(These stories are graphic and true. The animals featured are safe, but are among the smallest minority of the lucky. Millions of others continue to live these dogs' stories on a daily basis.)
Vicki Groves wanted a puppy. She did some research and was partial to the toy breeds. The local pet store had Yorkshire terrier puppies, so she chose a female and named her "Trudy." A few months later it was obvious that Trudy was not a pure-bred Yorkie even though the store provided AKC papers. By this time the pet store had gone out of business, and Vicki needed to track down the breeder to refund her money.
She found him tucked away in the Amish hills. He offered to take the dog back - which Groves declined - then offered her another puppy. Something told her to take a look, and she followed him to a building in the back. What she saw changed her life and the lives of hundreds of animals since that day in 1999.
Molly Jordan, center, has adopted two “special needs” Yorkies, but says that none of the dogs, from left, Fig, Toby and Oliver, are aware of what humans see as disabilities. She encourages buyers to consider how grateful the dogs are for the care.
More than 300 dogs were crammed into the space of a garage. Groves took note of several breeds, male, female, litters of puppies, some healthy, some ill, crowded together and writhing in filth. This was a puppy mill. She took six dogs home, some of the worst of the lot, and began her new mission of rescuing, rehabbing and adopting out those least desirable: breeder pets left in cages with unattended injuries, pets left emotionally and physically damaged by thoughtless owners, females continually used and abused as breeders until their bodies give out.
Today people call her about cases. She also combs newspaper ads, Craigslist and flea markets for likely puppy mill dogs and neglect cases. Groves recently attended an auction where mills and backyard breeders sold 478 dogs that day. She noticed a sad little Chinese crested toy dog that she knew came from an unscrupulous breeder. The woman lives in Cleveland and advertises online, selling the puppies for $2,000 to $5,000 each. Groves went to the house, where the dogs are kept in a room full of modified kitchen cabinets with wire mesh for shelves and sliding doors across the fronts to keep the dogs contained. Feces had piled up to the mesh under the cages.
Some of the dogs suffering the most are never seen. Zora, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, lived in a cage as a breeder. A broken cage wire pierced her eye - an injury that the owner ignored and Groves fixed. "She's the sweetest dog you'd ever want, very friendly."
Many have broken limbs that have to be amputated by the time Groves finds the dogs. "The first time I had to have a dog's leg amputated, they brought him out to me, and I cried," she remembers. "He was a little Yorkie, and I bawled. Then he started running around and was happier than before the operation. I realized that the dogs are fine. It's our perception that creates the disability. The dogs don't care, they just go on being dogs."
Molly Jordan adopted that dog, named Toby. "We had lost our beloved chocolate lab, and I saw Toby's beautiful little face and found out he was the victim of puppy mill neglect. After adopting him, we realized that we don't have a dog with a disability. He doesn't know about disabilities."
Since then, she and her husband have brought two more rescue Yorkies to the fold, including another amputee. Jordan adds that people need to be aware of the responsibilities and consequences of taking any pet, let alone a pet that might have special needs. In Toby's instance, keeping a watchful eye on him around children or places where he might fall and damage another leg.
Dr. Eric Shaver, a veterinarian for 27 years in Holmes County, says his practice serves "many special patients owned by special clients." He, too, suggests that people taking on pets with health or emotional issues need to be ready and committed to address those issues, whether it is daily insulin doses or a condition that can be cured over time. Shaver notes that many of these pets are very loyal and form close bonds with their caregivers.
He is also encouraged by improvements in the commercial breeding industry, thanks to Ohio legislation and more attention given to animals' health issues by breeders, but adds that a puppy should always be checked by a veterinarian as soon as it joins the family. Many puppy mill dogs have worms or congenital ailments that need attention as soon as possible.
For instance, Groves rescued a seven-month-old male Rottweiler that is crate-trained, housebroken and "very, very sweet." He is gentle and good with the other dogs. A puppy mill puppy, he has a heart condition that could be cured now, but will worsen with age if untreated. The surgery will cost in the neighborhood of $1,800. They've named him FROG - Fully Reliant on God - because raising the money for the procedure has been so difficult.
One of Groves' saddest abuse cases has been Tazz, a male boxer from West Virginia. Tazz was used as a backyard breeding dog and kept in a cattle pen with a female. A neighbor's male Chihuahua entered the pen under the slat, instinct took over, and Tazz, normally docile, killed the intruder. A few days later, the neighbor's teenage son came over and stabbed Tazz's eyes out with a screwdriver, blinding him and breaking a skull bone, but not killing him. Tazz's owners had left him afraid and confused in the pen without medical attention for five months when Groves found out about him. Rescue groups in that area were not interested in Tazz, so Groves took him in and had the necessary surgery done, removing what was left of his eyes, and ridding him of worms.
"This dog has no reason to trust anyone," said Groves. "But he is a big baby. He follows me around, he plays-like any other dog." Groves is looking for a special situation without dogs, cats or children for Tazz, though. While he is used to the other animals at Groves' facility, he is sometimes startled and nervous because of his blindness if one approaches him too quickly.
Not all of Groves' dogs have disabilities. Most are puppy mill rescues and are pure bred. In 2009, Ohio was the second highest state in the country for puppy mills. Ninety-nine percent of dogs sold in pet stores are from puppy mills, and there are one million breeder dogs confined to cages in the United States.
Backyard breeders, as close as Wheeling and surrounding counties, can be far worse because they operate under the radar and sell through ads in newspapers and online. One breeder that was shut down in West Virginia moved the operation across the river to Ohio. The horrors and pain with which these animals live on a daily basis is unspeakable, not the least of which is a "rape rack" that straps the female down so she is at the mercy of all the males in the pen. Most female breeders in these situations are destroyed by the owners by age five because their bodies can no longer stand the abuse.
What can be done about this?
"Stop buying them," stated Groves emphatically. "People say, 'It's a shame. It's terrible,' then they buy a puppy on Craigslist or at a flea market. Stop buying them! Stop supporting the industry."
Dr. Shaver agrees. He notes that organizations like the Ohio Dog Breeders Association and the USDA provide information on reputable and humane breeders.
Pets are also a long-term commitment. Owners buying a cute Great Dane or mastiff puppy need to consider the responsibilities of daily exercise, food and space for large breeds. River and Napoleon at Groves' facility have suffered for their owners' poor choices.
"When you have a void in your heart and home and have the desire to commit to the proper care, then adoption of a pet is the right thing to do," Shaver added. "All pets love unconditionally when treated with respect and care."
Jordan urges prospective buyers wanting to add a pet to the family to avoid pet stores and "consider [rescue pets'] needy little lives. They bring back to you tenfold what you give to them."
Groves' organization is called My Young and Old Fur Babies Rescue (www.myofbrescue.rescuegroups.org.) Visit the website or Facebook page for more information on available pets, the adoption process and donations.