From Elkhounds to Ayrshires, We’re All In This Together
One of the interesting things I’ve observed in covering the animal rights movement over the past few years is the broad coalitions developed to beat back the radical anti-animal agenda espoused by the likes of the Humane Society of the United States, PETA, and their counterpart organizations. At first, many in agriculture presumed they were fighting a merely radical anti-meat, milk and egg lobby, but in time have found friends and allies in many divergent quarters of the animal-loving community.
Case in point: respected dog breeder Amy Peterson. I first heard of Amy through my fiancee, Miranda. Amy is an AKC Breeder of Merit who raises Norwegian Elkhounds, an amazing breed of dogs that Miranda has fancied for many years. We’re keeping an eye on Amy’s kennel for future litters in hopes of adding a second Elkhound to our household.
It was only after Amy and I connected on Facebook, however, that I realized she is a strong advocate for animal welfare over animal rights, and for sharing the truth behind the agenda of the powerful animal rights lobby. It was then that I also truly began to understand the shared values that we embrace as animal lovers, regardless if our animals are draft horses or Dachshunds, Brown Swiss or Beagles.
Amy writes a great blog that shares her passion for fighting the animal rights agenda from the paradigm of a dog breeder and trainer. Her latest post discusses the increasingly cumbersome fees levied on kennel owners and dog breeders in many parts of the country – fees supported by the “responsible breeders” on HSUS’ new “Breeders Advisory and Resource Council.”
I had heard about HSUS’ new endeavor last week when Amy encouraged fellow Elkhound enthusiasts on Facebook to write the AKC and encourage them to disassociate themselves from this perversive new animal rights tactic. In ostensibly seeking to “help consumers shop wisely for a puppy by recognizing the difference between responsible breeders and puppy mills,” HSUS unwittingly got me thinking about another big issue… What exactly constitutes a “responsible” breeder?
To that end, I again have Amy to thank for pointing me to this post on the subject from Allison Smith, a long-time breeder of Australian Shepherds. These two paragraphs from Smith’s post may just say it all:
We hear this phrase “responsible breeder” bandied about a lot. We are admonished to be “responsible”. Potential puppy buyers are advised to work only with “responsible” breeders. ”Irresponsible” breeders are fodder for the animal rights extremists, the media and legislative initiatives. “Irresponsible “breeders are indicted in news headlines screaming “70 Starving Puppies found in Filth”. Websites abound extolling the virtues of buying from breeders who adhere to Codes of Ethics, raise only healthy dogs, breed very few litters of very few breeds, guarantee their dogs and never, ever turn away from one of their dogs in need. Responsible breeder checklists direct puppy buyers to seek out hobby/show breeders and spell out in considerable detail what to look for in such a breeder.
Locating and connecting with those breeders can be a confusing process for pet buyers because much of the “good” breeder’s ethical code is not pet-centric. Much of the current climate on dog breeding vilifies show dog breeders and although some may, no doubt, deserve it, most are, as they say, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Animal rights/welfare doctrine pressures breeders to be “good” ( if at all!) and a “good” breeder assiduously rejects identification as a pet breeder ( after all, isn’t that what puppy mills do?).
My own experience in buying dogs over the years lends some credence in my mind to what Smith had to say on the subject. I’ve bought two AKC-registered Labrador Retrievers over the years, and the two experiences were very different. In the first case, I wanted to surprise Mom with a Yellow Lab for Christmas, so Dad, Little Brother and I tracked down a breeder of note in our area, visited her kennel, and selected a pup that fit our wants, needs and budget.
This breeder (at least as I recall some 15 years later) was the picture of what I would think of as “responsible.” She was breeding what I would think of in cattle terms as “seedstock.” She was very concerned with the pedigrees of her dogs, wanting to continue improving the genetics of her animals by breeding out faults and weaknesses. This is exactly what good purebred livestock breeders do, regardless of species. This breeder had a very nice facility that was clean, well-maintained, and provided a happy, healthy environment for her dogs. She was no puppy mill, but was definitely heavily involved in the hobby or business of breeding quality Labs.
My second Lab, a decade later, came from a much different experience, and one with which I suspect many of us can identify. One day, while driving home from the office, I saw a neighbor had put up a sign for “AKC Registered Lab Puppies.” I had been craving a dog for quite some time, and thought this was the perfect opportunity to act on that urge.
The breeder, whom I began to think of as “the kid down the road,” was basically that: a young man who lived down the road, owned a female, and decided to take her to stud. The resulting litter was peddled to any number of my fellow neighbors. The pup we selected, Tucker, was a wonderful dog, and while she stayed at the farm when I moved back to Columbus a few years ago, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the dog I called “the little horse” because she meshed so well with the Belgian mares who inhabited the fields around our house.
The “kid down the road” was a nice guy who, I’m guessing, didn’t know any more about being a “responsible breeder” than I did, myself. He knew that he had a dog, and he had a friend of a friend who had a male he wanted to stud reasonably cheap, and the rest as they say, is history. Once we bought the pup, we were on our own. This isn’t a criticism, per se, but after learning of the traits shared by breeders like Amy Peterson (read her philosophy on breeding dogs at the Elvbend Elkhounds webpage), I have a much different frame of mind about where I’ll look the next time I’m in the market for a puppy.
The problem espoused by the “responsible breeder” push from HSUS and other seemingly well-meaning people is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater. No one wants to think of ill-bred dogs cranked out of the deplorable conditions imagined when thinking of the term “puppy mills,” but there is a vast difference between “hobby breeders” like Amy (her self-description) and hobby breeders like “the kid down the road.”
And, of course, there is a vast difference between both of these types of breeders and the concept behind the term “puppy mill.”
Which leads to my Devil’s Advocate moment of the day… Knowing how the term “factory farm” has been misappropriated to smear any large-scale animal agriculture facility with the broadest possible brush, one has to wonder how broadly the animal rights lobby applies the term “puppy mill.” How big, in other words, is “too big?” Good luck getting an answer to that question, regardless of species.
The bottom line is twofold: first, many Americans don’t have as good an understanding as they should about where “good” pets come from, and just what makes a “responsible” pet breeder. This creates a weakness in the public’s awareness that can be exploited by HSUS and their cohorts (and as Amy points out, is being exploited actively).
Second, there are a lot of folks “outside” agriculture who share the same values, concerns and policy issues as food producers. It behooves us all to get to know one another and understand what we have in common, and how our paradigms differ.
After all, we’re all in this ongoing battle together.