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The removal of 98 cats and dogs from a Lebanon County business in October shines a light into the dark side of a booming industry in the United States: the sale of pets.
Americans spent nearly $96 billion on pets and pet care last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, and before the pandemic, that number was expected to grow again in 2020. That upward trend lures both the innovative entrepreneurs and the questionable business owners, but with this industry, the product for sale is a living creature.
“With the greater emphasis on animals and people’s love of animals … there will be that percentage of people who will be not about the cause but about personal aggrandizing,” said Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement and shelter services for the Pennsylvania SPCA. “The animal cause is just the latest victim of this kind of self-promotion and self-enrichment.”
The American SPCA recently released its Horrible Hundred, 100 puppy mills in the United States that have been discovered to keep animals in deplorable conditions and mistreat them. Six of those Horrible Hundred are in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, animal rescues have their own piece of this multi-billion-dollar business — some doing heroic work to rescue cats and dogs, others with questionable practices that have raised an alert for law enforcement.
Greta Rank of Lebanon County is one of those under investigation.
Grrs and Purrs
Ten dogs and 83 cats were removed in October from Rank’s Grrs and Purrs rescue in Jonestown.
Pennsylvania SPCA’s humane law enforcement officers rescued the animals from the facility for concerns over the unsanitary conditions of the property and the untreated medical conditions of the animals, according to the PSCPA.
A state dog enforcement officer filed a charge against Rank in October for failure to keep her kennel in a sanitary and humane condition. She was found guilty of that summary charge in December and ordered to pay fines.
Meanwhile, additional charges — this time from the PSCPA — are pending against Rank as the investigation continues, said Wilson.
Many of the cats rescued were suffering from both respiratory infections and untreated eye conditions, the PSCPA said. Many of the dogs were thin, and a majority of the animals were living in kennels or enclosures with feces and urine, which had been allowed to accumulate for days, the organization said in a news release.
Overwhelmed or defiant?
“(A shelter’s) willingness to accept help in the middle of an investigation is the difference between charges or not,” Wilson said.
When a shelter has been found with unsuitable conditions, the officers might ask if the rescue owner is overwhelmed. Often, rescues start off with good intentions but deteriorate over time because they’ve accepted too many animals and can’t maintain them all well, Wilson said.
“Sometimes, we see instead: ‘There’s no issue here,'” she said. The owner refuses help to improve conditions. “They aren’t able to put the animals’ best interest first. … That’s where we step in and say, ‘This is where it needs to stop.'”
Rank of Grrs and Purrs would not comment for this story because she had a recent death in her family, she said. In an earlier interview with WGAL-TV, though, she said of her animals: “They’re my life. It’s just the passion for the animals, to try to help them.”
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Enforcing the laws
In order to search a questionable facility, law enforcement needs probable cause to enter the business, which requires a serious allegation.
“If you are seeing a dog coming out of a location that has medical issues or has matting or the vet finds urine scalding on his feet. If you’re seeing those things, we can investigate those,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that 70 percent of complaints come from the public, and the other 30 percent are from police departments.
The Pennsylvania SPCA only covers a portion of the state’s counties, reduced over the years for lack of funding, so donations to these organizations are the key to maintaining them.
The York County SPCA, for example, employs its own full-time officer and field service agent to investigate issues. In 2019, they investigated and prosecuted more than 150 cases of animal neglect or abuse, said Executive Director Steven Martinez.
“We encourage everyone to rescue animals from their local shelter or rescue organizations,” Martinez said in an email. “Do not buy from breeders or pet stores.”
Wilson suggested the purchase of pets be done carefully and considered thoughtfully for the best outcome.
She said: “They are living and breathing creatures.”
How to help
“I can’t tell you how many people call us and say, ‘I rescued my dog from a dog rescue,’ when they really bought their dog from a puppy mill,” Wilson said.
To ensure the pets are well kept — shelter or pet seller — demand to see the facility where the animals are housed.
“If the shelter isn’t allowing you to come in and tour the place where the animal is being kept, that’s a sign of a problem,” she said.
Here are some tips to determine if a “breeder” is questionable, according to Wilson:
- If you go to the property, and the owner is not showing you their breeding dogs and where they’re kept.
- If the place you see the dog is separate from where the animal is maintained, that’s typically not a good sign.
- The “breeder” sells a number of different breeds of dogs. It is more likely a puppy mill.
“Stop feeding the demand,” she said.
Kim Strong can be reached at email@example.com.
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