NBC’s Dateline Features Puppy Mills

NBC’s Dateline Features Puppy Mills

By: Patti Strand  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

The long-awaited NBC Dateline feature on puppy mills filled the entire hour of the television show on April 26, 1999, and the villains of the piece were substandard commercial kennels, pet stores, and the US Department of Agriculture.

Using undercover videotape from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and a Dateline investigative team, the report focused on three kennels and implied that the filthy, crowded conditions and sick and injured dogs shown on the tapes are typical of all commercial kennels.

The report by Chris Hansen used horrific pictures of ailing, wounded, dirty, ungroomed, starving, frantic dogs confined to tiny cages with wire floors to focus viewer attention, then interspersed the footage with interviews of pet store owners and clerks, PeTA founder Ingrid Newkirk, Dr. Ron Dehaven, the top USDA official in charge of Animal Welfare Act enforcement, and Dr. Karen Overall, an animal behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania. AKC came in for criticism for alleged failure to revoke registration privileges of kennels that violate animal welfare standards, but that criticism was more subtle and milder than expected.

The story left the general impression that all commercial kennels are puppy mills.


The American Kennel Club

The American Kennel Club learned that the Dateline story was in production late last year and protested a program it feared would unfairly vilify the registry. The Dateline story was produced by the same team that condemned AKC as a greedy profiteer for registering commercially-bred puppies in a 1994 story on ABC's 20/20. Information for the investigation was provided to NBC by the Companion Animal Protection Society, a group that blames AKC for puppy mill production. CAPS vice president Bob Baker is a former investigator for the Humane Society of the US, and CAPS has been the source for biased information about AKC in other stories.

In preparation for the story, the Dateline team registered a nonexistent litter out of a spayed bitch and a deceased dog to mimic counterfeit registrations by unscrupulous puppy mills. AKC president Al Cheauré tagged the phony registration as fraudulent and said that producer Susan Barnett and CAPS president Deborah Howard would be investigated for their participation.

The Dateline report used the phony registration to show how easy it is to circumvent the rules and to condemn AKC for an alleged failure to suspend breeders who violate animal welfare standards. While claiming that AKC has suspended only seven kennel owners for inhumane conditions in the past five years, Dateline anchor Stone Phillips said that the scam registration drew a suspension and $1000 fine, leaving viewers to draw the conclusion that AKC is more interested in a single case than it is in dealing with the conditions in puppy mills. He neglected to point out that AKC has suspended dozens of substandard kennels for other infractions, including fraudulent registrations, failure to pass DNA screens, lack of proper identification of dogs or litters, and refusal to allow the inspector to enter the property. (Kennels with poor conditions often have faulty records, refuse to allow inspectors on the property, and fail to properly identify dogs and litters, but the suspension reports in the AKC Gazette list only the primary violation. Those kennels with good records and poor conditions are the ones listed as suspensions for substandard conditions. In either case, kennels are suspended for at least five years and must start with a new colony of dogs in order to be reinstated.) Philips also neglected to tell viewers that suspension of registration privileges does nothing to improve conditions for the dogs in the kennel because unprincipled breeders will register with another organization and continue to churn out unhealthy puppies. He barely mentioned the AKC DNA policies used to identify litters and individual dogs in cases where identity is questionable. USDA

The US Department of Agriculture is responsible for enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act, the law that governs conditions in commercial breeding facilities. The law sets criteria for housing and veterinary care; the agency sends inspectors to ascertain whether the regulations are being followed. Dateline examined USDA inspection reports and used one case to illustrate their point that the agency is ineffective at best. The report involved a kennel that was shut down by a humane society a month after it received a clean report from the USDA inspector. The video tape of the kennel showed starving dogs, dog carcasses, and dog skeletons. The inspector, Dateline said, was later found to be operating an illegal dog transport business.

The Dateline clip showed that DeHaven refused to view the video tapes of puppy mill conditions because, he said, tapes don't necessarily tell the real story. Dateline did not give the date of its test case.



Dateline showed PeTA's Newkirk lamenting the existence of puppy mills and pet stores. The reporter did not ask her about PeTA's claims that all dog breeding is inherently cruel or about her own past statements that people should not own pets. Even though animal cruelty is a matter for state authorities to pursue, the Dateline website links to PeTA's website as a place to report suspected cruelty.

Newkirk said that the conditions in the puppy mills violate the law and as such should be shut down, a fate that PeTA advocates for law-abiding animal interests as well. For several years, PeTA was the mouthpiece for the Animal Liberation Front, a terrorist organization using arson, vandalism, property destruction, and theft to damage legitimate animal-related businesses, and Newkirk has been investigated by a grand jury seeking evidence against ALF for these crimes. In addition, PeTA sends undercover operatives into laboratories, farms, and even veterinary offices to drum up alleged evidence of cruelty, and uses the resulting publicity as a fundraising gimmick.


Responsible breeding

Through reporter comments and an interview with animal behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, Dateline suggested that people buy purebred puppies from responsible breeders or acquire purebred puppies or dogs from shelters or rescues, not pet stores. Describing responsible breeders as those who have one or two breeds, breed a bitch only a few times during her life, provide socialization for puppies, and give adult dogs time for exercise and play, the program included video tape taken at an unidentified Golden Retriever kennel. The tape showed puppies nursing and playing and adult dogs romping in a paddock.



On December 29, 1999, Cheauré wrote to NBC president Robert C. Wright: "We have been advised by your NBC investigative news senior producer, Mr. Allan Maraynes, that NBC Dateline intends to air a story about the selling by pet stores of substandard puppies that come from puppy mill breeders. Our understanding is that your feature intends to make the unfounded conclusion that registering purebred dogs creates demand."

He continued: "AKC is particularly concerned about the forthcoming Dateline program because it appears to be based on fraud, collusion, and bias." The alleged fraud was Barnett's sham registration, the collusion was the involvement of AKC-hater CAPS in the story, and the bias involved senior producer Allan Maraynes, the senior producer on the 1994 ABC 20/20 piece that blamed AKC for the plight of dogs in puppy mills.

A few days later, Cheauré's letter to Wright and to story producer Susan Barnett appeared on the AKC website with the suggestion that fanciers write their own letters to ask NBC to fairly represent AKC and responsible breeders in its program.

The National Animal Interest Alliance also encouraged members to write and urge Dateline to do a fair and balanced story. NAIA spread the word to members of the organization's animal talk e-mail list (naia-animaltalk@egroups.com) and in NAIA News.

Fanciers and others interested in fair reporting bombarded NBC with letters, and the Dateline story did not make AKC the major culprit as previous stories by 20/20 and various print media have done.

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