awareness about the “puppy mill monster,” to be sure. Every time another municipality enacts a ban that ends a store like LoSacco’s (some 160 municipalities have so far), headlines in local media describe the effort as a blow against puppy mills and animal cruelty. Right now, HSUS is working to enact a statewide version of these laws in New Jersey.
But the truth is that with their “victory” in shutting down LoSacco’s Just Pups stores in New Jersey, the rescue community is about to strengthen dozens more of the very breeding kennels their actions are intended to close. At the same time, they will be leaving LoSacco and his associates with a ton of investment-ready cash to reboot their business model elsewhere, including in other states.
How on earth is that strategy ultimately good for the dogs?
THE WAY TO WIN THE FIGHT
Here’s the good news: Heracles ultimately prevailed. He killed Hydra after figuring out that he needed to slice off its sole immortal head with a golden sword he got from Athena, the goddess of, among other things, war strategy. Heracles realized that he had to adjust his targeting, that he needed to aim at the core of the monster’s power instead of being distracted by its unwieldy tentacles.
At its own core, the puppy-mill battle isn’t about pet stores. They are just the distracting tentacles. The “immortal head” that needs slaying is the conditions inside many commercial-scale breeding kennels, the kinds whose owners are operating legally, in broad daylight, in places like today’s Just Pups auction.
To be clear, there are responsible, commercial-scale breeders who treat their dogs great. I write about some of them in The Dog Merchants, too. But even the breeding side of the industry acknowledges that a good number of legally operating, large-scale kennels are doing business in unacceptable ways that our federal animal-welfare law allows.
The true core of the problem—the “immortal head of the puppy mill monster,” as Heracles might put it—is our federal animal-welfare law. It is decades old and, among other things, allows a dog the size of a Beagle to spend her whole life inside a cage the size of a dishwasher. If that law were updated, then the conditions inside the legally operating commercial kennels would change, and pet-store owners like LoSacco would have a far harder time sourcing puppies from kennels that treat dogs badly, anywhere in America.
Heracles was a smart guy. There’s a reason mythology calls him a hero. He recognized, in his battle with Hydra, that his original strategy of cutting off one head at a time was creating false victories. He adjusted his tactics accordingly, and that’s how he ultimately won.
After 10 years of working to ban pet stores nationwide, rescuers need to realize that their effect on the kennels has been negligible. Business is booming in places like today’s auction. We must take a lesson and shift the aim of our sword if we, too, want to turn the monster we’re battling today into a tale from the ancient past.
Learn more about how to follow the money on the breeding and rescue sides alike of the dog industry. Get your copy of The Dog Merchants today.