11 September, 2011

Where did your puppy come from?

sunday pup
Debra Tranter and Oscar, who inspired her campaign to put an end to puppy farming. Picture: Supplied. Source: Supplied
IF youre not sure, theres a good chance it started life in a puppy factory where profit comes before welfare.
For six years, Oscar has lived as a stud dog. His entire universe has been a tiny, filthy cage. No walks in the park, no sunlight, he’s never even seen the sky. All he knows is being locked inside a giant shed with hundreds of other dogs on a remote property in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. His life is an endless cycle of breeding and pain. Prized for his miniature size, Oscar’s pups, which he’s never seen, are marketed as ‘teacups’ and sold for a premium. Until one night a woman appears, opens his cage, gives him his first cuddle and takes him away.
Pet-shop puppies are the very definition of cute. But what if you knew the vast majority of them started life in a puppy factory, where conditions are so horrendous, it beggars belief?
Puppy factories and backyard breeders are commercial breeding facilities. They can house up to 1000 dogs, producing masses of puppies sold for around $1000 each over the internet, through classified ads and in pet shops.
For almost two decades, Debra Tranter has dedicated her life to exposing the mistreatment taking place in secluded sheds across the country. She sacrificed her $90K job, suffered burglaries and assaults, and even has an ‘If Mum gets arrested or goes to jail’ plan for her kids, now in their 20s. But early last year, Tranter and her campaign fell apart when Oscar, a dog she’d rescued, was returned to his puppy farmer.
“When we found Oscar, he was in a really bad way,” says Tranter. “His fur was so thick; it was like a concrete block attached to his body. His genitals were actually matted to his leg. He had an ear infection, which I could smell straightaway, and his ear canals were full of black sludge, fur and ear mites.”
Tranter rescued Oscar and took him directly to the vet. The vet said the dog’s teeth were so infected, he couldn’t eat, which explained his 2.2kg weight. Malnourished, Oscar’s skin was as delicate as tissue paper and the matted fur caused tearing when he moved. He had to be given a general anaesthetic so he could be shaved, which exposed a number of wounds and abscesses and left him a meagre 1.6kg. While under anaesthetic, Oscar was de-sexed in anticipation that he’d go on to a ‘forever home’ with a new owner.
That night, Tranter took Oscar to her home in Ferntree Gully, 40 minutes east of Melbourne, intending to find a foster carer for him the following day. Shortly after midnight, 10 police officers raided her house.
“The whole place lit up. They shone spotlights through the windows and officers banged on my door. When they said they had a search warrant, I knew they’d come for Oscar. I said, ‘Please don’t take him, he’s had surgery today.’ But they took him from my arms and put me in a divvy van. I was in
the lock-up for two hours and could hear Oscar crying somewhere in the station.”
Tranter was charged with theft and Oscar was returned to the puppy factory.
“After the raid, I was a mess,” she says. “It was probably the lowest point in my life. All these years, I’d been fighting for these dogs, and I felt I’d completely failed. I’d rescued Oscar from that shed and given him hope. Now he was back there. It was the worst thing that could have happened. I drove to the country, sat under a tree and cried.”
Oscar earned Tranter her first criminal conviction in 18 years spent rescuing dogs and documenting puppy factories, a journey that began with a phone call when she was  volunteering at an animal welfare agency.
“A voice said, ‘There’s a puppy factory with 1000 dogs near Ballarat. Look for a clearing in a pine plantation.’ Then they hung up,” she recalls. “Everyone kept saying, ‘Only chickens and pigs are factory-farmed, we don’t do that to dogs. It’s a hoax, forget it.’” But the voice haunted Tranter.
Armed with old fire brigade maps, she and a friend began scouring the region. Unsure of what they’d uncover, after three months, deep in a remote forest, they found it.
Tranter describes it as a cross between a pig farm and a concentration camp. An “industrial landscape” with rows of wire pens and hundreds of dogs pacing incessantly in never-ending figure eights. There were triangular metal kennels across the length of the compound, surrounded by a low fence. Left speechless by the scale of it, they waited for nightfall before going in to document their discovery.
“As soon as we entered the property, there was an eruption of sound, the dogs went nuts. At first it was excited barking, but after a while they calmed down and started howling,” Tranter recalls. “The smell was terrible. It was full of parvovirus [a contagious disease that causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea].” On later visits, she found many dogs also suffered from “a kind of flesh eating disease.
“When you look in the cages, it’s as though they’re screaming at you, not just with their bark, but with their eyes,” she says. “But it’s the ones who don’t bark – they’re the ones you know have been there for years. They don’t even move. Their spirits are broken.”
