Puppy Mills Are Not a Laughing Matter

I rely on my conscience (and do my research) before jumping on every bandwagon. But this is a bandwagon I felt compelled to hop on. GoDaddy made  a new Super Bowl ad public today, and it sparked immediate controversy. It makes light of a serious problem—puppy mills, and online puppy mills in particular. The response to the ad was so vehement that GoDaddy pulled it from the Super Bowl line-up and removed it from its YouTube page.

In case you haven’t seen the commercial yet, here it is:

Maybe you laughed. Hey, I’m not judging; I laugh at a lot of things others would deem inappropriate. But I’m not laughing this time. I’ve seen firsthand what the demand for purebred and designer dogs has created.

The GoDaddy ad makes its “puppy farm” look quaint. Here’s a litter of adorable, well-kept puppies raised on a farm and hauled in the back of a pickup truck—rural Americana all around. It’s not safe to transport dogs in the back of a pickup, but I’ll let go of my indignation on that one because there’s a bigger story here. Those picturesque puppy farms don’t exist and the surprise twist at the end of the GoDaddy video where the breeder callously says, “Ship ‘em out!” hints at it—puppy mills are a business. Put plainly, they’re dog factories.

The Puppy Mill

shiba inu puppy

This is my dog Toshi at 10 weeks old, just after he joined our family. Toshi was removed from a puppy mill by a rescue group that purchased him at auction because he was “defective.” Closer inspection by my vet revealed him to be perfectly healthy.

I worked for a dog grooming school years ago. The owner would invite a local puppy mill owner to bring in dogs. It was a charitable thing—the mill existed, and there was little anyone could do to prevent it from existing, so the school owner figured that at the very least the students could occasionally get the dogs cleaned up. But getting clean was the least of these dogs’ problems.

Let me give you a little background. This grooming school had a great system for educating students about how to groom all breed types. During each unit, the students focused on a particular type of dog with similar grooming requirements. To start out, they would work on what we called “brushables”—dogs with double coats that required brushing and bathing without actual hair cutting. They would progress to breeds with specific trims—curly-coated breeds like poodles and bichon frises; terriers with wiry coats; spaniels with clipped faces and top lines and long fringe. It was a great system, but… it meant that we were often scrambling to find the appropriate type of dog for the students to work on at any given time.

When we had a large class and we were short a specific type of dog, the owner (I’ll call her Doris), would phone up the puppy mill owner (she died years ago, so I’ll call her by her name—Virginia) and say something like, “We need 8 spaniels on Tuesday.” Virginia and her husband would load their beat-up van with dogs and dutifully haul them in for haircuts. I always got the feeling Virginia felt she was helping Doris out, not the other way around. She was the provider of terriers and spaniels and bichons, after all.

It sounds like a good system, doesn’t it? Dogs on demand! But for the students it was horrific.

I remember one day when we had a large class of aspiring groomers in need of some hours grooming curly-coated breeds. It was early in my career at the school, and I was working the reception desk. When Virginia pulled up with her van, I was asked to grab some leashes and step outside to help her unload dogs, mostly bichons and poodles. There were 14 dogs in Virginia’s cargo van, crammed into 4 rusty wire crates. They were barely recognizable as dogs, much less the breeds they were supposed to represent. Each dog was covered in huge clumps of mats, and each mat was made up of filth. The dogs had become accustomed to eliminating waste in their crates, so their paws and legs were covered in feces and stained yellow with urine.

This video shows what a severely matted dog looks like. This dog was sedated for grooming to make the process less traumatic. The dogs students groomed at the school endured the process wide awake.

The students began grooming, and things only got worse on closer inspection. Government regulations required that the dogs be easily identifiable. Because multiple dogs lived in single enclosures, Virginia and her husband had pierced each dog’s ear with a huge numbered cattle tag. The tags created a half-inch opening in the ear, and most of the dogs’ ear tags had become infected and were oozing pus.  A stench of dog waste and infection filled the air as the students began to shave off the matted clumps to find the dog underneath. Because the mats pulled on the dogs’ hair, they created pressure sores, which the students uncovered as they shaved. Some of those had also become infected, and one student even uncovered a pressure sore filled with maggots. Mother dogs had mammary glands swollen with milk, their nipples often sore and abraded. Sometimes the teats were so clearly infected that they were red and hot to the touch.

This is a livestock ear tagger. Each puppy mill dog was tagged with a similar yellow tag, and students were asked to refer to them by number.

This is a livestock ear tagger. Each puppy mill dog was tagged and students were asked to refer to them by number.

The students pressed on despite the horrors. I’ve found that true animal lovers are almost universally kind and big-hearted, and these student groomers were no exception. In the end, they got the dogs as clean as possible (although the stains that couldn’t be shaved off remained despite their best efforts to shampoo and double-shampoo them away), and dutifully noted every health problem so that they could be reported back to Virginia. The dogs seemed grateful to be relieved of the burden of matted hair and filth, and despite being scared and unsocialized, they showed affection toward the students. Not only did the students feel immense sympathy toward the dogs, they quickly grew attached to them.

When Virginia’s van pulled up at the end of the day, we all realized that these dogs were going back to their crowded, filthy cages. It was very unlikely that their infections would be treated. Doris had once explained to me that Virginia and her husband viewed the animals with detachment. The dogs were a business, plain and simple, and sometimes it’s more practical to replace dead livestock than it is to attempt to cure an illness.

