LITHIA — When investigators opened the detached garage of a Lithia home, Henry, a white standard poodle, stared out into the light.
The garage — or dungeon, as investigators called it — was filled with starving, dehydrated dogs that investigators think were being killed through deliberate neglect. Henry's bones sharply protruded and he could barely walk. Nearby, a black trash bag contained four dead dogs.
"It was horrific," Hillsborough County Animal Services investigations supervisor Pam Perry said.
About 90 animals were taken from Ian and Christie Roth's Lithia home earlier this month in response to an anonymous tip. Authorities called it a puppy mill. In November, two other mills were found in Riverview and Lakeland.
The Roths did not respond to repeated attempts by the St. Petersburg Times to reach them by telephone and in person.
With the high demand for cute puppies at Christmastime and a slumping economy pushing people into the profitable business of high-volume breeding, animal advocates are sure more horrendous cases like this exist nearby.
"It's very scary to think there's animals out there suffering, and we don't have a clue," said Connie Brooks, operations manager for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Tampa Bay.
A puppy mill is characterized as a large breeding operation that puts profits above care. Animals are often kept in cramped cages and not allowed to go outside. They're often starved, dehydrated and not given the attention they crave.
"The whole idea of a puppy mill is that someone is exploiting animals like they are factory machines," Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan said. "They are meant to reproduce and reproduce, and when they fail to do that, they are disposable just like any machine that's fallen out of service."
There's also a high risk that the puppies will have genetic defects due to inbreeding, said Steven Lewis, a Plant City veterinarian. Bad traits from their breed or parents could be amplified, he said.
On Nov. 5, authorities shut down PM Tinies in Riverview and confiscated about 80 small-breed dogs. Patricia Martin Walters, 73, Daniel Hickman, 41, and Elaine Cave, 69, were arrested and charged with animal cruelty. All the dogs were adopted through Animal Services.
Walters was allowed to keep seven dogs, and she has complied with their care, according to investigators who have checked on her five times since her arrest.
On Nov. 22, deputies confiscated 123 animals from the Lakeland home of Carolyn Bragg. She was charged with 123 counts of animals neglect.
There are no dogs left on her property, which still reeks of sour urine.
Her daughter was also charged in connection with the crime, and her 12-year-old granddaughter, who lived with them in the roach-infested home, is in the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Polk County Sheriff's Office reported.
On Monday, Ian Roth, 38, and Christie Roth, 43, were arrested and charged with one count each of felony animal cruelty and confinement of animals without food and water in connection with the neglected dogs at their Lithia home. They have been released on $2,500 bail.
Although three raids in two months is unusual, investigators don't believe there is an increase in bad breeders. They attribute the rise to increased buyer awareness and possibly the influx of people visiting breeders' homes to buy puppies for the holidays.
However, animal advocates are concerned that more people may turn to breeding for income as the unemployment rate rises.
"There's not much capital or overhead," Perry said. "And they can run it out of their house."
Technology is also fueling the problem. The Internet provides the perfect means for breeders to sell directly to the unsuspecting public.
Animal Services has started checking out local breeders who advertise through Craigslist, Perry said.
It's difficult to keep tabs on breeders in Hillsborough County because there's no permitting process. Animal Services discontinued its in 2007 because of budget cuts, but Perry said it had been ineffective anyway because of trouble enforcing it.
Federal licenses and inspections are required only for breeders who sell dogs directly to pet stores. There are no domestic dog breeders that fit that bill in Hillsborough County, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture's records.
Because of this, Perry estimates there are hundreds of breeders flying under the radar in Hillsborough County alone.
So investigators rely on neighbors, friends, families and customers to report suspicious activity. Red flags include not allowing customers inside the home, not allowing customers to see the puppy's parents or other animals and not providing references or the name of a veterinarian, Perry said.
She encourages people to call Animal Services if they suspect any problems, even if they're just small tips such as a foul odor or closed-off areas.
"Even the trivial stuff, call," she said.
For now, Henry the poodle will recover at Animal Service's Brandon shelter along with the other dogs from the Lithia operation. He timidly wags his tail when given water and slowly chews dog treats.
Henry and the other confiscated dogs from the Lithia home are still the property of the Roths, operators of a business called Chianti's Puppy-Luv, and they can't be adopted until a judge grants custody to Animal Services.
Perry hopes it won't be a long, drawn-out legal fight "for the animals' sake," but she vows to do whatever is necessary to make sure they never go back.
"He's done," she said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.