Don’t Call Me A Pimp

Excellent article that deserves frequent reposting:

Don’t Call Me A Pimp

by Margaret Anne Cleek

(From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1993.)

When I lived in Detroit, I had a close friend who was a state welfare fraud investigator. To hear him tell it, every welfare mom was living it up on the dole, thought she had a right to have the government provide for every child she had, and had a man stashed away who lived off her check. His solution was to cut off the freeloading and make these people work for a living. He dehumanized all people on welfare, calling them the “scum de la scum,” and always expected the worst of them.

Why did he think all welfare recipients were ripping off the system? The system abusers were the only people he ever saw. His perception of the situation was distorted because his sample did not accurately reflect the population of welfare recipients. His contempt for the people and the system left him unable to understand the complexity of the issues and solutions. But as he saw it, he was in the front lines and therefore he knew what needed to be done.

The perceptual distortion my friend experienced occurs in many occupations. I would suggest that humane work is one of them. Humane workers mostly see abused, neglected, or abandoned animals, and encounter a disproportionate number of abusive and negligent people. Their world often divides into two groups: us, the rescuers, and them, the reason animals need to be rescued, with little or no in-between. Animal protection activists may likewise suffer from perceptual distortion, because of the frequent use of worst cases along with exaggerated rhetoric in fundraising appeals.

Because people in animal protection mostly see and hear about irresponsible pet owners, they come to believe that all pet owners other than themselves are unfit to keep animals. Because they see hundreds or even thousands of unwanted and surplus animals, they believe all breeding should be stopped. Because most of the purebreds they see have been rejected by someone due to poor health or behavior, they come to believe that all purebred breeders are producing animals with horrendous defects.

Just as some law enforcement officers become so discouraged and frustrated that they resort to administering “street justice,” demoralized and despairing rescuers may come to hate and dehumanize the people they hold accountable. Their anger is sometimes displaced toward readily available targets rather than toward those who are actually responsible, who may be harder to deal with.

The cost is heavy in the struggle against pet overpopulation. Humane groups increasingly focus their energies on lobbying in support of sweeping anti-breeding ordinances, which have little chance of passage in most jurisdictions and less chance of effective enforcement even if adopted. Dog and cat fanciers, many of them long involved in animal protection themselves, respond with costly public relations efforts and counter-offensives against some of the very humane groups they once supported.

Meanwhile, budget-conscious governments are reducing funding of neutering programs despite their record of success, and slashing animal control budgets to where many animal control departments are forced to euthanize more strays, sooner, with no money at all left over for humane education­­including spreading the word about the need for neutering.

I am not immune to perceptual distortion myself, based on my experience as a purebred dog fancier in a community which recently considered (and rejected) a stringent anti-breeding ordinance. I have responded to personal abuse with perhaps overbroad characterizations of those who attacked me, possibly adding to the animosity that increasingly divides the humane community. But my reality was that all my life I have been an animal person. If not for the pre-feminism sexist career counseling I received, I would have become a veterinarian. Animals, especially dogs, are not a business to me, nor a hobby. They are an integral part of my life. They have been my lifeline in times of desperate unhappiness. I have spent a lifetime learning about dogs, and have always acted for their welfare.

One night I went to bed secure in my persona as an animal person. The next morning, in a Kafkaesque transformation, I woke up in the uniform of the enemy with a “kick me” sign on my butt. I had been defined as “the pet overpopulation problem” by people who didn’t know anything about what I and others like me did. A woman with a great salary from an animal rights organization with a million-dollar-plus budget was considered an impartial voice for animals, but I, who have never shown a dime’s profit from animals, was defined as a money-driven special interest. The director of an animal shelter that releases thousands of unaltered animals every year was trying to pass laws to control me­­although in twelve years as a breeder I have never sold an animal who subsequently sired or whelped a litter. When his abysmally low redemption rate on neutering deposits was pointed out to him, he mentioned, without providing any empiric evidence to support his position, that the animals were being fixed and that people were leaving the deposits as donations. At the same time, he scoffed at the neutering contracts required by responsible breeders, calling even one unaltered animal “a time bomb.”