As the dogs went home that day, I found myself consoling the students in the break room, where some wept openly and others expressed outrage and plans to call the authorities and have the puppy mill shut down. Over my four years there, I watched the same tableau unfold over and over when the mill dogs came in. Despite student efforts, Virginia’s puppy mill did not shut down—she complied with government regulations—and the horrors continued until she died from pneumonia complications. I never learned what happened to the dogs, but I assume they were sold at auction. Many were almost certainly euthanized. This was in the late 80s and early 90s, before the prominence of private rescue groups. Today, rescue groups work diligently to get dogs out of mills and into loving homes, but the work is never finished.

What Can We Do?

I’m just as big a proponent of free speech as I am of animal welfare. I see people insisting that the GoDaddy ad should be banned. I can’t agree. Banning something just because we don’t like the message is a very slippery slope.

Although GoDaddy may have the right to create whatever kind of ad it wants, we don’t have to support them when they do. Today, droves of people took to social media to let GoDaddy know that they didn’t approve of the company’s inadvertent endorsement of puppy mills. Although GoDaddy’s social media folks tried to stem the tide by assuring everyone that the puppy in the commercial, Buddy, was adopted and living the high life, animal lovers were quick to inform them that they’d missed the point. The outrage wasn’t over one dog, it was over many.

In just one day, the public’s negative response resulted in the ad being pulled. That’s people power in action! But there’s still work to be done. If you’re considering a pet, or in the position of advising someone who is, remember this:

  • Don’t buy dogs online or from pet stores. It perpetuates an ugly cycle. You’re creating a demand that puppy mill owners are only too happy to continue to supply. Rescue groups and shelters have many wonderful dogs, from loveable mutts to purebreds, awaiting good homes.
  • Inform other animal lovers. There are many good and caring pet owners who don’t know about the puppy mill problem. As you educate yourself, share this article and others to let people know what they’re really buying into when they pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to bring home that doggy in the window, or the one they saw for sale online.
  • Know that not every breeder is irresponsible. Those who breed dogs for the love of perpetuating a breed make certain that their dogs are good representatives of their breed. They show their dogs in conformation shows and/or enter them in working trials. They test their breeding dogs for inherent genetic problems and provide proof of that testing, and sell puppies with extensive health guarantees that usually require you to return the dog to them should your circumstances change. If you can’t find a dog from a rescue, or you want a show or working dog, then do your homework, but…
  • Whenever you can, adopt. Support breed rescue groups and shelters. Consider providing a temporary foster home for dogs seeking new owners. Donate if you’re able. PetFinder.com is a great resource for finding local rescue groups and potentially your next pet. Need financial incentive? You’ll actually pay less for a health-checked, vaccinated and often neutered dog from a rescue group or shelter than you will for one from the pet store window. I paid $350 to cover my dog Toshi’s adoption expenses from a rescue group. A while back, I was curious and inquired about the price of a shiba inu from a mall pet store that kept puppies in baby cribs and offered financing and learned that they were asking $1,800.00.

Not a Laughing Matter

GoDaddy, your ad wasn’t funny, and I’m glad it’s gone. Nothing that perpetuates the cycle of supply-and-demand that keeps puppy mills in business is funny. Making light of treating pets as commodities isn’t high hilarity, it’s irresponsible. The star of your commercial, Buddy, may have a good home (as this article at E! Online points out), but many thousands of other dogs do not.  Thank you for answering the public response by pulling your ad.

Follow-up: This evening, GoDaddy CEO, Blake Irving, published this response to the outraged public. It’s clearly a bit tone-deaf, addressing the “emotional response” without understanding the underlying problem.

Was GoDaddy’s ad all in good fun, or were animal lovers right to raise a fuss? Scroll down and leave a comment!


One thought on “Puppy Mills Are Not a Laughing Matter

  1. Thanks for this heartbreaking report from your experience with the work of puppy mills. I have to say I was almost as offended but the wording of the GoDaddy retraction as I was by the commercial. This company supports the websites of puppy brokers who sell dogs from puppy millers and backyard breeders. They referred to puppies as “products,” in their original replies to protests about their Buddy commercial on Facebook. The retraction from their CEO is not an apology. He is just sorry that his cynically amusing commercial had such an “emotional” response from all of the pesky rescue people and dog lovers. He tells us not to worry, that the cute puppy now has a home with someone in his company, so all emotional animal lovers should be glad. The company had already, along with the commercial, produced a PSA about rescue as an appeasement in anticipation of objections from the rescue community. They knew that some would have a problem with the commercial, but they really did not grasp the problem revealed by this puppy campaign. The problem is that they actually do support and promote businesses that sell puppies online, and they have spent lots of creative time and dollars making a commercial that shows that they have no understanding of why selling animals online is a bad idea. They may like cute puppies, but they have little or no consciousness of the heinous nature of the puppy broker businesses they earn money from and promote. Their judgement is permanently suspect. What other questionable clients do they serve? And their judgement as advertisers is also off. This was an epic fail, not a case of merely “missing the mark,” as their CEO has characterized it in his hasty retraction.
    GoDaddy will never be a viable option for hosting any animal friendly website until they remove those puppy brokers from their client list, and make a PSA for large scale distribution about the puppy mill industry, and the irresponsible people who sell their “products” on websites that companies like GoDaddy create for them.

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