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Dog auctions a controversial topic

3/7/2008

By DENISE FLAIM
Newsday
(MCT)


Seven miniature schnauzers, 30 Pomeranians, 41 Yorkshire terriers, three Japanese Chin, 10 mixed breeds and one solitary Silky terrier.

I could go on, but those numbers should give you a hint of the arithmetic of misery that arrived in a recent e-mail from Ohio-based animal activist Mary O'Connor-Shaver. It listed 316 dogs of 33 breeds that were to be put on the auction block later that week, and included a link to BanOhioDogAuctions.com, a Web site whose name says it all.

In 2006, O'Connor-Shaver attended her first dog auction, a place where puppy millers - the colloquially pejorative term for commercial breeders who supply pet stores, often under cramped and unhygienic conditions - meet to dump old or unsaleable dogs, and buy new ones. Rescue groups in attendance were given several old dogs for whom the gavel did not fall. One of them, "Lot 130," was a 5-year-old German shepherd with a good chunk of her lip missing and a urinary-tract infection so severe she was urinating blood. O'Connor-Shaver took her home, fostered her, and eventually placed her in a loving home, which the renamed Sasha now shares with a pint-size min-pin "sister."

"It was such a life-altering experience for me that I decided I would make people aware of this, and try to get dog auctions banned in Ohio," as they are in neighboring Pennsylvania, says O'Connor-Shaver, adding that many Pennsylvania millers cross the state line to attend the Ohio events.

Only one venue holds auctions in her state, but the activity seeds more millers, O'Connor-Shaver says. "The number of commercial breeders who have applied for licenses in Holmes County alone has increased by 40 percent in 2004, when those auctions started, so we know there's a definite connection."

Dog auctions are a controversial topic in the rescue community. Some tenderhearted rescuers attend them to buy dogs and remove them from the breeding cycle; most of the dogs have lived in a cage all their lives, have never been socialized, and require extensive rehabilitation. Though rescuers insist they go "undercover" and are not identifiable, there are legitimate concerns that they stick out like sore thumbs and provide the millers with a lucrative revenue stream - and a last laugh.

Outside the miller community, auctions are not well thought of. The American Kennel Club considers auctions (or, for that matter, raffles) "not to be reasonable and appropriate methods to obtain or transfer dogs," according to an official policy statement. Dogs sold at auctions that are younger than 8 weeks of age or without microchip identification cannot be AKC registered. And the AKC "discourages" rescue groups affiliated with breed parent clubs from purchasing dogs at auctions, noting that "it perpetuates the problem and tends to create a seller's market."

O'Connor-Shaver notes that the AKC nonetheless registers puppies produced by puppy mills, though the registry's increased inspection efforts - and the public's tendency to confuse any three-letter acronym on registration papers with "AKC" - has prompted many millers to register their dogs elsewhere.

Because O'Connor-Shaver is a realist who sees many shades of gray, she acknowledges that commercial breeders will likely always exist, as long as the demand for pet-store puppies does. To that end, one of her goals has been to open up dialogue with commercial breeders, many of which in her state are Amish. As in Pennsylvania, some of the state's "plain people" have turned to dog breeding as an alternate cash crop, and cultural attitudes about what constitutes adequate care reflect a general perception of dogs as livestock rather than companions.

Before a protest at a dog auction last year, O'Connor-Shaver and some rescuers sat down with a commercial breeder to discuss their different perspectives and see if there was any common ground.

"It was the first time that anybody from the breeding community had a chance to sit down with `extremists,'" she says. Among the ideas they bounced around: monthly "adoption days" for breeding dogs nearing retirement age, and the possibility of representatives from the rescue community visiting Amish breeding farms to meet and talk to breeders.

"Granted, this not going to get rid of puppy mills, but the idea of protest is to get everybody to the table," O'Connor-Shaver says, noting that some local animal activists objected to the dialogue, which she plans to continue with a larger circle of commercial breeders. "But if we don't do something, we are going to become the puppy-mill capital of the Midwest," and develop the reputation of other mill-heavy states like Pennsylvania and Missouri. (Long Island, N.Y., happily, does not have a problem with dog auctions or commercial breeders - who could afford the real estate?)

And if a tete-a-tete with the "enemy" is a controversial idea that conflicts with rescue's naturally anti-miller agenda, so be it. "Bottom line is, if you're really in it for the dogs you have to strip ego from the whole equation," she concludes. "You have to ask, what can we do to make it better for the dogs?"

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