Posts tagged Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

An Open Letter to Brandi Hunter and the American Kennel Club

Illustration created by Sharon Montrose for my op-ed. Copyright to this work is owned by the Albany Times-Union
Illustration created by Sharon Montrose for my op-ed. Copyright to this work is owned by the Albany Times-Union.

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.

The Dog Merchants-3DTHE TRUTH: AKC IGNORED MULTIPLE INTERVIEW REQUESTS FOR THE DOG MERCHANTS BOOK

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.

The Dog Merchants-3DFACT, AFTER FACT, AFTER FACT

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.

creating-demand-for-purebred-dogs-screenshotSanctioning 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.

The Dog Merchants-3DAKC MUST JOIN THE REST OF US, ON BEHALF OF ALL DOGS

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. 

 

 

Op-Ed: Why New York Lawmakers Should Evict the Westminster Dog Show

Illustration created by Sharon Montrose for my op-ed. Copyright to this work is owned by the Albany Times-Union
Illustration created by Sharon Montrose for my op-ed. Copyright Albany Times-Union.

Today, the Albany Times-Union published my op-ed urging New York state lawmakers to evict the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which is one of the biggest marketing assets for commercial-scale puppy farms nationwide.

I’m sure that my friends who are responsible breeders will find this op-ed uncomfortable to read. The American Kennel Club sanctions the Westminster show along with thousands of others each year, and many responsible breeders participate in, and cheer, for them—as do many lovers of purebred dogs sitting at home in their living rooms.

Among other things, my op-ed published today exposes how these well-intentioned lovers of purebred dogs are being misled into supporting the commercial-scale puppy farmers that many of them despise. The research for this op-ed includes a document that shows just how differently the AKC describes such dog shows when it’s talking only to commercial-scale breeders, sometimes called “puppy mills”—in publications that it knows hobby breeders do not read.

Here’s the truth. Dog lovers who participate in and cheer for thousands of AKC-sanctioned dog shows each year are told that these shows are about “celebrating the sport of dogs” and “improving the breeds.” Those are marketing lines designed to get us to engage in what is actually a series of carefully designed marketing events, which are broadcast nationwide and worldwide in an effort to drive up business on commercial breeding farms.

When it’s writing in publications like Kennel Spotlight, which is read by commercial-scale puppy farmers, the AKC calls this business plan its “events strategy,” part of its “marketing toolbox.” It states very clearly: “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. … 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.” (You can read that document in its entirety here.)

The AKC makes a great deal of its $67.8 million in annual income (including the $567,548 it pays its top official) on registration fees that dog lovers pay for “official papers” that come with purebred dogs. Hobby breeders do not sell enough puppies to drive that business model. Commercial-scale breeding farms do.

I know that many of us who care deeply about purebred dogs and mutts alike watch shows like Westminster and cheer for our favorites. The reality is that we are cheering for an event much like the Detroit auto show, one that is rolling out new products in a marketing effort to keep the biggest puppy producers in business.

To be clear, I am not—in any way—saying that responsible breeders should be shut down. I am instead saying that responsible breeders must understand the bigger business interests at stake when they choose to throw their support behind AKC-sanctioned shows like Westminster, participating in them by the thousands of shows across America each year.

Let’s all understand the truth, and make sure we’re behaving in a way that keeps all of us dog lovers working together, squarely on the side of the dogs.

The True Cash at Stake at the Westminster Dog Show

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.14.38 PMSalon.com just uploaded my article “The Big Money Behind Best in Show.” It is the first adapted article to be published from The Dog Merchants, giving readers their first sneak peek into the book.

The Dog Merchants is a follow-the-money look at the whole of the dog business, breeding and rescuing alike. This piece for Salon.com was written for publication as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show begins airing on television, so of course it focuses exclusively on the breeding side.

Rest assured that more adapted articles and excerpts are coming soon—including a 3,000-word excerpted piece about rescue that will appear in the February issue of The Bark. Stay tuned.

The Origin of the Westminster Dog Show Drinking Game

boxer dogWhy yes, I did just invent a drinking game.

Dogster published my piece about the “Westminster Dog Show Drinking Game” today. The idea for this piece originated during my reporting for The Dog Merchants, which included spending a day at America’s biggest legal dog auction. I watched as more than 300 dogs—Beagles, Chihuahuas, Golden Retrievers, Rottweilers, Yorkshire Terriers and everything in between—were sold to the highest bidder. “Two fifty… two fifty… two fifty…” the auctioneer rattled. “Now two-seventy-five… do I hear three hundred…”

Not long after, I attended the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Within about an hour, I realized I was hearing the same patter. Had I not attended the dog auction, I’m not sure that I would have noticed, but now I could clearly hear the words equally intended to raise the dogs’ value in our minds.

Only instead of calling out prices like the auctioneer, Westminster’s in-house announcer, Michael LaFave, used marketing buzzwords about “history,” words like ancestry, tradition and royalty. He said these “history” buzzwords again and again and again for the audience inside Madison Square Garden.

I went home and watched the televised version of that same Westminster dog show, which I’d recorded on a DVR, and heard similar “history” buzzwords even more frequently with the addition of at-home announcer David Frei (whom the people inside Madison Square Garden can’t hear). It fast became clear that two other categories of buzzwords were also being repeated relentlessly for TV audiences at home. I called them “superstar” words—pretty much anything you’d hear an announcer say about movie celebrities or star athletes at the Oscars or ESPYs—and “conformation” words, which is what the dog show claims to be about.

The Dog Merchants is a work of investigative journalism that talks about the business of breeding and rescuing alike. I wrote it as a “follow the money” book that will let purebred enthusiasts and rescue advocates discuss the issues facing dogs in a whole new way.

In that same vein, I see this laugh-out-loud, fully satirical Westminster Dog Show Drinking Game as yet another angle on the same storytelling mission: to give all dog lovers a new way to discuss the challenges that all of our beloved dogs face today.

Check out the Westminster Dog Show Drinking Game on Dogster.com.