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Protection for puppies

Tips from the public suggest there are more large-scale breeding operations in the state than previously thought

By Dan Nakaso

LAST UPDATED: 10:52 a.m. HST, Jul 31, 2011

Tips flowing into the Hawaiian Humane Society since Hawaii's largest puppy mill case was uncovered on Feb. 28 suggest there are 20 more puppy mills operating on Oahu, with 10 more scattered across the neighbor islands.

"Before, we guessed there were maybe half a dozen, a dozen at the most, but we really didn't know," said Keoni Vaughn, director of operations for the Hawaiian Humane Society. "These are large-scale operations."

Humane Society officials hope the Waimanalo case represents a major turning point in their efforts to regulate puppy mills in Hawaii, and it already has spurred neighbors to report more allegations of animal neglect, abuse and suspected puppy mills. The Humane Society and Honolulu police officers seized 153 dogs on Mahailua Street in Waimanalo in the biggest case of its kind.

Fecal matter and urine were found in some water and food bowls. Some of the dogs had fur matted with fecal matter and some could not walk because their legs were bound together by matted fur, Humane Society officials said.

After the dogs were seized, three died and 79 puppies were born. All of the animals that survived are now in emergency foster care.

From March 1 — the day after the dog seizures — through July 27, the Humane Society received 490 calls alleging animal cruelty. Investigators issued nine misdemeanor citations for animal cruelty, which require court appearances and carry penalties of one year in jail and fines up to $2,000.

In the same period, Humane Society investigators also issued another 56 warning citations for animal cruelty, which could lead to misdemeanor citations if problems persist.

"We really rely on the community to be our eyes and ears and people are now a lot more aware since the Waimanalo case," Vaughn said. "And we're definitely getting a lot more tips on puppy mills."

While the Waimanalo puppy mill case heads toward a criminal trial, a bill in the state Senate would require all puppy mills — technically known as "large-scale" breeders of 25 dogs or more — to be licensed.

The Humane Society last week finished collecting 940 responses to a statewide, voluntary online survey that found 98 percent of the respondents favored licensing puppy mills.

Some 30 percent of the respondents reported having issues with their dogs after they bought them — and 32 percent spent $2,000 or more to address problems that included hip dysplasia, infections and heartworm. About 23 percent of the respondents had paid $1,000 or more for their dogs.

A key provision of SB 1522 for the Humane Society would require puppy mills to allow unannounced inspections by Humane Society investigators, or risk losing their licenses.

Humane Society investigators currently can only enter private property with the owners' permission — or if they personally witness neglect or abuse.

Gathering enough information to obtain a search warrant "requires the courts and prosecutors and can be a tedious, long and difficult process," Vaughn said. "There has to be probable cause — and sufficient probable cause — to obtain a search warrant."

FOR NEARLY THREE YEARS, Humane Society investigators had been allowed into the Waimanalo puppy mill — and had issued multiple warning citations for animal cruelty.

Because of the pending criminal trial, Vaughn declined to say why misdemeanor citations were never issued.

After a new state law took effect on Jan. 1 that more clearly defines how animals must be confined and cared for, Vaughn said Humane Society investigators were no longer welcomed onto the property.

"When we had weaker laws, we were never denied access," Vaughn said.

Then on Feb. 28, a Honolulu police officer responding to a barking dog complaint from the dog-breeding operation — as well as another allegation that a woman with five dogs was trespassing — was allowed onto the property and saw something that prompted him to call the Hawaiian Humane Society, said Vaughn, who declined to be specific because of the pending criminal trial.

Humane Society investigators have since visited the other suspected puppy mills that have been identified from tips since Feb. 28, but have not been allowed onto the properties to inspect the dogs or the conditions, Vaughn said.

"We always try to work with people," Vaughn said. "But anytime someone doesn't let us on to their property, it's for a reason. They're trying to hide something."

He declined to provide details on where the suspected puppy mills are located or who operates them, saying he did not want to jeopardize the Humane Society's investigations of the operations.

Attorney Jason Burks, who represents Bradley International — the company that owned and operated the Waimanalo breeding operation — said the dogs that the Hawaiian Humane Society showed to reporters in March did not represent the majority of dogs at the site, nor the conditions that existed.

The Humane Society is "trying to portray it as nothing ever got cleaned, the whole place was absolutely filthy and there were all these diseases and all these animals were unhealthy," Burks said. "That's simply not the case. They're cherry-picking particular animals. … A good portion of the animals were in good health. Somebody shows up on the wrong day and your house may be a mess. If you go to the Humane Society, look at the animals there. There may be situations where you come at the wrong time and things are dirty. You can't take one small look at one small area and make a conclusion of the entire situation."

The officers of Bradley International have not been charged, but the corporation faces 153 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty for each dog that was initially seized. Each count carries maximum penalties of one year in jail and $2,000 in fines, but the corporation can only face financial penalties, Burks said.

A "forfeiture" hearing in the case to decide the future of all of the dogs was scheduled for Aug. 9 and the criminal trial was scheduled for Aug. 22. But Circuit Judge Ed Kubo last week filed a motion to voluntarily recuse himself from both proceedings, citing his wife's "Hawaii Pet Nanny" business.

Bradley International has shut down its Waimanalo operation and no longer has any animals, but wants its dogs returned, Burks said.

He would not say what the corporation plans to do with the dogs if it succeeds in getting them awarded through the forfeiture hearing.

"I'm not prepared to answer that at this point," Burks said. "But without the animals, Bradley International essentially doesn't have any income."

Burks said he did not know if any of the corporation's officers have other sources of income.

An attorney for the manager of the dog-breeding operation — who has not been charged in the case — previously told the Star-Advertiser the dogs were intended for the Pet Spot pet store in Pearl Highlands Center.

LAST WEEK, Humane Society investigator Vernon Ling drove to the Pet Spot in response to a complaint that animals were being kept improperly.

Instead, Ling found that more than a dozen puppies in the Pet Spot had plenty of room to stand, sit, turn around and lie down without touching the walls of their cages or another animal. And while the bottom half of their cages were made of wire, the other half of their cages was covered with solid surfaces, as required by the new state law that went into effect Jan. 1.

Wire floors make it easier to clean dogs' cages, but can injure or cause long-term damage to the dogs' paws, Ling said.

As employees cleaned the puppies' cages in front of Ling, a woman who identified herself as the Pet Spot manager declined to answer Ling's questions about where the Pet Spot gets its dogs — most of which were being sold for more than $1,000 each.

When Ling asked specifically about the Pet Spot's poodle puppies, the manager said they came from Hawaii island but would not provide details. When Ling asked her where the store got its other puppies from, she said only, "from Oahu" and would not give Ling any details.

"I personally went around to all the pet stores and spoke to the owners asking where they get their dogs from," Vaughn said. "There's not one pet store that will disclose where they get their dogs from. They've got something to hide. A responsible breeder would never, ever sell to a pet store, ever. A responsible breeder cares deeply how their puppies are going to end up and they actually care about the breed itself. A backyard breeder — or a puppy mill — doesn't care. It's all about the profit."

To report animal cruelty, abuse or suspected puppy mills, call the Hawaiian Humane Society at 356-2250.

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