Tranter says the worst thing she’s seen is maternal cannibalism. “It’s when a mother gives birth to puppies and, as soon as they’re born, she starts eating them. She’ll chew off their limbs. The first time I saw it, I didn’t understand what was happening and I stood there and filmed it. When I saw it at home,
I was so ashamed and disgusted with myself that I destroyed the tape. I said to my friend, ‘Don’t ever tell anyone we filmed that and did nothing.’ But now, I know it’s so common, the industry has a term for it. On the documents that are leaked to me, I always read, ‘Mother killed puppies.’”
Serious health issues related to prolific births is another problem arising out of puppy farming, says Tranter. “I’ve seen dogs dragging ulcerated and weeping mammary tumours on the ground. A prolapsed uterus is when the mother, nearing the end of her breeding life, has had so many litters, the uterus comes out of her body.
“Unspeakable cruelty goes on in these sheds, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it.”
Tranter has since investigated around 70 puppy factories and backyard breeders in Victoria and NSW.
While mandatory legislation requires all dogs to have shelter and regular access to food, water, exercise and veterinary care, the problem is enforcement, which rests with local councils and state governments.
“Many puppy factories are in rural areas. Often, the council ranger and the puppy farmer are mates; they drink at the same pub, their kids go to the same school. Not one puppy factory I’ve been to operate in accordance with the legislation, but there’s no one out there enforcing it,” Tranter says, also acknowledging that her own activities are illegal. “The illegality of what I do pales into insignificance compared to what these dogs are going through. I believe the public has a right to know and the dogs need people to know. If someone calls me a criminal for jumping a fence with a camera, so be it.”
But after Oscar was taken away, Tranter questioned her resolve. “Sitting under that tree, I believed I’d failed. Then I thought, I wish there was some law I could use to get him back. If only I had Oscar’s Law. And that’s how I had the idea for the campaign.”
Tranter had been running Prisoners for Profit, an anti-puppy factory campaign that “bombarded people with horrific images”, which she now believes were too confronting.
“With Oscar’s Law, I feel I need to reach ordinary people with dogs, not necessarily dog people. I want it to be positive and empowering,” she says.
“Oscar’s Law aims to abolish puppy factory-farming and the selling of dogs in pet shops, but it’s not about showing negative images all the time and making it seem hopeless,” she explains. Tranter believes success will come from enabling consumers to make informed choices, so people know that
if they buy from a pet shop, their money will keep dogs in those sheds.
Oscar’s Law has received overwhelming support from the animal rescue community, as well as Kindness Trust (who fund its offices) and public figures including Derryn Hinch. The website has had half-a-million visits, but social media is where you see how the campaign is gaining traction, with endorsements from Sia, Jon Stevens, and The Scarlets.
A rally, held six weeks after the campaign launched, attracted 5000 protesters to the steps of Melbourne’s Parliament House. Tranter hoped for 50. “It was amazing. It made me realise people really care. It won’t be me that gets Oscar’s Law over the line, it will be everyone.”
And what of Oscar, the dog who inspired a movement? In July, Tranter visited the puppy factory again, this time in disguise.
“We responded to an ad in the Trading Post that said there were adult dogs for sale,” says Tranter. “I asked if we could look inside the sheds and the man said, ‘If you can stand the noise and smell, I’ll let you have a peek.’ I made a beeline for Oscar’s cage. He was at the very back, shaking and terrified.
“The man said, ‘That one was taken by some people and de-sexed; he’s no good. You can have him for $400.’ To think he sat in that rotten cage for 18 months and they thought he was no good.
“Now we have him back, it’s unbelievable,” Tranter says. “It’s a sign that you can never give up. This little dog doesn’t just belong to me, he belongs to everyone. He’s already inspired so many people. It’s wonderful that we have Oscar. Now we need Oscar’s Law.”

Join the rally for Oscar’s Law next Sunday, September 18, at Sydney’s Belmore Park, from midday. Visit www.oscarslaw.org.

Puppy Farming VS. Responsible Breeding
There’s a difference between responsible breeders and puppy factories
Legislation such as the Domestic Animals Act 1994 (Vic) rules that any person who runs a dog breeding business for profit must register with the local council. Enterprises must operate in accord with the state government’s Code of Practice, which outlines minimum standards of care.
 The RSPCA considers puppy farming to be a significant national welfare issue. In its view, a ‘puppy factory’ is defined as an intensive breeding facility operated under inadequate conditions that fail to meet the dogs’ behavioural, social and/or physiological needs. The organisation advocates regulation of the breeding, supply and sale of dogs to help set minimum standards and stamp out the mass-production of puppies for profit.
Choose one from a shelter or an adoption agency, or visit the breeder’s premises before you commit. For more information, see the Smart Puppy Buyer’s Guide on the RSPCA website (www.rspca.org.au).

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