Editor's Note: This is the first of what I plan to be many more in-depth stories about some of the amazing animals I get to work with.
Last month I photographed a 7 1/2 year old Basset Hound named Claire Bear for a My Mutt poster supporting Golden Gate Basset Rescue -- the group that pulled her and 6o other Bassets from squalid conditions at a commercial breeding facility north of Sacramento. Fortunately for Claire Bear and a good number of the other Bassets freed that day this story has had a relatively happy outcome.
But it does serve as an object lesson in the problems and heartbreak puppy mills like this one can cause and why it's so important that the public and all aspiring pet guardians know about them and avoid them.
Claire Bear spent 6 years there and for most of them she was force bred -- having as many as 8 litters.
She and the other dogs were severely undersocialized and by the time they were rescued in December 2009 they were living in total filth. (You can read further details on the GGBR site).
After the rescue Claire Bear lived with a foster family for almost 2 years before landing in her forever home last fall and still bears the psychological scars of the ordeal she experienced at the puppy mill. Until very recently she really showed no signs of knowing how to be a dog. She spent most of her time hiding under a blanket-covered coffee table, knew no commands, didn't know how to play, was afraid of toys and didn't bark at all.
Thanks to the incredible patience and kindness of her new mom Claire Bear is showing some small but encouraging signs of improvement. At first she tolerated no contact and only left the safety of her coffee-table fort in the middle of the night when everyone slept. When I met her in January she allowed her mom to touch her and, when coaxed, climbed onto a couch. However, it took close to two hours before she would stay in the same room with me. I was not able to touch her and she still did not respond to food, treats or any voice commands from her mom.
In the three weeks since then her mom reports she's begun showing interest in deli chicken and now knows the words “up” and “din din”. This is all really positive but it's also painstakingly slow going. Much of the time dogs like her who miss out on normal socialization and human interactions in the formative months never get a chance to progress to this point or show any improvement. That's because it takes someone like her mom who literally spent months planning and preparing for Claire Bear's arrival and and now devotes hours a day working with her. Claire Bear still has a long a way to go and may not ever get to the point where she trusts people. It's my hope that I'm able to report back regularly on her continued progress and I'd love at some point to spend more time with her and get new pictures as she settles in at her forever home.
Those familiar with me know I typically don't dip into controversy or blog from a soap box but in cases like Claire Bear it's really difficult not to.
In the end this is really a story about a courageous little dog and some truly remarkable and caring people who pulled her and five dozen other animals out of horrific conditions. However, you simply can't escape the fact that puppy mills like the one she came from exist and they exist because there's a market for them.
Though extreme in terms of the number of dogs, this is not isolated and there are dogs living in similar conditions right now around the country. There are even reports (not proven but also not isolated) that the puppy mill operators responsible for Claire Bear and her 60 companions are selling dogs again, though through intermediaries and not directly themselves.
The only way to remedy this as far as I'm concerned is to diminish that market by informing the new-pet crazed public about two things:
1) There are an overwhelming number of wonderful animals both young and old desperate for homes and living on borrowed time in shelters and foster homes all over the country.
2) If you simply refuse to go the adopted-pet route and must have a pure-bred puppy or kitten, do your research. Find and work with a reputable breeder. Check on them. Ask for references. If you can't find any or they aren't willing to give them to you that's a good sign for you to look elsewhere.