The auctioneer started calling out bids for the three Poodles remaining on the table. He always started optimistically high. “FivehundreddoIhearfivehundreddollars?” he asked urgently. The three remaining dogs had seen a hard life, and hoping for $500 was beyond ludicrous. The audience sat mutely in the heat of the old barn, waiting for the inevitable plunge downward in hopes of an opening bid. When it hit $100 (as best I could tell, it being very hard to understand the auctioneer at times), someone finally raised a hand. We could shorten this day by a couple of hours if the bids started lower, instead of the perfunctory insistence of starting all bids at high prices. Even on the rare occasions where the bidding does rise past the initial plea of the auctioneer, the bids almost always start much lower.
* * * * *
The world of dog rescue is filled with moral ambiguity. Those who think it isn’t haven’t been in it long enough or deep enough. Someone admitted to me the other day they have gone into people’s back yards and taken dogs off chains to rescue them from inhumane conditions. They did not go through the police or animal control. They saw an animal suffering, and they took action. Illegal action. More than once. They stole a dog for the greater good. Or so they believed. I’ve never done this myself, but I can fully understand their reasoning. Since we are talking about ethics, do you think the dog gives a damn about the legal code? Were dogs consulted when the laws were written? Were slaves consulted when they were considered property? Welcome aboard the steam engine of morality. We are picking up speed, and don’t expect to pull into any stations. You are now committed.
* * * * *
Sasha (though at this point she was Number 196) sat on the table with a handler behind her. The auctioneer extolled the virtues of these fine Poodles. I finally bid. Someone else countered. The game was afoot.
* * * * *
Dog auctions are another source of heated debate. Puppy mill owners (or millers) auction dogs for a variety of reasons, rather than selling them to dog wholesalers. Some in dog rescue are willing to attend these auctions in an effort to save as many as possible from ending up in another puppy mill. Others say this is simply rewarding the breeders by paying them for dogs, thus encouraging them to breed more dogs. It encourages the very behavior they want to see come to an end. Paying for dogs at an auction is not too far from asking for ransom. “Pay us, or the dog gets sent to a mill for the rest of its life.”
* * * * *
The bidding is not going quickly. The auctioneer pauses to have each dog held up. Sasha, they claim, is probably pregnant. She does have a significant hernia, and a bad bite, but puppies are an additional source of income. The other two dogs show no signs of pregnancy, but don’t have a bulging hernia either.
* * * * *
Even legitimate breeders who genuinely care for their dogs are often considered part of the over-population problem. Shelters are murdering incredible numbers of dogs each year, so how could anyone even think of breeding more? Each puppy is just one more shelter dog that won’t find a home. Or so we are told.
In wrestling with these various ethical dilemmas, I have come to the following decisions:
1. Even though I would love to breed dogs, I can’t bring myself to do it.
2. I will go to dog auctions, but only at locations where the breeder is going out of business. Yes, they get my money, but I am not encouraging them to breed more dogs.
3. I will try to get pregnant dogs, so I can enjoy raising pups without deliberately breeding more dogs.
This is my morality. Things are rarely black and white. Those who disagree may proceed on their own path with my blessings. I would not presume to judge those who actually care about the dogs. Peace be with you, and good luck.
* * * * *
The bidding starts again. For some reason, I am having a hard time following the auctioneer this time. I bid twice more, and stop. I think someone else has outbid me, and I think we are at $200. That’s my limit for these dogs. The auctioneer pleads for another bid.
* * * * *
So I found myself at a puppy mill auction for the third time in my life. There is a tacit understanding between the auctioneers, the millers, and the rescue people. We can participate (after all, our money is good), but we don’t try to secretly take photos or bad-mouth a particular breeder. The dance of mutual distrust goes on, as the music of money and the music of compassion is alternately played.
I had already purchased a very pregnant Pomeranian (my favorite breed), and what turned out to be a very plump but very un-pregnant Chihuahua, and was hoping to get a pregnant Poodle too (my wife’s favorite breed). Despite my phone calls to the miller a few days previously to check on the dogs, and having her assure me that she had several Poodles showing belly, when I arrived and checked them out, none were obviously with pup. Millers do lie. So I rolled the dice and decided I’d buy one or two Poodles and hope for the best. I had already won a chocolate brown girl, and was considering a final purchase.
* * * * *
I never look at people bidding against me, so I have no idea who would have gotten Sasha had I lost. The auctioneer finally shouted, “Sold for $200,” and looked at me for my bidder number. This is the only time I have ever been surprised to win. I even had to ask him to repeat the winning amount so I knew what I would be paying. And so a 14 pound, seven-year old black Poodle with a large bulging hernia was added to my new pack. I left at that point, four dogs being my absolute maximum, and headed off to pay my bill and collect my dogs.
