The business of breeding

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Red Sanders and his wife, Beverly, operate Pom-Hut Kennels in Scott City. They sell their purebred puppies to brokers who ship the dogs all over the country. The Sanderses have been in business for 25 years, breeding seven types of small dogs including poodles, cairn terriers and Chihuahuas.

"Don't call this a puppy mill. We operate a kennel here. There's a big difference," said Red Sanders.

He said puppy mills keep their dogs stacked in cages. He describes his puppies as "fat and slick" and said they have room to run around.

"This ain't no puppy mill," he said.

If Sanders seems defensive about the business, that may be because Missouri has a reputation as a place where puppies are bred in excess. Missouri has just under 1,500 USDA-licensed commercial dog breeders. That total dwarfs the No. 2 state, Oklahoma, which has less than half that number.

At Pom-Hut Kennels, the small dogs are kept in clean enclosures averaging 10 feet by 10 feet with indoor and outdoor partitions. There are heat lamps for the puppies and overflowing food dishes. And although the high-pitched, nearly constant yapping of dogs makes the Sanderses less than ideal neighbors, the kennel is not PETA picket-sign material.

As if to demonstrate the humane treatment, Sanders casually opened the gate of one enclosure to pick up a newborn Shih Tzu. Seeing an opening, the mother ran out and headed toward the outside door.

"Don't worry, she'll come back," he said. Sure enough, the little dog stuck her nose out into the frosty air and turned right around toward her pen.

Sanders keeps a permanent stable of around 50 breeder dogs and sells puppies approximately once per month at an average price of $250 per 8-week-old dog. With such a high value, it's little wonder some breeders try to cut corners.

The enforcement wing of Missouri's Department of Agriculture has been criticized lately by animal groups for not being up to the job of policing the breeding industry. Missouri employs 12 state inspectors who work with federal inspectors to monitor the safety and cleanliness of licensed facilities. Federal inspectors make a surprise inspection of a facility on a yearly basis, and state inspectors are expected to do the same. If inspectors find violations, they continue to come back until changes are made. However, Missouri Department of Agriculture records indicate that many facilities are not inspected yearly. Some licensed breeders in Southeast Missouri show gaps of two and three years between inspections.

Dr. Jerry Eber, the department's head of inspections, said the state is still doing more than others in the region. "If you go to Arkansas, there is no program, period. You'll find the same thing in Illinois and Tennessee," he said. "They just rely on the USDA to do all the inspections, but the USDA does not cover all of the licensees that we do."

He said the USDA only covers wholesale transactions, exempting retail sales.

Eber said retail transactions can include kennel services, pet shops and backyard breeders. He said his office, which has an annual budget of $750,000, does its best to make sure Missouri is not the site of large-scale violations.

He said Memphis is home to a big unregulated flea market where dogs are sold, and a place in Canton, Texas, sells 700 dogs one weekend each month.

"If you're a pet store in New York and you're looking to get an unregulated dog, there are a lot of places you'd go before you come to Missouri," he said.

Eber concedes, however, that large swathes of the state, including the Ozarks, are too isolated to adequately police.

But even the legitimate puppy business is growing the state. U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt has repeatedly secured federal loans to ensure the Hunte Corp., the largest puppy retailer-wholesaler in the nation, keeps its headquarters in Missouri. Hunte now operates a 30,000-square-foot building in Goodman and will soon open a 100,000-square-foot facility.

Some dog lovers say they see the results of Missouri's dog glut here in Southeast Missouri.

"We do get a lot of purebred dogs just because there are so many breeders in our area," said Requi Salter, who is on the board of directors at the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri.

"We have purebred dogs here almost every day of the year," said Salter, who added that purebred puppies don't cost any more than others at the Humane Society.

Dr. John Koch of the Cape Girardeau Small Animal Clinic does the yearly inspection of the Sanderses' kennel. He said things in the state have greatly improved since he started practicing 35 years ago.

"It is a business. You've got to understand that, so these people keep these dogs and raise these dogs a little different than you would a family pet," he said.

Years ago before the state's inspection program was established he visited farms to check their livestock. He said he sometimes ran into puppy mills, saw "dogs just stacked in cages, dead dogs just left to rot, where there was no longer any flesh on their bones. … We don't see nearly as many puppy-mill puppies come into the office today."

335-6611, extension 245

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