I know a number of people who have been strong and brave enough to go to the Missouri Dog Auctions. It is not a pretty sight, and the auctions certainly are NOT for the benefit of the dogs. This story was shared with me five years ago, and from what I have seen, little has changed.
My own sweet Sophia came from one of these auctions, when there was even less oversight than is described below. For almost eight years she gave me the strength and the determination to work in rescue. I will always be grateful to her for all that she taught me. And I will always regret that I could not have spared her the pain.
I rise at 4 a.m., get coffee, check supplies, and leave by 5. I drive alone, my van full of empty crates. As I drive through the cold dark morning, my only company is the churning of my emotions. Hope that most of the crates will be full of dogs on the way home. Anger than anyone could bring puppies into this world with no plan other than a quick profit. Sorrow that companion animals are viewed as, even legally classified as livestock, rather than the family members they should be. And fear that I will fail them.
I know that I will fail some of them. I cannot save them all. Neither I nor my organization have the money, the manpower, the political clout or enough other resources to remove all of them from harm. But we will keep trying, because we can and because we have to. We can at least save some, give them the gift of love and family and future.
I don’t want to go. I have been on a roller coaster all week, distracted and angry and so grateful to all the others who help these innocent creatures. I read again some of Joan Fremo’s writing from the PyrAngel site and am almost reduced to tears.
But I don’t have time to weep. I pull in to the site, park in the pasture and scan the vehicles, perhaps hoping that it’s been called off, or that some agency has swooped in and shut down the auction, taking all of the dogs to rescue. But no such luck. So I go in and get registered, grab a catalog, and go see the dogs.
The stench slaps at me the moment I walk into the building. As dog auctions go, this is supposedly clean and well run, but in two days they are running more than 500 dogs through the selling floor, some of them healthy, some of them not — the stack cages and the kennels are full. High school age kids rinse kennels with the hose and squeegee waste into the canal that runs along the floor. Puppies tentatively wag their tails as people stop to examine them, but the older dogs mostly just lie there, without hope, without joy, as though they have lost any expectation of being loved.
A few puppies have goop in their eyes, some are too lethargic to notice the crowd of people walking around, so many people that it is hard to get to all of the dogs I need to see. I hear sellers disparaging show breeders and the AKC and the USDA, and talking about all the paperwork and medical care that cuts into their profits. And I want to scream. I want to get into someone’s face and find out why they think they have a right to manipulate these lives for nothing more than a few bucks. I want to tell them about the breeder whose puppies almost all have orthopedic problems, but I know that he has made trades with many of them for “unrelated stock,” and I know that they don’t want to know. They don’t care. And I want to cry. But I don’t have time to weep.
I have to pay attention, to figure out who is buying and who is selling and what kind of prices they are willing to bid up to today. I have a strict budget, a limited number of foster homes, and serious medical concerns for many of these dogs. If the Amish and Mennonites are hell-bent on picking up a lot of new stock, I may not be able to save any. They have more money than I do. I talk to a few people around me, and find that at least two are here to bid on the breed I am there to get. They want to get into the business of breeding that kind of dog. All I can say to them is that it is an awfully expensive proposition — failed breedings, c-sections, sick mothers, fragile newborns, not to mention the testing that should be done BEFORE A DOG IS EVER BRED to reduce the risks of heart and blood diseases, orthopedic problems, eye disease and cancers. But they cannot see past the greenbacks to see the suffering of the animals in pain and loneliness, or the anguish of the families that buy a mill puppy that dies within weeks, sometimes days, but always after the family has fallen in love. They have no concept of what it is like to watch a dog who has almost no hip socket, who moves around by virtue of muscle and tendon and strength of will, because she loves her people and she wants to be with them and to play and to be a normal dog. Which she can never be, and my heart breaks when I see her try to keep up with the other dogs. She tries so hard. But I don’t have time to cry for her right now.
My eyes sting and my head aches from the stench, and the constant barrage of noise and odor leaves me with no appetite. I go out to my car to decompress and to grab some food, any food, that I have brought along. I cannot taste it, the food cannot overcome the foul air from the auction barn, but I know that without some nourishment I won’t make it back to the rescue home base that night. I call to relay numbers and breeder names, and to find out when help will arrive. It will be up to me to bid for the dogs, and I remember too clearly the anguish of leaving empty handed. I have to disconnect emotion from action, and be prepared for too many possibilities.
