One day early last month, Gary Larrowe, the county administrator of Carroll County, Va., declared the small town of Hillsville a disaster area.

Image: Puppies

There were just too many puppies to deal with.

“We counted 1,080 dogs on November the 2nd,” Larrowe said, making it necessary to call in state emergency officials and the Red Cross to help.

Carroll County found itself with 1,080 dogs — topping 1,100 after a few new births over the following days — after county animal control officers, acting on information compiled during a five-month undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States, raided Horton’s Pups, a mass breeding farm in Hillsville, near Roanoke.

More than a dozen animal rescue agencies, some from as far away as Florida, agreed to care for and distribute the dogs for adoption. Their task is difficult. Most were already near capacity, and space is at a premium because, with winter approaching, animals can’t always be housed outdoors.

The breeding farm, which was raided Nov. 1, is “the biggest operation of its kind to our knowledge ever,” said John Snyder of the Humane Society. It is one part of a nationwide network of thousands of puppy mills that sell purebred dogs to pet stores, animal brokers and Web-based pet businesses.

Puppy mills are generally legal. Large commercial operations where puppies are bred for profit are regulated by the U.S. Agriculture Department, but many do not register with the department, and enforcement of humane regulations is a low priority, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

This year, however, state and local agencies have sharply stepped up their own raids on puppy mills, said Stephanie Shain, outreach director for the Humane Society.

Assembly line breeding condemned
The Hillsville operation was “basically a factory farm where female dogs are constantly bred over and over again in often unsanitary conditions, and then the puppies are taken away from their moms and sent to pet stores all over the United States,” said Cherie Wachter of the Broward County, Fla., Humane Society, which took in about 100 of the dogs.

The operator of the farm, Junior Horton, 44, defended his business, which operated under licenses allowing only 500 dogs. He called the seizure of his animals “dognapping” and said his kennel was one of the best in southwest Virginia.


Fighting puppy mills
Dogs are bred as fast as possible and at all costs at unregulated “puppy mills.” NBC’s Maria Menounos reports.
Today show

“We take good care of the pups here, and we make sure they get everything they need,” Horton said.

Indeed, most of the puppies — mainly purebred corgis, King Charles spaniels, bichons and Jack Russell terriers — were in fairly good shape, animal rescue workers said. That’s because they’re more valuable to the dog brokers who act as middlemen between puppy mills and pet stores.

“The puppies get the priority. They’re cute, they’re cuddly and [they’re] sold for a lot of money,” said Kelly Farrell, director of the Angels of Assisi shelter in Roanoke, which took in about 60 of the dogs.

But the adult dogs, housed in above-ground rabbit hutches where they bred countless litters, were another story.

Workers at the assisting shelters said the animals were not appropriate for adoption by first-time dog owners. Their eyes were bloodshot, and their hair was matted. Most had intestinal parasites. None were trained or housebroken.

“We’re excited to be able to remove them from that horrible situation,” said Kate Hamilton of the Richmond, Va., Society for the Prevention of Animal Abuse.

Enforcement moves to state, local levels
If you have ever wondered where pet shops get all those cute little puppies, the answer is places like Hillsville. Animal rescue workers say the network of secret puppy mills numbers in the thousands nationwide, most maintaining fewer than 200 dogs but some much larger.

The scale of the industry has been highlighted by a series of prominent raids in the last few weeks, many driven by tips derived from Humane Society and ASPCA investigations.