Bidding on dogs is always an iffy proposition. Even though I was there early, and checked out the dogs thoroughly, it is still a very artificial and stressful environment, and dogs may act very differently once you get them home. You really don’t know how healthy they are, and you must keep them segregated from your dogs until you know they aren’t carrying any diseases. The odds are at least one of them will bark through the night, so you’d better have a nice, sound-proof place to put them.
* * * * *
Whether it was my superb scouting or blind luck, I brought home four very sweet, friendly dogs. A visit to my vet confirmed that Sasha had a hernia. She also had ear mites (almost a certainty for all puppy mill dogs) and a heart murmur. She was not a good looking Poodle either, having too long of a body, an arched back, and too long of a snout. But she loved to be held, all 14 pounds of her. She also took to a leash with ease, and enjoyed going for walks. She did NOT like sleeping in a dog crate, and barked quite a bit the first few nights to make sure I understood her displeasure.
Sasha was in heat when I got her (something both the miller and the eagle-eyed auctioneers failed to mention), which meant if she was pregnant, it had happened very recently. We waited seven weeks before getting any of the dogs spayed, to make sure we didn’t kill any pups. We had given up hope that any (even the plump Chihuahua) was pregnant, when one day Sasha’s belly felt tighter than usual. Hope grew into reality, and Sasha was unquestionably pregnant. Our joy would be turned into disappointment a few weeks later, when Sasha ate her pups as soon as she delivered them. It is likely they were stillborn and under-developed, but we will never know for sure.
The next week Sasha went in for her spay and surgery to fix her hernia. It was a lot more complicated than the vet originally thought. Sasha’s uterus was severely infected. In fact, it was about the worst he had seen in 38 years of practice. He was so impressed, he saved it to show to me. What should have been diameter of a child’s pencil was about four times larger. The only treatment for such an infection is exactly what he had just done, remove her uterus. Her hernia was also harder to repair than he had hoped, and because of the seriousness of the surgery, Sasha spent an extra day at the vet’s for observation.
This is where the thin line between life and death, hope and despair lies. Sasha was one bid away from ending up at another puppy mill. Most millers will not spend the money to fix a hernia, or perform a spay. Some will turn sick dogs over to a rescue, or their local shelter, or turn them loose on the street, or take them out back and shoot them. Dogs are a means to an end, a commodity, and compassion and profits don’t mix.
* * * * *
I’ve been taking care of 13 dogs for the last couple of months. It is, as you may imagine, a very time-consuming job, assuming you want to socialize and care for all of them. Sasha came from a back-yard puppy mill that had at least 300 dogs. While I have little doubt it was run according to the law, what quality of life do you think she had? A small indoor shelter and a small cement run. She may have never felt grass beneath her feet. Was she walked? Did she get to run in a yard? Was she held and loved? Considering the sheer number of dogs at this location, it seems unlikely. But this story is not about the horrors of puppy mills, even those that follow the law. This story is about Sasha.
It was my last bid that saved her from more of the same and probably saved her life. A confused series of bids and my inability to follow the auctioneer led to me going home with four dogs rather than three. A sick dog was saved. But I feel no real satisfaction. I brought home 4 dogs; 300 more were auctioned off, and most went to millers. They went back to hell.
Sasha is safe and recovering from her surgery. She is Daddy’s dog, following me everywhere. If she’s not in my lap, she’s on the floor next to me. She’s at my feet as I write this. When I pick her up, she settles in almost immediately, sighs, closes her eyes, and goes to sleep. Now I am the foster dad for a seven-year old misshapen Poodle with a heart murmur. Her muzzle is graying, and her eyes have a sadness to them that melts my heart. Her life has been hard, but her affection and neediness makes me wonder if dogs can be grateful. Does she understand what happened? Does she understand I love her? Can she really reason enough to grasp what happened? I know what I think. That’s all that matters to me.
* * * * *
Two hundred dollars to save an old dog? Not to mention the vet bills. The money could have been used to (pick your favorite charitable cause: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, buy medicine). True. So? The world is full of enough misery for all of us to work full-time to alleviate it, and we will barely scratch the surface. And I’ll be blunt; I don’t find humans to be inherently more valuable than dogs.
Sasha’s rescue represents one fist raised in defiance against the madness of the world. She will live with us until we find a home for her. She is safe. Many more are not. Pick your cause and raise your fist. Do not go quietly into the night. Listen to the vulnerable; speak for the voiceless. Our paths may not be the same, but many paths lead to a better, more humane world. Pick one if you haven’t already, and begin the journey.