Now that the official holiday shopping season is under way, I wish I could stand in front of every shopping mall pet store and show the passers-by an elderly chihuahua named Sophia. Sophia is the reason no one should ever buy an animal from a pet store. Like most dogs for sale in stores, she came from a puppy mill.
When I first met Sophia, I didn't think she would ever get over her intense fear of humans. The first month I had her, she huddled in the corner of my bedroom and shook with convulsions whenever I looked at her, her large eyes bulging with fear.
Sophia was one of a hundred neglected dogs seized by authorities 14 months ago from a puppy mill in North Carolina. Instead of frolicking in a home with loving guardians, Sophia and her fellow inmates were relegated to dilapidated wood and wire outdoor hutches, denied proper nutrition and veterinary care, given algae-coated water and forced to sit in their own waste. Like Sophia, most of the dogs were small breeds: chihuahuas, Boston terriers, Shih Tzus and others. They were being exploited for the sole purpose of making money for their owner.
Puppy mills are a thinly veiled "secret" in the pet store industry. The little bundles of joy in pet stores come from puppy mill mothers like Sophia, who are forced to bear litter after litter, with dire consequences to their health. Male breeders are stuck in cages, treated like assembly-line objects, and both males and females are thrown away when they can no longer reproduce. The puppies they give birth to are usually sick - infested with parasites and infected with viruses and diseases on top of the genetic problems they've inherited from their parents.
Puppy mill dogs are never touched with a loving hand, fed treats, given soft beds or chew toys or taken for walks. Their basic physical needs are unmet and they are emotionally ignored. When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gained temporary custody of 20 of the North Carolina puppy mill breeding dogs, I agreed to foster six of them. I was totally unprepared.
Most of them were so scared of people that even if gently touched, they would lose control of their bowels. They had infections, parasites and untreated broken legs that had calcified and healed improperly. They would do anything to get away from me, which made giving them their medicine for all their ailments next to impossible.
Now, I'm proud to say, a lot of that fear is gone.
Sarah, a chihuahua mix who spent the first year or more of her life in a cage, enjoys playing tricks on my son, stealing his socks and toys and running away with them when he isn't looking. Chandler, one of the youngest of the bunch, no longer cowers in fear but rolls onto his back to have his belly scratched when he's done playing with his new friends - three large shepherd mixes. Theresa, another little chihuahua mix, is slowly learning to trust me and recently started touching my legs affectionately when she thinks I'm not looking. Sophia, the one I thought would never trust humans, sleeps curled up in a queen-sized bed, snoring like a contented freight train.
The best way to help dogs like Sophia is to refuse to buy animals from pet stores. There are millions of dogs and cats in animal shelters across the nation waiting for homes. It's time to put the puppy mills out of business.
Christina Matthies is a writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; www.HelpingAnimals. com.
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2006, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals