Tortured ‘puppy farm’ dogs saved from life of misery
FROM atop her plush ottoman made even cosier by a faux leopard rug, she surveys her domain. There's the kitchen, where her chicken breast is prepared, and outside, the swimming pool, where she is learning to dog paddle. The yard is her favourite, a wide expanse for frolicking that will have more grass as soon as her new people can rustle the cash.
"The lawn money went on her fencing," says Lea Smith, breezily dismissing any concern that the finishing touches on her dream home have been stalled by a pint-sized Boston terrier called Gracie. "The RSPCA said we needed fences, so that was the priority. Whatever it took to get Gracie."
Gracie looks up from her fluffy rug, then lies back and stretches those long legs in pure contentment.
Rewind five months and those legs can barely walk. There's video footage of the feeble dog teetering about her dusty enclosure in the Lockyer Valley, ribs jutting from her skin. In the next frame, she's on the ground, one dull eye watching the people around her in listless resignation. She's spent; you can almost see the life seeping out of her.
Minutes later, Gracie is rushed to RSPCA headquarters in Wacol, near Ipswich, her condition critical. Heartworm is killing her, her blood count is dangerously low. As soon as she arrives, the medical team gets to work, organising apparatuses to pump blood into her 15-month-old body.
Puppies from farms such as these can fetch thousands of dollars. The pups have a chance. Most of them leave these grim, grey places after a couple of months and, with luck, find a good life in a loving home. But their mothers stay. To breed again. Caged in conditions ranging from basic to appalling, rarely exercised, poorly socialised - for the sole purpose of being impregnated, giving birth, surrendering their pups, then doing it again. And again. This, says the RSPCA, is the scourge of puppy farms that those who blithely buy cute pups are encouraging.
The buyers cooing over a puppy will never see bitches such as Lexi, the timid golden retriever who I first notice sitting on scales in the RSPCA on the day of the raid. She's heavily pregnant and quivering with fear. Across the room on an examination bench is Merley who keeps straining her tiny dachshund neck to see what the vets are doing with Pippa, her five-week-old pup who is having difficulty walking. Or Cleo, the groodle who steals my heart, big and goofy-looking but so forlorn and overwhelmed. Or the remarkable Anna; shaggy, loveable Anna, who helps calm Cleo in the days that follow.
And, of course, Gracie. When I first see her, she's lying on a table in a separate treatment room, a green towel over her, life-giving blood going into her veins. The next day, in the intensive care ward, RSPCA staff are thrilled to report she's made it through the night.
Now here she is, on acreage in Morayfield, north of Brisbane, with an ottoman to herself, a cupboard full of treats and besotted new owners.
"She's adorable, she's changed our life," says Smith. Smith and her husband, Sean, both 51, have owned three Bostons before and were compelled to offer Gracie a home when they saw the photographs of her at the puppy farm. "We were horrified. You could see she'd never been properly looked after."
Gracie pops down off her ottoman, potters through the house and returns, bright-eyed, with a goat horn to gnaw on. She's being looked after now.
It's 6am and 22 people are standing outside a coffee shop at Marburg, about 60km west of Brisbane, being briefed about today's job. There are RSPCA inspectors and animal behaviourists, police officers and council workers, all sharing information about the four properties on the same road that are about to get a visit.
Operation Rolling Thunder has been in the planning stages for months as information about the alleged puppy farms was gathered and cross-checked. A police officer tells the group that some properties have licensed guns. They should be secured and he doesn't believe there will be any aggression but, he says, keep an eye out.
With that, everyone piles into their vehicles and a convoy heads west to the quiet country road. The cars hive off down long driveways to the properties. The team is there for hours, talking with the owners and checking the condition of the dogs. Then the call goes out; bring in the dog trailers.
Just before 3pm, the first of the trailers arrives at the RSPCA to ferry the animals to a new life. It's a well-oiled machine; one by one, dog handlers approach the trailer, softly talking to the dogs. One of them, Anna, needs no encouragement. The black poodle-retriever cross jumps out of her door, wagging her tail, happily heading off on a lead. But she's an exception.
Most of the dogs are confused, fearful. Tracey, a golden retriever, is so traumatised, she's cringing in the corner of the cage. "Come on girl, that's the girl, you're OK," says a handler, slowly coaxing the trembling dog into a position to lift her up. Tracey looks about her with startled eyes, then sinks her head into the handler's neck.
Dogs with pups, injuries (some have broken bones) or skin conditions go straight to the RSPCA surgery, which will spend more than $100,000 on veterinary treatment for these dogs. Inspector Laura Finigan comes in, emphasising the need for each animal's condition to be documented. "Do they stink, urine staining, matting? Note it down," she says. Each is allotted a number, known as a black tag. Photographs are taken. Those without names are given one by staff. The dachshund with the dappled merle coat is named Merley.
Chief vet Anne Chester is checking out Merley's pup, Pippa. Every time Chester raises Pippa to stand, she sinks down, her legs splayed. Pippa needs physiotherapy and Nanda Ten-grotenhuis is willing to provide it. Ten-grotenhuis is the shelter's animal care manager and the owner of a dachshund, 10-year-old Robbo. Within a few days, mother and pup are living with Ten-grotenhuis and her family.
The pup does well. Ten-grotenhuis exercises her on a range of different surfaces and her muscles start to develop. After a few weeks, Pippa is weaned and adopted out.
Merley, renamed Molly, is more problematic. The two-year-old is hyper-alert and nervy and despite medication, has periods of high anxiety - particularly around men. "She'd alarm bark, wide pupils, when she saw my husband," says Ten-grotenhuis. For Molly's sake, she is moved to the all-female household of another RSPCA staffer who provides further rehabilitation. The search begins for a place for Molly to relax.
In mid-January, Gail Carr, 69, answers the call and here's Molly, sitting beside her at her new home in Rothwell on the Redcliffe peninsula. "She's settling in," says Carr, "but it's going to take a while. She was here for three days before her tail came out from between her legs. I think she looks happier in her eyes now."
Those big brown eyes look up at Carr, then dart towards me, warily. She's still on anti-anxiety medication and all sorts of things make her jumpy, says Carr. The broom, the phone, the laundry trolley. But Carr is working on desensitising her. Every now and then, as she's pottering about in the kitchen, Carr throws her arms out to the side, or makes noises, to get Molly used to activity. "If anyone had a camera on me, they'd put me away," she jokes.
Her secret weapon is Cozza, her daughter's dachshund whom Carr looks after when the family is at work. "They do laps out in the yard and go round and round and round, then come inside and go round and round. She doesn't know how to play with toys but Cozza's showing her."
He might even help her overcome her fear of men. Carr's son-in-law often comes to collect Cozza, a reunion filled with love and cuddles. Molly is still frightened, still barks, still keeps her distance, but Carr reckons she's watching the interaction. "I just keep saying to Cozza, 'Tell her it's all right, tell her it's all right'."
One day, a man arriving at the door will not cause Molly fear. Carr looks forward to that day but with some reluctance - it may mean it's time for a well-adjusted Molly to move on to a permanent home. Carr is a volunteer with Devoted 2 Dachshunds Rescue, given the task of rehabilitating Molly in readiness for adoption. But there is the option of keeping her. "We'll see what happens," says Carr, as she plays with Molly's floppy ears. And Molly rests a little paw on her lap.
A week after the dogs arrive at the RSPCA, Ten-grotenhuis has some exciting new. "Lexi had her pups overnight," she says, leading the way to the RSPCA's kennels. Lexi is eating as we approach the gate but as soon as she sees us, she hurries back to nestle beside her four creamy-gold pups. Another 15 puppies will be born at the RSPCA to dogs seized in the raid.
These four will be known by the fingernail polish colours daubed on them: Pink, Yellow, Blue and Green. Within weeks, the whole family is being cared for at the Tingalpa home of RSPCA worker Nicky Bittenbinder, 35, and her partner, Scott Webb, 39, who were absolutely, 100 per cent, not going to take in puppies.
