Montgomery County residents rehabilitate puppy mill dogs -- Gazette.Net


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When animal control found Lily, the Shih Tzu lay in pain with one eye hanging out of its socket.

She’s lost most of her hearing due to an ear infection, and her tongue sticks out, possibly due to a broken jaw or neurological damage.

Lily likely spent her formative years in a puppy mill, breeding dogs for pet stores and other commercial markets, said owner Vivien Straume of Rockville.

Dogs like Lily come with special challenges. Often fearful, they are strangers to human touch. But with patience, their owners say rehabilitation is possible.

“You can’t give them enough love, and they give it right back,” said Andrew Nibley, a 1969 Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduate.

The Manhattan resident directed the HBO documentary “Madonna of the Mills.” Nibley spent a year and a half following Laura Flynn-Amato, a Staten Island resident who rescued more than 2,000 dogs from puppy mills in Pennsylvania. He was inspired to make the movie after adopting Maisy, a cocker spaniel rescued by Flynn-Amato.

Maisy spent the first five or six years of her life in darkness, in a cage the size of a dishwasher. She cannot bark, thanks to a practice known as debarking — after a pipe was inserted into her throat, her voice box was crushed with a hammer.

“The puppies are lucky,” Nibley said. “They are the ones who get out of the mill.”

Puppy mills are large-scale commercial breeding operations where profit trumps humane treatment, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a New York City-based nonprofit. Breeding dogs may spend their entire lives outside, exposed to the elements, or crammed inside filthy cages. Females often have no recovery time between litters, and are disposed of when they can no longer reproduce.

The fortunate are rescued by organizations like the ASPCA, and may be available for adoption.

Rudy was rescued Aug. 24, 2008, from a puppy mill in Parkersburg, W.Va. The breeding facility was home to 1,000 dogs who lived their entire lives in darkness, according to the Humane Society of Parkersburg.

Today, Rudy lives in Cabin John with owner Donna Zeigfinger. When he was adopted, the miniature dachshund was thin and lacked the muscle mass necessary for simple tasks such as jumping onto the couch.

The psychological damage was worse, leaving him incapable of being touched by humans. He cannot be locked in a crate or in the backyard.

“He would just sit there and shake,” Zeigfinger said. “He didn’t know how to walk on a leash, and he’s not comfortable being in a car, even to this day.”

After adopting Rudy, Zeigfinger formed a support group in July 2009 for the owners of puppy mill rescue dogs. It is a place where they can talk about their dogs, receive support and share advice.

The Puppy Mill Rescue Dogs Support Group is registered at www.meetup.com, a site that helps groups coordinate activities. They talk via telephone once per month and have approximately 50 active members, mostly on the East Coast.

Among their volunteers is dog trainer Jeni Grant. The Barnesville resident offers fearful dog classes at Your Dog’s Friend, a nonprofit in Rockville, and gives advice during the support group’s conference calls. She said dogs recently rescued from puppy mills often are terrified of everything: people, concrete, grass.

“It’s a lack of familiarity with the normal world,” Grant said. “It’s all very foreign to them.”

When Straume saw Lily’s picture, she fell in love. After more than a year, Lily still does not like grass and prefers to stay on concrete during her walk. But the resilient little dog has made strides, putting on weight and gaining trust in Straume and her boyfriend.

“I would love her to be able to enjoy everything that life offers her,” she said. “I would like her to be able to enjoy being outside. Thank God she is getting there.”

Brandy was rescued Aug. 21, 2009, from a breeding operation near Staunton, Va. The Boston terrier was pregnant and dehydrated, with a growth that left her unable to close one eye. She has scars all over her body, possibly from rats or fights for food with other dogs, said Kathleen Summers of Germantown, director of outreach and research for the Humane Society of the United States’ Puppy Mills Campaign.

Although she startles easily, Summers said Brandy has recovered well. Having other dogs around has helped, giving her positive role models to mimic.

“I don’t want to scare anyone off of adopting a puppy mill dog for fear of crippling psychological issues,” she said.

Owners agreed that puppy mill rescues are different: quieter, more passive than other dogs. Rudy might not be enjoy a ride in the car, but Zeigfinger said it was amazing to watch him come out of his shell.

Virtually all dogs sold in pet stores were raised in puppy mills, Summers said. Federal protections ensure little more than adequate food and water, and the problem is one that crosses species’ lines.

“There are hamster mills, and rabbit mills, and ferret mills,” Summers said. “Oh my gosh, there are some very bad bird mills as well.”

jablamsky@gazette.net