When Lee and Sarah Araujo wanted a dog, they were surprised to find a purebred American cocker spaniel among the mutts and mixes on the website of a Largo animal shelter in early October.
The couple rushed to SPCA Tampa Bay before the doors opened the morning that 7-year-old Becca became available.
Typically, the nonprofit works to adopt out homeless animals that came from other shelters, and pets given up by their owners.
But Becca, and more purebreds like her, had come from a source that hadn’t been tapped before. As part of a six-month pilot program, dogs were brought here from out-of-state facilities that house them en masse, breed them repeatedly and sell their puppies in stores — what welfare advocates call puppy mills.
It was a remarkable shift for Martha Boden, the longtime CEO of SPCA Tampa Bay, who not long ago tried to shut down the commercial breeding industry for its abuses. Now she was partnering with it.
Through Pinnacle Pet, a Missouri-based broker that supplies stores with puppies, SPCA Tampa Bay accepted 23 dogs like Becca that were retired from birthing one litter after another at facilities in the Midwest.
By partnering with puppy sellers, Boden reasoned she could keep a closer eye on an industry she believes isn’t going away. And the influx of purebreds would attract more adopters who, once in the door, might see another dog they like, she said.
“In a community like ours, where they are not shutting down the pet stores anytime soon, this is a way that we can have a direct impact on the animals that are being raised and brought into our community,” Boden said.
The initiative, called “For All Dogs,” drew outrage when the SPCA made it public in October. National organizations and former local allies condemned the practice. They said that, by not fighting to shut down the pipeline from puppy mills to stores, Boden was assisting a for-profit industry that subjects dogs to misery and abuse.
The Florida Association of Animal Welfare Organizations asked her to resign from its board, and local activists are demanding she step down from the shelter she has led for 12 years.
“She needs to go,” said Dan Hester, a former ally of Boden and co-founder of Meow Now, a feline trap, neuter and release program in Pinellas County. “If she does not go, the board will be held accountable for what will ultimately be the slow demise of SPCA Tampa Bay because the animal welfare community is not going to let this go.”
Critics also believed the unusual partnership was at odds with the mission to reduce the number of animals killed in shelters.
Boden had brought in breeders at a time when the SPCA’s record for saving dogs was being questioned by her critics. A higher rate of dogs are euthanized at her nonprofit compared to Pinellas County Animal Services. So why bring in more?
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“This is legitimizing something the rest of animal welfare nonprofits are fighting, no matter how she spins it,” said Denise Deisler, CEO of Jacksonville Humane Society. “You are putting what is tantamount to the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on puppy mills, which is perpetuating cruelty.”
There were more facets to the partnership. The SPCA also had taken over state-mandated medical exams for puppies being sold at two Sunshine Puppies stores in Pinellas. The SPCA next planned to import puppies born in breeding operations with imperfections like crooked tails or underbites, which makes them less suitable for sale in stores.
But amid the backlash, Boden suspended the partnership in late October. The SPCA returned medical care at Sunshine stores to their private veterinarian and stopped the transfers of retired breeding dogs to its shelter. The move hasn’t satisfied her critics.
About 50 activists, organized by Florida Voices for Animals, protested outside the Largo shelter the day after the suspension with signs saying “stop puppy mills” and “fire CEO Boden.”
They’ve lobbied Pinellas County commissioners with their concerns and say more protests are planned.
Boden said she isn’t resigning.
A strategy shift
Boden took over SPCA Tampa Bay in 2011 after five years leading the Humane Society of Indianapolis. She opened a veterinary center and a spay and neuter clinic in St. Petersburg while increasing the SPCA’s contributions and grants five-fold.
Last year, she aligned with others in the animal welfare community to fight the commercial puppy industry. As the number of stores that sold puppies in the county grew, she led the fight to shut them down.