I see other rescue representatives around the room. We quietly acknowledge each other, but most of us don’t speak to each other much during the auction. We don’t want to identify others in rescue to the auction staff, and we all know too well what we are each going through. The auctioneer knows who most of us are, and makes quite a show of putting rescue together with breeders who need help getting rid of dogs they don’t want. One breeder is trying to unload an unintentional crossbred litter, four to five weeks old. They need to be moved right away. The breeder needs to get her female ready for another breeding.
My breed is next, and I have to steel myself to bid low and to stop when our limit is reached. The first girls come out, and although bidding begins in a reasonable range, it soon climbs well beyond what I can spend. The auction staff knows I am with rescue, and they keep looking over at me, expecting me to go higher. I can’t. My heart is breaking, but if we continue to pay high prices, we just encourage them to think they have a ready market in us. The only way to bring the prices back down is to bid low or not bid at all. But in doing so, we sacrifice some of the dogs. I will live with that all of my life, and I will always wonder…
I no longer sit in the bleachers facing the front of the auction ring. If I look at the dogs face to face, I know I won’t be able to shake my head no. As it is, I see one male puppy whose head and build and expression are so much like that of my own auction rescue I can’t help but wonder whether they are related — but I cannot save him, the price goes too high. Another piece of my soul leaves the ring with him, as with every dog I cannot help.
The next group doesn’t go as high, and I get a couple of the girls. I pay more than I had wanted, but an extra $25 is a small price to pay to keep another female out of the millers’ hands. We have enough adoption applications to place almost every dog we can get, and donations to cover the vetting. Their ages in the catalog range from barely eight weeks to over a year, but we have learned over the years that those dates are meaningless. I remember one older girl we got – when we took in to be spayed and the vet opened, her up her belly was full of cancer. We didn’t wake her up. She had been sold as a ‘proven female,’ said to be six years old. The vet estimated 12 years and too many litters. We stopped a few moments to weep for her as she was finally freed from pain.
Several breeders pull some of their puppies from the sale as it becomes apparent they won’t command the prices the breeders want. We end up with a third of the dogs of our breed that are sold, but I feel as though I have spent most of the day shaking my head no. I spent more than I was supposed to, although not by much. I’ll take the extra from my own pockets if I have to. A breeder comes over to offer me a dog he had pulled when the bidding didn’t reach the reserve price, though the high bid had gone to another breeder. I refuse the reserve price, and he offers me the dog at the level of the final bid. I say yes. As he gets up to notify the desk, he tells me he would rather we get the dog than the other breeder. I want to believe that he means it. But I can’t stop to hope, I have more bidding, another dog or two to try to bring home. I get two more.
I go to pay for the dogs, get their paperwork, try to get the auction house vet to provide health certificates, and get the dogs loaded. As I fill out money orders and credit card forms, another buyer asks what I plan to do with all those dogs. I tell him that we will find them good homes. He decries my lack of profit motive, but admits they probably ought to be pets. So should the ones he has bought, but he doesn’t suggest that will happen.
The vet insists on seeing all of the paperwork before he will look at the dogs, then asks whether we’re with rescue. We ask him why that would matter, and he tells us he doesn’t want to sign anything for rescue, there was a complaint and he had to appear before the Missouri Veterinary Board and it was all so very unpleasant. We know the vet who lodged that complaint — she was livid at the condition of the puppies brought to her facility the night of an auction, complete with health certificates, but with illnesses that had not just suddenly blossomed in the three hours it took to transport them.
He looks at the paperwork, says they all have all their vaccines and we don’t need, nor will we get, anything else. As we leave, we hear someone ask about a positive test result, but the door is closed on us before we can find out what test or which dogs were affected. The last snatch of conversation confirms that it seemed to all be from one kennel. But they won’t tell us anything. All of the dogs had been brought through the same holding area into the same auction ring, about two thirds of the dogs were placed on the table and one third on the floor, neither of which are ever cleaned in the seven hours it takes to auction off more than 200 lives. But I can’t stop to worry about that now.
We load the dogs for the drive home. There are three vehicles, and we have split the dogs among us. I carry two of the 8-week olds, with their sharp little barks and their plaintive cries for their mother. I also carry a barker and a howler, and it takes a half hour for them to settle down. One relaxes enough to fill the van with fragrance; none of them had any chance to run around or relieve themselves, the auction house loads them directly into our crates and sends us on our way.
I open the back vents and crank up the heater. It is a cold night, and the two little ones are so small that I am grateful they have each other for warmth. The larger puppies should have enough hair and stamina to deal with the chill. If they’re not already sick.