Supporters of the breeding ordinance got away with claiming 20 million surplus animals are euthanized each year, more than three times the actual number shown by current pound and shelter surveys; that purebreds universally suffer from serious health problems; that breeders kill puppies who don’t conform to artificial standards of perfection; that breeders who care about animals support breeding bans; that the overwhelming majority of animals at shelters are healthy and adoptable; and that pet overpopulation is fast getting worse, though the hard evidence from around the U.S. indicates exactly the opposite.

When I took the time to research the issues and present some alternative approaches based on the available data, my work was rejected out of hand by the breeding ordinance backers because I am (cringe) a breeder.

In fact, some animal protection activists­­not all­­are money-and-power-driven control freaks who don’t like either people or animals very much. And some breeders, though unfortunately not all, are highly ethical individuals who care deeply for animals and consistently act in the best interests of all animals. No one camp has a monopoly on the good guys and the bad guys.

According to an American Kennel Club membership survey, most breeders are concerned with animal welfare, and consider pet overpopulation, puppy mills, and backyard breeders to be problems deserving prompt and serious attention.

Groups in conflict often overcome differences when they work together to achieve a common goal. Animal welfare and reducing the euthanasia count in shelters can be that goal for humane advocates and fancier/breeders­­if humane advocates are willing to involve us as part of the solution, instead of defining us as part of the problem.

Ethical breeding

Let me tell you something about us. Reputable fancier/breeders, of whom there are tens of thousands, have quality breeding stock which is tested clear for genetic disease and is of sound temperament. Husbandry is not, as yet, an exact science. We cannot produce defect-free animals, but we make ethical decisions, and do the best we can. Breeding by reputable fancier/breeders is done to improve the quality of the breed. Many of us breed only when we wish to keep an animal to exhibit or to add an animal to our breeding program. Some fanciers are reputed for producing quality animals. Newcomers who wish to show or add to their own breeding programs purchase animals from them. Such established breeders may produce several litters per year (not from the same mothers), but will have long waiting lists for the offspring.

Fancier/breeders may have thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars invested in breeding programs and individual dogs. We do not casually give away our bloodlines. We are careful about who gets our stock, as we do not want our valuable bloodlines to fall into the hands of backyard would-be commercial breeders. Our champion studs are not offered to service animals who are not of championship quality, for the same reason.

Some breeders who exhibit and are members of the fancy try to cover their expenses by producing litters for sale on the pet market. Some sell females on “puppy back” or “kitten back” contracts, requiring the purchaser to breed the animal and give one or more of the offspring back to the breeder. Co-ownership and animal-back contracts are in my opinion ethical in special instances, but I feel that someone who breeds many litters and sells the majority of the females on such terms is essentially a puppy mill (or the feline equivalent). Most fanciers frown on such tactics. I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to make back pet-related expenses, but the choices made when money is the motive differ from those made with the welfare of the breed in mind. Animal-back is not, in my opinion, in the best interest of the animals when practiced on a large scale.

Many people not familiar with the dog fancy believe that fanciers think of their dogs as commodities and that they have no “doggie quality of life.” It is true that some dogs are maintained during their show careers in conditions more conducive to coat quality than life quality, but this is not true for the majority of our dogs. Most of us maintain our homes for the comfort, happiness, and security of our dogs. Many show dogs are members of the family, and may arrive at a show after spending the night on their owners’ bed.

Show dogs generally receive excellent nutrition and veterinary care because of the owner’s concern for their welfare and condition. Many retired show dogs live out the rest of their lives in their original homes, lording over the up-and-coming youngsters. Some are neutered and placed in homes as pets where they can enjoy the status of being an only dog.