Puppies sold in cages and behind glass in stores do not come from home-based breeders who care for breeding dogs as pets and meet the families buying their litters. They are brought in from large-scale operations that house dozens or hundreds of dogs in kennels, cages or runs. They repeatedly breed the dogs and transport their puppies around 8 weeks old to be sold in pet stores.
In June 2022, Boden stood before the Pinellas County Commission and said this system “results in fear, pain, disease, neglect and cruelty.” She pushed the commission to join what are now seven states and 500 municipalities that have banned stores that sell puppies.
“Humanely raised, mass-produced puppies — that simply does not exist,” said Boden, who earned $178,844 last year, according to SPCA filings.
The lobbying from her and others resulted in a partial victory. Commissioners voted to ban new stores but allowed six existing ones to remain open.
That’s when Boden began to shift her strategy. Since the stores were going to continue operating, she said her idea was to “put down the swords” and see if she could improve the industry.
She began working directly with Chris Fleming, the CEO of Pinnacle Pet, who traveled from Missouri to tour SPCA Tampa Bay’s facility. Boden and a dozen staffers took five trips to visit 18 Midwest breeding operations that supply Pinnacle Pet.
She called the tours “a game changer” because she saw facilities that didn’t look like the cramped places she was used to seeing in photos. She said the kennels she visited had spacious enclosures and yards for exercise. The dogs had toys and trusted people, she said. The SPCA paid for the trips, and Pinnacle provided lodging, Boden said.
“I am learning that there is a whole lot more than I understood when we were in front of the commission before,” Boden said.
She said no money was exchanged between SPCA and Pinnacle Pet for the 23 retired breeding dogs. Sunshine Puppies paid the nonprofit for the veterinary care, but she declined to disclose the terms.
The puppy business
Much of the animal welfare world portrayed the SPCA partnership as a betrayal. Advocates believed that Boden was helping to whitewash an industry that is a far cry from what she described.
Nearly 3,000 commercial breeders are licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, allowing them to sell to brokers like Pinnacle and stores like Sunshine.
Many are run by families on private farms without staff to assist with care, said John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. He said it “isn’t a realistic claim” that most breeders have the capacity to take dozens or hundreds of dogs out of their kennels for regular exercise — or that they spend resources to build proper enclosures.
Under federal standards, these facilities can house dogs in cramped pens with little stimulation and still pass inspections.
“There’s just a consistent pattern that we’ve seen for years and years and years of this industry saying what county commission members, what state legislators, what constituents want to hear,” Goodwin said. “But when we look under the hood, everything looks different.”
Fleming, the Pinnacle Pet CEO, said he works only with facilities that address the “physical, behavioral and social needs” of dogs. But he declined to provide a list of the 200 breeders where he buys puppies.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed 70 of the breeder names through Sunshine Puppies’ sales records submitted to Pinellas County Animal Services in the past year. The facilities housed an average of 90 dogs and puppies, according to inventories on federal inspection reports. Boden said the breeders she visited had no more than 40 animals.
Several breeders that sell to Pinnacle also had recent federal or state violations that paint an unflattering image, records show.
In August 2022, a kennel in Drexel, Missouri, had three dogs housed individually in 9-square-foot enclosures — less than half the space required for dogs of their sizes, according to a state inspection report. Four other dogs were kept in indoor enclosures with temperatures over 85 degrees. They had no access to an outdoor run.
Another Missouri breeder in September 2022 housed a Chihuahua and her three puppies in an enclosure without solid flooring. Their legs dangled through the bottom, according to a federal inspection report. Fleming said he stopped buying from this breeder in May.
Videos captured in 2022 by an investigator for Companion Animals Protection Society show dogs at Pinnacle breeders in Oklahoma and Kansas pacing in barren outdoor kennels, a common neurotic symptom of confined animals.
“Even the cleanest facilities that we’ve been in, the dogs are raised in livestock conditions and they are confined their entire lives,” said Deborah Howard, founder of the society, which has investigated more than 1,000 commercial breeding facilities.