After miles and miles of dark roads, we get to the barn. More help is there, and we unload and get pictures, and take a few minutes to watch the puppies play. I hold one of the smallest ones while we find a warmer space for the three littlest ones. He trembles as he molds himself to me. I can’t put him down. I stroke his tiny body, and put my cheek to his head, cooing to him and promising him everything will be all right. I hold him almost 15 minutes and he has almost stopped trembling by the time we put him in with the other two babies. We find a space where we can put a heater, and some carpet. The three of them play and explore for a few minutes and then fall asleep in their exhaustion. A few days later a vet will tell us the smallest of them can’t be more than four weeks old.
The personalities of all of the puppies have begun to emerge as they have a chance to interact and take more than two steps without being caught by a tether or stopped by a cage door. They start to carry their heads a bit higher, and their tails no longer droop, and you start to see a little bit of a sparkle in their eyes. They are still terribly frightened, and they fight against going through doors or walking on leash, but they look at us with almost hopeful expressions. Almost.
Some of them come back to my garage, on their way west. I can’t house them inside because they haven’t been thoroughly checked yet and my own animals already have health issues. Yesterday was my own auction rescue girl’s birthday, but rather than playing and getting treats, she and my shelter rescue and my cat get hustled off to board at the vet clinic. She doesn’t seem to mind, she loves the vet’s staff and they love her, and I think she knows why I have to go. Every now and then I have to remind her that I always come back, that she will never be deserted or alone or unloved. As long as I remind her, she’s fine. If I go without reminding her too long, she gets anxious and sticks to my side. But I think she approves.
I get my visitors settled in, and I try to unwind. I pour a drink, I take a bath, I try to feel normal again. But my mind is overwhelmed, I am exhausted, road weary and emotionally spent. I want to go out and hug the puppies, but I also want them to sleep. They have another long day and another long drive to go to get to their foster homes. I am thrilled for them, for what their futures will be, and I wish we had so many to foster that I would have to make space for some. But we don’t, and I don’t, and I need to sleep before I collapse. I have so much to do tomorrow.
I get up at six and try to get the dogs to play. I bring them food and water and encourage them to come out of their crates. One is happy to come out and examine the world, and mark as much of it as he can. He inhales his food and looks to be on his way to emptying the gallon bucket of water I brought out. The other boy won’t budge. Not food, not water, not sunshine or grass or snow can tempt him. He looks at me with fear and doubt and such anguish that I want to explain to him that he’s safe now, he’s heading to a good life with wonderful people and playmates and he will be well cared for. But he doesn’t trust me, and there is nothing I can do in the hour before he will leave that will change his mind.
Their transport arrives and my friend hauls the frightened one – all forty pounds of him – out of his crate. The puppy resists, then tentatively sniffs at the food, at the driveway, and at the grass. I walk out into the yard and call to him and he runs over to me. He moves away a few steps and relieves himself for what must be the first time in at least 12 hours. And then he runs back to me and reaches up to say hi, to check me out and to stretch. His front paws almost reach my chest, he looks into my face with surprise and inquisitiveness and what looks like hope. And I scratch his neck and his ears and his belly and tell him it will be okay, he really does have a future. And tears come to my eyes. But there is no time.
We load the puppies for the drive west, and make sure they have enough food and water. They look at me and hang their heads — have I betrayed them, too? No, I tell them, one more day, and they will be in foster homes where they will be loved and taught and nourished, body and soul. I don’t know whether they believe me. The van doors close and I wave goodbye to them. I know they will be wonderful, happy dogs, and I know they won’t remember me. I don’t want them to, because I don’t want them to remember anything of their lives before they reach their foster homes. I am only a waystation. We will find them forever homes, but it will be the fosters who truly bring them back into the light.
I can’t worry about that right now, I must clean the crates and the car and the garage and the yard, and start the laundry with the clothes from yesterday, and wish my son a happy birthday, and run the errands that should have been done yesterday.
I pick up my dogs from the vet’s, the staff is disappointed that I’m not bringing puppies to them, but they have loved having my girls staying with them. We get home and the dogs race out of the car and run around the yard like they were still puppies themselves. They find the scent of the other dogs and try to figure out where I have hidden these strangers. I get the cat inside and settled, and go back out to watch my girls. And I feel like the luckiest person on earth to have found them. I know that each of those who adopts one of the thirteen we brought back yesterday will feel just as lucky, and I know those lucky dogs will know much love and joy. My girls run and chase each other and look back to where I stand, then start chasing each other again.
I can stop, and take a breath. And for just a moment, weep.