By Joan Baum
It may come as a shock to learn that The Amish, known for their simple, God-fearing ways, have been since the 1970s at the forefront of the puppy mill business in this country, and that the ASPCA has identified Lancaster County, Penn., home to many Pennsylvania Dutch, as the “puppy mill capital of the East,” with “the highest concentration of puppy mills of any county in the nation” (Missouri has the dubious distinction of being the largest puppy mill state). Among those focusing on this horrific statistic, count Laura Amato, the crusading subject of a shattering, eye-opening documentary to be shown at Bay Street Theatre on September 10 to benefit the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation (SASF) and to raise awareness about this still relatively unknown and cruel commercial enterprise. Reportedly, 99 percent of puppies sold annually in pet stores come from puppy mills, and an overwhelming number, whether purchased at brick and mortar shops or online, have parasites, infections or unrevealed illnesses.
The film, “Madonna of the Mills,” follows New Yorker Amato, a dog lover and indefatigable advocate of humane breeding and pet store full disclosure, as she and others recount the travails and effects of rescues. Estimates are that the number of dogs she has saved and helped rehabilitate in the few years she has been at her mission, is well over 2,000 — mostly breeder mothers, worked almost to death. Although ARF (Animal Rescue Fund) takes in unwanted animals, SASF is committed to give shelter to every dog that comes its way, without selection.
Despite the efforts of the Humane Society of the United States’ Stop Puppy Mills Campaign, too few people know that so-called baby-maker dogs are not untypically kept outdoors or crowded into stacks of wire cages, given little or no clean water, food, exercise, toys, treats or attention, as campaign manager Kathleen Summers says in the film. Bred twice a year, females are usually burned out by age 5 and killed. Moreover, their unchecked progeny tend to inherit defects, including serious eye, blood, heart, respiratory, renal and musculoskeletal disorders. Indeed, it was Laura Amato’s purchase at a mall of a golden Lab with undisclosed epilepsy that spurred her activism. So cute – some puppies as young as eight weeks (some say younger) — who would think beyond the sweet face? Who could imagine incomplete or falsified records, virtual scams?
Amato is determined to persuade puppy mill participants to cease and desist. Not easy. The puppy mill business is relatively good, especially for those whose way of life is in decline, as was the case for many Midwestern farmers at the end of World War II. Raising puppies as a cash crop proved easier than trying to deal with widespread agricultural failure and expensive livestock care. All the farmers had to do was convert chicken coops and rabbit hatches to breeding cages. With the growth of suburbs and malls, pet stores grew.
For sure, education is one way, legislation another, to combat the problem. Outreach Coordinator Cathy Duemler notes that SASF “gives back to the community” by way of programs for Sag Harbor students who are disabled and autistic; the foundation also works with Fresh Air kids in the summer. Though he has been at the helm for only two months, SASF Executive Director Ed Fritz is determined to take in and get proper health care for discarded and unwanted puppy mill dogs, a problem exacerbated by the offering of puppies online. Formerly in the town’s budget, SASF was privatized 18 months ago, and it is Fritz’s hope to have the community see SASF as an institution of “value” and “main resource” in the drive to improve adoption processes.
As for legislation, the withdrawal this past July of a proposed bill by Suffolk County Legislator Jon Cooper due to administrative conflict (state vs. local jurisdiction) which would have banned the retail sale of puppies by pet stores in Suffolk County unless the puppies were from shelters, rescue organizations or local breeders, would appear to weaken efforts at reform, but Cooper is already at work on a rating system for pet stores (albeit voluntary).
The approximate one-hour “Madonna of the Mills” will be shown at Bay Street on Saturday, September 10 at 8:00 p.m., preceded by a fundraising cocktail hour and silent auction. The event is part of Harbor Fest weekend to which SASF will bring a number of adoptable dogs. Prior to the film, the Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery will hold a Special Animal Art Exhibition to benefit SASF, with complimentary wine and cheese, featuring “creatures” painted by a dozen or so artists (90 Main Street, 725-1161). Following the film, Bay Street will host a panel discussion with, among others, Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Legislator Jon Cooper. For ticket info, call 631-7387.