It was a grim afternoon at the Sharma residence. Little Sahil was inconsolable. He refused to eat and was just sitting there on the floor, cradling Asghar’s tired little head on his tiny lap. Sneha and Rahil, Sahil’s parents and good friends of mine, were cursing the doctor’s tactless remarks when I entered… Asghar, their 8 monthold Saint Bernard puppy, their son’s best friend, was seriously ill and the vet had rather insensitively decreed the inevitable in little Sahil’s presence... “before we could prepare him”, as they put it. The adorable little animal had been a bundle of joy during my previous visits. Asghar’s naughty hazel eyes could melt any heart, and one just had to give him a cuddle when his little wet nose nuzzled up to you. He was the darling of the neighbourhood, something of a mascot for the kids in the area, as he tumbled and trotted behind them. That chubby little brown and white fur-ball was quite simply the star of the evening in the neighbourhood park, for while it joined the children in their games, Asghar also gladdened the hearts of evening walkers and senior citizens with his antics… indeed this was sad news for many…
“Sahil! Sahil!!” Rahil called out… “... idhar aao beta… and get Asghar. It doesn’t matter what this doctor says, we’ll go to a better doctor… Asghar’ll be fine in … right, Asghar?”, and gave a pat each to the pair. Sahil, all of seven years, tried to wipe his tears away and Asghar wagged the tip of his tail and put his head on Rahil’s knee, as if to say, ‘I know you’ll do your best… I understand’. It wasn’t easy to keep a dry eye at that moment… Sneha went over, put her arms around Sahil and led him and Asghar to the verandah… Rahil turned to me, and he spoke with a tremor, “Thanks for coming over. I need your help. You’ve seen how Sahil is about Asghar… he’s heartbroken. And it’s not just him… Asghar’s such a darling… even I can’t bear the thought of losing him. But the doctor seems to have given up… he says Asghar’s immune system is very weak and now he might have this liver disease that could prove fatal… Asghar might go anytime…” Meanwhile, I was trying very hard not to get into the ‘I-told-you-so’ mode when Rahil interrupted, “I know… I know… you told me I shouldn’t pick up a puppy from that pet store but he looked so cute, so adorable… and the place seemed clean, the proprietor was friendly… how’d I know that things could be this bad behind that pleasing façade…?”
Just before they got Asghar, Rahil had mentioned that they’re thinking of picking up a puppy from a pet store to add to their sweet little family and I’d suggested that maybe picking up a puppy from a breeder might be a better idea. Rahil obviously didn’t think much of it and picked up Asghar from a pet-store a week later. Evidently, it wasn’t a good idea.
Yet, most people looking for a pet would head for the nearest pet-store and pick up a cute little puppy of their choice from there. The friendly store manager, the bright and colourful décor, the cute little puppies and the manager’s repeated assurances with respect to the pup’s quality and lineage make for a heady cocktail - irresistible bait for most. Not many return empty handed. Most, like Rahil and Sahil, go back with a puppy in one arm and packets of feed and bedding in the other - unwitting patrons of one of the cruelest industries on the planet – it’s called the puppy mill industry.
Most pet dogs in most households are unhappy products of this industry. Let me take you back to how the puppy comes to be in the store… Far away from the bright and shiny pet-shop, probably in a derelict shed or backroom of a cramped apartment, these unscrupulous backyard breeders ply their trade, where they keep pairs (or at times only the female) of popular breeds like Labrador and Golden retrievers, german Shepherds, Pugs, Beagles and the like… The dogs are kept in cramped squalid quarters, given barely enough food to survive and are usually caged for life. Their world, from birth to death are the four sides of a wire-cage or the walls of a room and they hardly ever experience a kind word or touch and usually don’t live for longer than half their normal lifespan; especially the brood bitches (usually coming into heat twice a year after their sixth or eighth month. Though they shouldn’t be bred from before their second year or fourth heat and then too only every other year, puppy mill breeders (PMBs) start breeding from them from the first heat onwards and in every heat, wringing the poor animal dry even before she reaches its prime). These unhygienic conditions lead to disease and neurosis in the animals. What is worse is that these puppy mill operators, in their bid to make a quick buck, breed mothers to sons, fathers to daughters and brothers to sisters. This rampant inbreeding and over breeding ruins not just the immediate litter but also leads to congenital weaknesses that become embedded in the line and make the progeny unsound, both of mind and body.
How does buying puppies born to such mothers affect you, the buyer? Well, to begin with, these inbred pups have genetic defects. Secondly, the pups should’ve stayed with their mothers for at least eight weeks because mother’s milk builds immunity and littermates teach them essential social skills. Instead PMBs usually force-wean the puppies and send them off to pet stores in the fourth or fifth week, thus saving on feeding costs. Also the puppies survive on nothing but a trickle of milk from a weak and starving mother. And since the puppy mill business runs on volumes, PMBs compromise on cartage, cramming as many puppies as possible while transporting them. Some always die in transit, but it doesn’t really matter because what they save on transportation costs more than makes up for the loss. In essence, for PMBs, the puppies you so lovingly buy are just commercial goods, just like chickens and goats meant for slaughter, and everytime you buy from such breeders, like Rahil did, you end up supporting these heartless criminals and their cycle of greed. And that isn’t all. If you’re lucky, then like Asghar, these cute roly-poly puppies you buy from PMBs are likely to fall ill with debilitating diseases within the first few years and become far more expensive (vet bills, medicines, time spent in care-giving) propositions than what you might have budgeted for. But if you’re unlucky, these pups with weakened bodies and temperaments could become unpredictable and dangerous and might need to be put down. Either way, it’s almost always a sad, painful and short life.
So what can one do about this? Perhaps unknown to you, worldwide, animal rights groups have been clamouring for a legislation that puts a stop to this cruel trade but not much has come of it. The only way to stop puppy mills is to stop buying from them. Like I told Rahil, “If you really care about animals and their welfare, neither you, nor anyone you know should ever buy a pet from a pet store., ” But then Sneh’d said “God forbid but if Asghar goes, we’ll need to get another pup to help Sahil get over his pain. We’re hoping you’ll help us find a better pet store…” she almost begged…
“Sneha, there are no ‘better’ pet stores. Pet stores are commercial units where a bag of dry feed worth eight thousand will find better treatment than a pup with a going price of five thousand. If you really want a pedigreed dog, you should go to a breed specific breeder who unlike the PMBs has dedicated himself to a paricular breed or two of his choice. Such breeders breed dogs with the specific aim of improving the breed and don’t sell puppies to people they deem incapable or unsuitable as pet owners. Be prepared to be interviewed thoroughly before being ‘allowed’ to buy a puppy from such a breeder. For instance, a well known Tibetan mastiff (a large mountain dog for the uninitiated) breeder refused to sell me a pup because I don’t live in a farmhouse (because the breed in question needs the space). And breeders who care will never sell their pups to a pet store. So choose the right breed and be prepared to pay at least three times more than what you’d pay at a pet store. But at least you’ll know that the puppy you’re buying is happy and healthy (many breeders provide insurances and guarantees) and its parents, instead of being unhappy, tortured, inbred curs, are, in all likelihood, pampered show winners.” And if all of this seems too much of a hassle, I suggest you go to an animal shelter and pick up a mongrel pup. You would’ve given the orphaned animal a home and it’ll cost you nothing to buy and very little to maintain (most strays are very hardy creatures).
PS Just in case you were curious, Asghar has pulled through his illness and for now is happy and healthy, bringing joy and light to the Sharmas and their neighbours… but beware, not every family is as lucky.