Dogs who may not meet the breeders’ requirements in terms of structure, marking, coat quality, dentition, and so forth are sold or placed in homes. While a responsible breeder will euthanize a pup with a deformity affecting the quality of his or her life, such as a cleft palate, destruction of animals for minor cosmetic flaws is not standard practice. Fancier/breeders are not to be confused with performance breeders who may produce and destroy puppies en masse in search of the fastest greyhounds, strongest sled dogs, and smartest hunting dogs. There is a market for dogs of most breeds who are neither candidates for the show ring, nor potential performance champions, if they have been adequately socialized. Socializing pups, which performance breeders may neglect, is an essential part of the fancier/breeder’s regimen, and while the performance breeder’s “culls” may only get in the way of his training routine, pups who aren’t potential show dogs still have a role in acclimating their siblings to a family atmosphere. They have value, in other words, that isn’t exclusively related to their sale price.

I am proud to sell one of my pups to a good home; what more could I ask for a pup than to become a valued member of a family?

Pets are often sold on neutering contracts, so that the buyers do not acquire breeding rights. Recently the American Kennel Club has made it possible for breeders to specify on the registration form that a specific dog is not sold for breeding. Such dogs are registerable, but their offspring are not. This is called limited registration. Concerned breeders applaud this development. The once accepted norm at AKC, that the papers had to go with the dog, and that any offspring of registered parents were registerable, created a lot of the problems we have today.

As I have argued elsewhere, I would like to see it become a requirement that all pups have limited registration, and that this be changed only when the owner has met minimum requirements for knowledge of the breed, and the dog has met some criteria of genetic health. Certainly all dogs sold at pet shops should be sold with limited registration­­but I suspect the pet industry would fight such a requirement tooth-and-nail. It should be noted that unscrupulous people could still breed limited registration or unregistered dogs, as they do now, and offer them for sale as “guaranteed full-blooded.” My recommendation is not a perfect solution to backyard breeding industry, just one means of putting a crimp in it while insuring the integrity of registration.

For reputable breeders, the commitment to the buyer extends beyond the sale. The first year of a pup’s life is generally hell on the owner. The breeder gives advice and assures the owner that it will get better, insuring that the pup doesn’t become a shelter statistic before completing housebreaking. Reputable breeders take back animals who cannot be kept by their owners and re-place them in suitable homes. These animals are not “surplus.” There are, unfortunately, some people who own one or more registered purebred dogs, usually of inferior stock, and sell their offspring as “AKC registered.” Their commitment to the buyer ends at the point of sale, and they do not require buyers to neuter the dogs. Such backyard breeders are not generally willing or able to take back dogs who can no longer be kept by the buyer.

“Backyard” is an attitude and condition, not a place. Reputable fanciers may keep and breed animals in their yards, but not be “backyard breeders.” My definition of a “backyard breeder” is someone who breeds dogs only for the purpose of making money. Any registered dog will do, and temperament and health are not considered. Many of these dogs are barely recognizable as the breed they represent. Corners are cut whenever possible; vaccinations may be omitted, or the dogs may receive low quality food. The pups are not properly socialized, and any buyer with the money will do.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think any breeder who doesn’t show dogs is a “backyard breeder.” But a reputable breeder must do something with a dog other than mate him or her, and must accept responsibility for the pups he or she produces.

I also consider the “just one litter” breeder to be a backyard breeder. Regardless of motivation, and even if the pups are properly socialized, people should not be producing pups for sale without the commitment and experience to do so properly. Many of the “just one litter” breeders are surprised to learn there is no market for their pups.

Members of the humane community need to know that while backyard and “just one litter” breeders are collectively responsible for a great many pups, most of them if asked would claim they are not breeders. I have called such individuals and told them they had bred an animal turned in to rescue, and that they needed to take responsibility for the animal­­with little expectation that they would, but at least I could bust their chops a little. These people were incredulous that I called them breeders. They had a dog who had pups; they weren’t breeders.

One of our rescue workers calls people who place newspaper ads for our breed, urging them to carefully place their puppies and informing them that when a dog comes into rescue we try to identify the breeder and return the dog. Again, these people say they aren’t breeders. They couldn’t be expected to take back a dog­­where would they put it?

When humane advocates talk of breeding bans and permits, these people don’t think you mean them. Most would continue to do their thing, oblivious to the legislation, or pay one unaltered license fee and produce a litter or two before spaying their bitch. Remember, they are not breeders; they just have a dog who has pups.