Until Bittenbinder met Lexi. "I asked the team who was the most urgent to get out. They introduced me to Lexi. She was so fearful. So, yep, rethought the 'no puppy' thing."
A few weeks of puppy-wrangling followed. "I've never seen 4am so many times in my life," says Bittenbinder. The pups are now four-months-old, healthy - "solid puppies, only about 2kg smaller than Mum" - and have been rehomed. Bittenbinder rattles off their new names and families. "Not that I kept a close eye on them at all."
Lexi is staying put. That wasn't meant to happen; the plan was to foster the two-year-old and then send her on for adoption, just like she and Webb have done with a number of other dogs for the past eight years. But when Lexi, along with most of the other dogs, was officially surrendered in early January, the couple couldn't part with her.
"We'd both been adamant we weren't going to adopt," says Bittenbinder. "But then we knew we were not letting her go." Says Webb: "Sometimes you just know they're for you."
Lexi is lying outside in the courtyard, nearby but not too close. She rarely comes inside. She's still fearful and on calming medication. Noises or sudden movements freak her out. She's had a few stomach upsets, which Bittenbinder thinks might be an ongoing issue. She keeps her distance from strangers and is scared around men but Webb is winning her over with belly rubs. "She loves scratches behind the ears as well," says Webb.
Getting a harness on her to go for walks was a big hurdle. "She'd just shut down," says Bittenbinder. "I think it's because she thinks she's going somewhere to make puppies."
But with the help of other family members' dogs, especially her best friend Peach, a nine-month-old Border collie, the harness has become associated with walks. "As soon as the gate's open she's always so excited to go for a walk," says Bittenbinder.
"We let her choose which direction she goes each day," she says. "She still gets a fright so if we try to take her down a new path, she tucks under and panics. Or if we cross paths with a person, she's not happy about that."
They know it will take time before Lexi relaxes but every day is bringing the "sweet, sweet girl" back to health. Her alarm barking has eased, she's learning to play and her attachment to her new owners is growing. "At night, she won't come inside but she drags her toys or bones right outside our bedroom door [next to the courtyard] and curls up there," says Bittenbinder. "She wants to be with us, she's just doing it in her own way."
Puppy farms are businesses. Keeping dogs well enough to breed is a core business requirement. That's why it's rare to find severely malnourished dogs at these farms, some of which pocket hundreds of thousands of undeclared dollars a year, says the RSPCA's chief inspector, Daniel Young. "Feeding and watering are the easy things to do. There are other ways a dog can be neglected without being starved."
Like Cleo, the golden groodle. It hurt to watch her that first day, submissive, limp, as vets gently tended to her. Her thick coat was tangled, her ears dirty. There was an infected dog bite all the way around her front right leg. The vets patch her up, physically.
The next day, volunteer groomer Sue Graham arrives to rid her of her grubby coat. The staff have a meeting and decide she needs to be sedated; she's too traumatised to be groomed awake.
"When they're kept in dirt and faeces and urine, the hair just glues itself to the skin," says Graham as she begins her work. "But it's amazing to see what a new hairdo can do. You take broken, bent little dogs and clip them and bath them and watch the changes. They just run around, whereas when they started, they couldn't even walk."
A week later, the improvement in Cleo is obvious. She's lively, excited even, as we arrive for a photo shoot but it's not just a wash and cut that's helped the transformation. It's Anna, the powerhouse of fluff that bounded out of the trailer on the first day. Kirsty Nalvarte, an animal rehabilitation trainer who has been working with Cleo, suggested if we wanted Cleo at her best, Anna should come too.
"She's been such a good therapy dog, helping us cheer up some of the other dogs who are quite worried," says Nalvarte. They run about on the RSPCA lawn, Cleo looking to Anna for cues. If Anna's OK, she's OK.
