On May 2, I published this op-ed in the Albany-Times Union urging New York State lawmakers to consider outright evicting, or at least prohibiting the televising of, the AKC-sanctioned Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show from within state lines.
I wrote that the village of Mamaroneck had recently become the first municipality in New York State to enact a “pet store puppy mill ban,” making it illegal for pet stores to do business with commercial-scale puppy farmers. The point of my op-ed was that if New York wants to stop farmed puppies from being imported and sold, then it has to do far more than simply cutting off the distribution outlet at a single pet store, or even at all pet stores. To achieve that goal, I wrote, lawmakers also have to go after one of the puppy farms’ biggest marketing assets: the widely televised Westminster show held annually in Manhattan.
The most recent estimate from the Humane Society of the United States, which I included in my op-ed, is that about 2.4 million puppies a year are now coming off the federally registered U.S. breeding farms alone. That number is up nearly 18 percent since 2014, and it does not include illegally operating puppy farmers, the types regularly cited in the media as “puppy mills” after being caught in large-scale animal cruelty-busts involving popular, AKC-promoted breeds such as Bichon Frises and Yorkshire Terriers.
Furthering my point, I also wrote that sanctioning events such as Westminster and creating the resulting mass-market demand is intentional on the part of the AKC, which profits from every additional puppy that is bred on the farms and then registered with the AKC for a fee.
Yesterday, AKC Vice President of Public Relations and Communications Brandi Hunter responded to my op-ed with this Albany Times-Union piece.
Hunter’s piece opens with an outright lie. Her first line reads: “The AKC (American Kennel Club) was not contacted by Kim Kavin regarding her book The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers.”
Let’s dispel Hunter’s libelous public statement right off the bat, as it is intended to defame my reputation as an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, writer and editor.
I did, in fact, reach out—not to one, but instead to two AKC media officials while reporting my book The Dog Merchants. I wrote both to Hillary Prim, who at the time was AKC’s public relations director (she now works for fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg), as well as to Lisa Peterson, who continues to be listed on AKC’s website today as director of communications.
I sent the same email to Prim and Peterson alike—and I of course retained a copy in my book’s reporting notes. My letter began, “I’m an author writing to request an interview with AKC Spokesman Chris Walker for my upcoming book about how everyday people can make smart choices when buying a dog.”
My interview request went on to list bullet-point questions that I wanted to discuss with the AKC, including this one: “My research has led me to instances where some breeders and the AKC are at odds about what is in the best interest of dogs, including lawsuits involving Border Collies in the 1990s and, more recently, the Coton de Tulear. Some breeders say the prominence that comes with AKC recognition is a double-edged sword that also leads to more puppy-mill activity, with everyday people not understanding the difference among dogs they see listed for sale. I’d like to know how the AKC addresses those concerns.”
The reason AKC is not quoted directly in my book The Dog Merchants has nothing to do with me. Its representatives are not quoted because the AKC failed to reply to my explicit and direct request for an interview.
Hunter’s letter published yesterday goes on to explain how the AKC is committed to responsible dog ownership and breeding. Her piece does not, however, address or even acknowledge a single reported fact that my op-ed included.
Let’s look at just a couple of those facts in detail. This is the information I was prepared to discuss with the AKC in seeking its side of each story for The Dog Merchants book:
AKC Affiliation and Events Drive Up Demand and Pricing on Puppy Farms. While reporting my book The Dog Merchants, I heard the cash-income value of the AKC brand, as well as of AKC-sanctioned shows like Westminster, invoked by virtually everyone I interviewed on the commercial puppy farming side of the purebred business.
- One source was a commercial puppy farmer who at the time was president of the Missouri Pet Breeders Association, which opposed that state’s “Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act” of 2010 and ultimately worked to get many of its provisions overturned. To be clear, this breeder has not been accused of animal cruelty in any way, and he welcomed me onto his property with my notebook in hand. At the time I visited and interviewed him, he had about 50 Newfoundlands, Beagles, Shiba Inus, Corgis and Puggles on his farm, and they all seemed healthy and content, with plenty of room to run and play.
- However, as he went on to explain to me, he sells his AKC-registered puppies in a far different manner than the breeders featured in AKC-sanctioned, televised shows like Westminster—breeders whom in-house announcer Michael LaFave, during the 2014 event at Madison Square Garden, explained over the loudspeakers were not affiliated with pet stores, because they “are the breeders who care.” Unlike those show breeders turning out AKC-registered puppies, this commercial farmer turning out AKC-registered puppies told me that he sells to pet stores, puppy brokers and online click-to-ship buyers, things that show breeders consistently claim no responsible breeder would ever do. He also told me that he gets many sales leads from the AKC classifieds, and that he likes those buyers because they see the AKC brand and don’t try to negotiate his puppy prices downward.
- Another person who invoked the AKC name, and the Westminster show directly, was the director of corporate sales for the Hunte Corporation, which moves 45,000 to 90,000 puppies a year from breeding farms into pet stores nationwide, depending on customer demand. He told me, “You don’t want somebody thinking it’s a Westminster winner when it’s not” while describing how Hunte grades incoming puppies as A, B or C, on what it calls “buy day” at the start of processing and pricing the puppies for retail sale across America every week.
