Check out an organization that aims to bring down puppy mills, one rescue at a time.

Those puppies in the pet store window are adorable, but there’s a sinister secret behind them – puppy mills. These disreputable facilities treat dog breeding like an assembly line operation, placing volume and profit above animal welfare. Female dogs are often bred every time they come into heat, and puppies are weaned from their mothers too early. Awareness of this industry is growing, but many people still don’t really know where pet shop pups come from. Jean Kenney was one of them, even though she used to work closely with pet stores.

“I had my own dog, a Yorkie, and I was making and selling designer pet beds,” she explains. “At the time, every mall had a pet shop with tons of cages, and they bought my beds. I delivered them, saw the puppies on display, and never thought about where they came from. It just never occurred to me.”

It was the late 1990s, a time when the internet was ushering in a new information era, so Jean did some online research. “When I found out where those puppies came from, it sounded so horrible. I hit myself on the head and said, ‘This has been going on right under your nose and you never thought about it.’ Here I was in the industry, with no idea. I knew that I had to tell others.”

Taking action

Jean’s desire to help puppy mill dogs manifested into Puppy Mill Rescue, a non-profit organization that launched in 1998. Her first act was to save six Missouri dogs from an auction. Jean took the dogs into her home, and soon learned the special challenges of working with animals that have never been socialized or housebroken.

“None of them had been out of their cages, so basically I had to rehabilitate them,” she says. “If you’re going to rescue puppy mill dogs, you have to know how to do that because they’ve never been in a home before. Half the job was done by my own dogs showing them how to behave in a household, but there was still a lot of poop on the floor!”

Since she had learned so much from the internet about puppy mills, Jean decided to harness this tool to teach others. “I put up a website [puppymillrescue.com] and it was like a snowball, just getting bigger and bigger.”

To date, about 2,000 dogs have been saved through Puppy Mill Rescue’s efforts. The dogs are placed in foster homes for rehabilitation, and are transported to new adoptive homes through a group called Truck-NPaws, which can deliver them safely right across the country if necessary.

National exposure

Jean’s work caught the attention of the National Geographic and Animal Planet cable channels, which led to two television shows. “On one of them, we went undercover into the mills,” she says. “They hide out in the boonies, so we pretended to be breeders and went in and bought dogs from them.”

Jean is heartened by the fact that this increasing exposure is hurting the mills. “With all the news coverage, I would say 20% of puppy mills have gone out of business in the last 12 years,” she estimates.

Puppy Mill Rescue regularly posts news on its website and educates the public in various other ways. “We’ve put up billboards in the middle of puppy mill country to reach people traveling through,” Jean says. The ads call attention to the problem and include a toll-free number for more information.

A lifelong commitment

The group rescues as many dogs as possible, although its capacity is limited by the fact that it is strictly no-kill, unless an animal’s suffering cannot be relieved, and has a policy of providing lifetime care. “People who adopt usually want puppies, but we tend to get the older ones,” Jean says. “They are more damaged and often need a lot of vet care. We want to be sure they get the best treatment possible for the rest of their lives.”

The dogs will remain in their foster homes indefinitely if they are not adopted. However, Puppy Mill Rescue retains guardianship, and the dogs must be returned to the organization if the caretakers cannot keep them for any reason. “We take them back, even after many years, if necessary,” Jean explains. “We had one dog, Radar, come back after seven years because the man who was caring for him lost his job and home. He had another dog he did not get from us, and we took in that one, too. We were able to place her with another rescue organization, and Radar is here with me.”

Jean says it used to be rare for people to return dogs, but the rough economy has changed that. It has also slashed donations, which limits the number of rescues the group can take in. “This is a very expensive operation if you do it right,” she explains. None of the bare bones staff receives any pay, so all the funds go directly into caring for the dogs.

Jean plans to continue her rescue and education work, but she hopes it will someday be unnecessary. “There are hundreds of thousands of dogs, but the problem stops if we educate enough people,” she says. “If they stop buying pet store puppies, the puppy mills go out of business.”

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