Anna is so OK, she's released for adoption within weeks of the raid. Nowadays, you'll find her reclining on the lounge with a squeaky toy, or burying her Schmacko underneath a Minnie Mouse kiddies' chair at Tina Edwards' home in Boronia Heights, in Logan. And she's not Anna anymore, she's Scout, named after Scout Finch, the unusually bright, confident and good girl of Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Scout's at the door to greet me when I arrive at Edwards' home. She greets everyone, of course. "She's so friendly, she wins everyone over," says Edwards. "She's still working on Atticus, though." That's the cat.
But Edwards, 46, and her children - Rae-Lee, Marlee and Joshua Hatfield, 20, 9 and 4 - are smitten. They bought her a bed, but she tends to sleep on Rae-Lee's. "And takes up most of it," says Rae-Lee happily.
She loves her walks, unfazed by the barking dogs behind a neighbour's fence. "She just looks, then struts off." She's gentle with the younger kids. "She knows they're little, she's very smart," says Edwards. "Chilled. Doesn't stress easily. She's the perfect fit."
Edwards was told by the RSPCA that Scout was two-years-old and had had a few litters. "I can't believe people make a living out of that," says Edwards. "It's horrible."
Asked about her hopes for Scout, Edwards has a deceptively simple reply. "That she's happy."
Scout comes over, and sits at my feet. Then she jumps on my lap and snuggles in for a hug. I leave smiling.
But there's one more dog from that liberating day in September to check in on. Cleo.
She's in Wells Crossing now, a hinterland town between Grafton and Coffs Harbour in NSW, on acreage, with four other rescue dogs as company, plus two kelpies. Her carer, Kate Joseph, tells me over the phone that Cleo is fit and healthy, but socially, she's still a work in progress. Fear is her enemy, says Joseph. "The fear is always about people."
Joseph, 44, used to work at RSPCA Queensland in behavioural therapy and set up Rehabilitating Every Animal Lovingly [REAL] Rescue after moving interstate. She takes in dogs that are badly damaged and teaches them to trust humans again, with the aim of rehoming them. She establishes routines and safe zones but slowly introduces them to new experiences to build resilience. "They take turns with us [Joseph's husband and daughter] inside the home, just doing normal household things like washing up, making dinner. The sort of things these dogs haven't experienced. It's all part of their social learning."
Joseph says genetics play a role in how fearful dogs are after time as breeders on puppy farms. Cleo, who is close to two now, is "super sweet, very quiet", but needs anxiety medication. "Some dogs with the same experience and the same life that she had do much better. Some may never rehabilitate."
Cleo has grown close to Joseph but there are still times when she will not allow contact. "The option to touch her is absolutely no. Cleo says no," says Joseph. She's never aggressive, says Joseph, just retreats. But that morning, she'd come forward and put her paws up to get a treat, a sliver of cheese. "She's never done that before," says Joseph. "She makes small steps every day."
Joseph sends me a photo. There's Cleo, standing in a green, green field, her mouth open, eyes steady, coat clean and combed. But her paws are grubby. From running around with other dogs. Free.
SOLD A PUP: FACTS
● Puppy farms exist because of our desire for designer dogs.
● Even breeders who belong to dog clubs can keep their animals in crowded, poor conditions.
● Puppies are bred interstate and sold through brokers in other states to avoid detection.
● Organised crime is involved in some puppy farms.
● Investigating puppy farm neglect and abuse is about 80 per cent of the workload of the RSPCA's statewide Inspectorate Taskforce. Other investigations involve dog and cock fighting.
● When buying a puppy, ask to visit the place they are reared and to see the mother. If excuses are made, do deeper research into the breeder or find another breeder.
● Since 2017, anyone selling a dog or puppy (even the litter of a family pet) must apply for a breeder identification number (BIN) which must be used in any advertising to sell or give away an animal. There is no charge to get a BIN, which can be done online.
● Councils have prosecuted people who do not advertise with a BIN but disreputable breeders are finding loopholes, such as using other breeders' BINs to sell from a different location or supplying incorrect information.
● The RSPCA supports the BIN but is now lobbying for stronger legislation "ideally the ability to vet people getting the BINs".
From Daniel Young, RSPCA Queensland chief inspector