- In addition, Hunte officials told me, company founder Andrew Hunte once told AKC officials that his company was the kennel club’s biggest customer in moving dogs that buyers later register with AKC for a fee.
- Yet another person who invoked the AKC and Westminster brands during my reporting for The Dog Merchants book was the owner of America’s biggest legal dog auction. While talking about the most expensive dog he has ever sold, he told me, “When I got $12,600 that one time, a guy came up to me and said, ‘Wow, you sure got a lot of money out of that dog.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Did I?’ Because we’ll only know what these dogs are really worth when the American Kennel Club lets me hold an auction just after Westminster one year, using the champion.”
- On the day that I attended the auction, more than 300 dogs were sold to the highest bidder. About one-third were either AKC registered or eligible for registration once buyers brought the puppies home. I created a spreadsheet of the top-selling breeds at the dog auction that day: Four of the Top 10 breeds in terms of highest auction pricing matched breeds on the list displayed on television during the Westminster show, of the top AKC-registered breeds for that year. When I expanded the spreadsheet to review the Top 20 breeds that brought in the highest auction bids that day, eight them were on the AKC-registered list of America’s favorites.
Suffice it to say that while Hunter may believe what she wrote yesterday, that “the goal of our shows is not to drive demand at commercial breeding farms,” she is at best mistaken. When I spent time with the breeders of AKC puppies who actually operate the farms, one of their primary distribution companies to pet stores nationwide, and one of the auction houses where they trade breeding stock on a regular basis, they were very clear in explaining that the truth is precisely the opposite of what Hunter claims.
Sanctioning Events to Increase Demand on Puppy Farms and at Pet Stores is an AKC Business Goal. Next, in my op-ed, I cited this document written by Mike Ganey, who at the time of its writing was AKC vice president of marketing. Ganey’s piece was published in the commercial-breeding magazine Kennel Spotlight, whose publisher owns the Southwest Auction Service dog auction.
- The fact that AKC is openly advertising for business in this publication, produced by a prominent dog auctioneer, is newsworthy unto itself, given that in its own 2002 report on high-volume breeders, the AKC states: “Auctions are not an appropriate venue for selling purebred dogs. Auctions are a blight on all dog breeding and on the commercial industry in particular, and many commercial breeders we spoke to in that community would like to see them eliminated as well. There is really no positive aspect of these auctions.”
- The title of this document written by AKC’s own marketing director for this publication is “Creating Demand for Purebred Dogs.” The piece urges puppy farmers to register their dogs with the AKC, because then the AKC turns their fees into a marketing investment—sanctioning highly publicized dog shows with concurrent events such as “Meet the Breeds”—to drive up business not only back on the farms, but also in pet stores like the one where such business was just banned in Mamaroneck, New York.
- Ganey writes: “Because of the AKC’s unique scale and depth of our involvement, we create events other organizations can only dream about. Events that draw thousands of pet owners and potential pet owners—events that have a positive impact on your business whether you are a breeder selling to distributors, dealers, pet stores, or direct to consumers.”
- Ganey continues in that same document: “So how do these AKC events help breeders? By helping create preference and demand for purebreds, no matter where the consumer chooses to buy their purebred dog. Giving consumers a positive, hands-on experience is an important way we remind potential dog owners of the unique benefits of purebreds, in a fun, informative way. The most tangible benefit for breeders, however, is reflected in dollars and cents. Sure, AKC litter registrations may cost more than other registries, but we turn that difference into a marketing investment that can yield more margin for you.”
This clearly delineated AKC business strategy is the polar opposite of what Hunter claimed in her Albany Times-Union piece yesterday, when she wrote that the AKC’s goal with mass-marketed dog shows is “to share and celebrate our sport and our dogs with the public.”
Those words were written for an audience of potential buyers, as opposed to the audience of suppliers with whom AKC talks very differently when it is conducting the business of filling the mass-market demand that it creates for purebred puppies when it sanctions televised marketing events like Westminster.
What Brandi Hunter and the American Kennel Club published in yesterday’s Albany Times-Union was a classic “non-denial denial,” which is what happens when any company cites its own honesty of purpose without acknowledging, addressing or providing any contradictory evidence to facts such as the ones cited above. Hunter’s piece was intended to buttress its public image in the face of strong public demand and rave reviews for my book The Dog Merchants, which reveals all of the above facts, and more, about the breeding and rescue sides of the dog business alike.
Hunter and the AKC also engaged in “character assassination” in yesterday’s piece, publishing an outright lie about me in an attempt to smear my reputation as an award-winning journalist with 20 years’ experience. Anyone who has ever heard the phrase “kill the messenger” can easily understand why Hunter would choose to employ such an underhanded tactic.
I sincerely encourage Brandi Hunter and everyone at the American Kennel Club to join me in actually attempting to address the real problems facing so many of our beloved dogs today.
As I write in my book The Dog Merchants, “I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m tired of feeling dizzy and manipulated while trying to shop responsibly.”
Get your own copy of The Dog Merchants book at your favorite local bookstore, or by clicking here.