“These are not some old ladies raising dogs in their living room,” Howard said.
Fleming said the dogs were pacing because they sensed a stranger and that they had access to indoor shelter.
“There are some people out there who, no matter the level of animal welfare that we achieve, are going to disagree with the fact that we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said.
A turning point
Lee Araujo, who adopted Becca from the SPCA after she was retired from breeding at a Pinnacle facility, said he worked to overcome several issues with his new dog.
Becca at first was withdrawn and shook a lot. When Araujo first started petting her, the dog would freeze in fear. When he clapped in the backyard, she pancaked to the ground. It took three weeks for her to go on walks without panicking at noises.
“It’s like she had post-traumatic stress disorder,” Araujo said.
He and his wife paid $700 for Becca, which included teeth cleaning, Araujo said. A pit bull mix on the shelter’s website this month had an adoption fee of $200.
Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus of the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said trauma is typical in dogs coming out of puppy mills.
The system of confinement deprives them of their instinctual needs to run, smell the world around them and bond with other dogs and humans, he said. “It can take a long time for them to come around from that psychological trauma.”
Boden said a turning point for her was learning that Purdue University had a voluntary certification program for breeders who enhance their operations above the federal minimum requirements with features like larger living spaces, enrichment and plans for adopting out retired breeding dogs.
But since the standards were rolled out at a national conference in 2016, only 210 of the nearly 3,000 licensed breeders in the U.S. have made changes to obtain the certification, including less than 30 that sell to Pinnacle Pet. Of the 18 breeders Boden and her staff visited, eight were Purdue-certified, she said.
The partnership with Pinnacle Pet did not involve SPCA Tampa Bay directly encouraging breeders to adopt higher standards. Boden said the shelter instead was creating a retirement option for Pinnacle to offer to its breeders.
“If we waited until everything was perfect to partner with any partner,” she said, “I think we’d be missing an opportunity to have an influence.”
Outside of the SPCA partnership, Fleming said his breeders find homes for retired breeding dogs through grassroots networking like “a cousin’s co-worker” who might be looking for a pet.
But welfare advocates like Goodwin and Dodman said puppy mill dogs that age out are more commonly sent to livestock auctions or killed.
Inside the puppy store
At Sunshine Puppies’ Largo and Clearwater locations, customers browse rows of cages displaying young German shepherds, cavapoos, Yorkshire terriers and a variety of other breeds priced at upward of $2,000.
The puppies spend an average of two weeks in the stores before being sold, according to owner Dan Cohn.
He said his business satisfies a demand from the public. County records show that his two stores and four others in Pinellas sold about 7,200 puppies in the last two years.
Cohn said all these puppies receive state-mandated medical exams and vaccinations.
But illnesses still occur. After Elizabeth Lindenberg bought her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Augustus, for $2,594 from Sunshine’s Largo shop in May, the puppy was lethargic and coughing.
She brought him to the vet days later and he was diagnosed with pneumonia. In February, a Missouri state inspector cited Augustus’ breeder for failing to have vaccination records for adult dogs.
Augustus recovered after $1,500 in vet bills. And after seeing rows of puppies living in cages with slatted floors, where the stench of ammonia can be overwhelming, Lindenberg felt she made “more of a rescue than a purchase.”
Cohn said staff members clean cages continually, but they can smell if many puppies urinate at once. He said puppies go without beds only briefly while they are washed.
“I try to keep my area as hygienic as possible and the reason is because they are babies,” said Cohn. He said he had high hopes for the now-suspended SPCA partnership.
His goal, he said, was to create a kind of accountability guarantee by working with SPCA Tampa Bay. He compared it to the federal “Dolphin Safe” seal on tuna cans.
“The biggest watchdog in the Tampa Bay area stood across from me and wanted to shut me down,” Cohn said. “Her name is Martha Boden, and everybody seems to be forgetting that.”