I had been following Ohio’s work on puppy mill regulations since Kyle Swenson published the first Scene dispatch from Holmes County back in 2010. Since then, little had changed. Little had been done to actually protect the dogs in question and force breeders to follow even simply a handful of rules. So I traveled south to figure out what was going on.
An dog rescue organizer and advocate drove me around Holmes County and surrounding areas. She told me stories of what happened to the dogs in the past and in the present. Economic pressures had squeezed out most of the smaller puppy operations since Swenson’s report, but the market had mostly consolidated into the big players – breeders who ran massive operations and got close to political leaders. Relationships had been formed among those people who treated puppies as business and the folks in Columbus who pulled the real strings.
Again, little had changed.
A slanted roof covers a row of tiny cages growing hot in the morning sun. From half a mile across otherwise gentle farmland, what appears to be a lone Yorkie can be seen sitting idly and watching passing cars and buggies.
Puppy kennels—”puppy mills” in the more oppositional colloquy—are easy to spot from the circuitous roads of rural countrysides around Northeast Ohio. The heart of the commercial dog breeding industry in Ohio lies mostly within and around Amish Country—Holmes County, south of Wooster, and neighboring Tuscarawas, Ashland and Guernsey counties. Winding roads weave in and among hills, and gravelly driveways jut off at odd intervals. Now and then, a series of buildings crop upward out of the land. These are homes, barns, silos, storage areas. But often enough, tucked among the other buildings are small kennels built for small animals. In the past decade, in many cases, puppies have lived in them.
There’s nothing secretive about the mills. But there’s certainly a darkness about them that gets brushed under the regions’ handwoven rugs.
“We have Yorkies and we have Westies,” a young Amish woman says as a prospective customer sidles up to the house and broaches the subject. She doesn’t let the customer wander too far off the rocky driveway; rather, she dispatches four of her children to cull a couple of puppies from the kennel behind the garage. For the most part, buyers don’t get a good look at the conditions of these makeshift homes and breeding grounds. “They are…eh, how old now? Four weeks old now,” the woman says, squinting into the morning sun.