There are large-scale out-of-state commercial breeders and/or puppy mill operations that supply pet stores. They do not require neutering, nor do they take back dogs. I am informed that pet shops sometimes tell buyers they can breed their acquisitions to make back the purchase price. Now that the public is getting the word that pet shops are not the best place to purchase a dog, though, some commercial breeders are selling through private individuals, who receive shipments and sell “home-raised” pups on commission. They may even claim to be doing “placement” of puppies “rescued” from puppy mills. They use the rhetoric of animal protection to help them collect big “adoption fees.” And they too are not breeders.

Breeding vs. overpopulation

Commercial puppy production is big business. The fancier/breeder’s puppy production is a drop in the bucket compared to the commercial kennel’s proudction. Yet breeding bans and permit systems generally affect us while leaving the commercial breeders untouched. Indeed some proposed forms of breeding regulation would insure that commercial kennels would become the only source of purebred pups. And shelters would only have the unsocialized offspring of the urban strays turned out by the irresponsibles. I would hate to see this happen.

Some humane activists would cheer the demise of the purebred. I think this is naive. There is a tendency to over-romanticize the mutt. Purebreds give assurance of type and temperament, helping people pick the right dog for their lifestyle and conditions. When organizations such as the Humane Society of the U.S. push shelter adoptions by advancing the “one size fits all” theory, they do both dogs and people a disservice. People should not be forced to accept animals of unknown genetic background. Random-bred dogs may have inherited a predisposition toward dangerous or undesireable behavior. Some mixes are inherently dangerous, e.g. a large guarding breed crossed with a highly reactive herding breed. The position that all pups are created equal and if we love them they will turn out right simply is not true. Dogs provide a strong argument for behavioral genetics. Despite Barbara Woodhouse’s often quoted statement that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners, there are bad dogs. Aggression toward humans and/or other animals, fear-biting, shyness, and so forth are inheritable characteristics, which responsible breeders strive to keep out of their breeding stock.

I believe animal shelters have a responsibility to protect the public from potentially dangerous and otherwise unsuitable animals­­not least because urging the adoption of these animals can result in even greater numbers of homeless animals. Some pups offered by shelters have literally been dragged out of dens after their homeless mother has been captured, and have had no socialization. The risk that they may never be acceptably socialized is exascerbated when we are dealing with an adult animal of unknown behavioral background. As a dog expert, I would advise any family unfamiliar with dogs against adopting a large dog of unknown background if they have small children. Adopting an adult dog is not the problem-free experience that many shelter workers suggest. It is possible that the dog is at the shelter because of behavioral problems, and further problems such as illness and aggression toward other dogs may result from the shelter experience. In any case, the dog will be confused and stressed by his or her rapidly changing circumstances, perhaps requiring more care and understanding than a pup.

Shelter dog adoption is appropriate for the very special people who understand what they may have to cope with, and have the necessary emotional and physical resources. But many people who perhaps could not successfully socialize a shelter animal nonetheless make very good dog owners if they are able to purchase the particular sort of dog who best suits their requirements, with follow-up help provided by the breeder.

As a dog fancier, I strive not only to promote dogs, but also to produce the “better bred” dog. And I try to tactfully educate those who think dog breeding only requires finding two dogs of the same breed and the opposite sex and getting them together.

As a responsible breeder, I refuse to accept reponsibility for creating pet overpopulation. And I do not buy the illogical argument that the birth of a healthy, wanted purebred litter displaces shelter animals. If you raise two happy, healthy children who are much loved and cared for, are you responsible for a battered child in the home of a substance abuser and a child in the Third World who is forced into slave labor or who sleeps on the street? You may wish to help those children, too, but the care you provide to your own takes nothing away from them.

While I do not accept blame for pet overpopulation, I would like to accept some responsibility for providing solutions. I have ideas to offer, and would like to open communication. But before we talk, could you please take those “All Breeders are PIMPS” bumper stickers off your car?

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