When sheriff’s deputies and rescue volunteers raided a mobile home on the outskirts of Leland two weeks ago, they found conditions so deplorable that the owner’s of the residence, Amelia and Andrew Millis, pleaded guilty on Friday to running what has been derisively referred to as a puppy mill. The husband and wife were sentenced to three years supervised probation and forbidden from possessing animals ever again.
“It was a scene out of a horror movie,” recalled Darci VanderSlik, a spokesperson for SPCA of Wake County and one of the workers who helped rescue nearly 160 dogs formerly under the Millis’ care. “It was hard to breathe; hard to open your eyes.”
Animal welfare groups have long fought to raise awareness about illegal commercial breeding operations. The recent arrests in Brunswick County have reignited calls for regulating facilities that make money in large-scale puppy production.
North Carolina is among fifteen states with no rules governing breeders who sell to the public. The absence of regulations essentially allows puppy mills to operate unless the conditions are so bad they violate the state’s criminal animal welfare laws, critics say. Because there are no inspections, dogs suffer until someone reports the situation – usually by chance occurrence where someone witnesses the abuse.
The lack of enforceable standards in North Carolina has also opened the door to rogue breeders fleeing crackdowns in other states.
The Humane Society of the United States defines puppy mills as facilities that house animals in “shockingly poor” conditions and make them pump out babies for profit. After their fertility subsides, dogs are usually killed, abandoned or sold to another mill to try and force one more litter. The organization estimates between 2 and 4 million puppy mill puppies are sold in the country every year.
State Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican from Lincoln County, wants to introduce legislation during the upcoming N.C. General Assembly session to restrict how dogs are bred and sold. His plans, previously reported by WRAL-TV, were announced at least partially in response to the Millis’ recent arrests.
But winning support for new measures might prove difficult. Interest groups worried about regulations adversely impacting legitimate industry, particularly agriculture, opposed similar efforts in the past.
To assuage those concerns, Saine said lawmakers will narrow the definition of a puppy mill and consult with stakeholders to avoid burdening law-abiding businesses. One option being considered is licensing and periodically inspecting breeders, but how to fund such a program is not clear. Another possibility is upping the penalty for violators of the state’s animal cruelty statutes, which critics view as weak.
Beyond humane treatment, advocates of regulating puppy production say standards will shield buyers from exorbitant veterinary bills and behavioral problems.
“People are paying good dollars for these animals and if they’ve been bred this way and live in these conditions, they wind up with so many other issues,” Saine said in a phone interview.
One of the Millis’ neighbors, Jessica Canady, 24, said her mother bought a Maltese Yorkie from the couple about two years ago. He often seems stressed and distant.
“He won’t lay in your lap and let you cuddle him,” she said about Baxter. “He’s very high-strung.”
While welfare groups continue pursuing stiffer regulations, other organizations are raising concerns about the effectiveness and unintended consequences of legislation because puppy mills comprise a very small proportion of commercial dog breeding, opponents say.
“When states have passed overly broad legislation as a means of controlling commercial breeding … we have noticed consistent problems with enforcement and resources at the state level,” Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, said in a written response to questions.
“It goes to show, when legislation focuses on the … purchase of the dog and or on the number of dogs a person owns instead of on the health and wellbeing of the dog, efforts fail,” she added.
The AKC has taken a stand against proposed changes to the federal Animal Welfare Act that are intended to increase oversight of breeders who sell directly without consumers being able to assess the welfare of the dogs on sight. The proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would close a loophole that allows puppy mills to skirt federal welfare standards by selling the dogs over the Internet and then shipping them to customers, supporters say.
But the AKC objects because the organization believes the proposal is overly broad, saying it would impose costs “far too high for hobby breeders, specifically those who choose to breed and raise dogs in a home environment rather than kennel,” Peterson said.
Even if the proposal takes effect, animal welfare groups say breeders can still avoid scrutiny by federal regulators and the public by breeding puppies in one location and selling them in another.
That is precisely what the Millises did.
The couple showed their puppies on a website at MillisKennelsAdorablePups.com. The site features pictures of healthy-looking puppies, including Schnauzers, Malteses and Pomeranians, priced between $350 and $500.
The case began building when earlier this month, two undercover detectives outfitted with video and audio recording devices visited the Millis’ home at 521 Rose Avenue, a modest brick home in Wilmington where the couple sold their puppies. While inside the house, the detectives saw multiple steel kennels in a 4-by-8 foot room that was adjacent to the living room. Each kennel contained between five and 10 dogs, according to an affidavit. The smell of ammonia, a byproduct of animal waste, was “overwhelming.”
During their visit, Amelia Millis offered to personally instruct the detectives on how to start and maintain their own puppy breeding business. She described how she personally performed medical procedures on her animals, such as docking the tail by wrapping a rubber band tightly around it until a portion of it dies. She also told detectives that they bred the dogs at their other property at 2059 Maco Road in Leland, and that the air conditioning at that residence was not working properly.
On Aug. 3, sheriff’s deputies and rescue volunteers launched simultaneous raids at both properties, recovering nearly 160 dogs that witnesses said lived in squalor. At the Millis’ mobile home on Maco Road, they found a backyard chock full of kennels, with dogs exposed to the elements and hidden from neighbors by a privacy fence. many had matted fur, ingrown nails, and corneal burns from ammonia exposure. Mothers nursing new litters were lying in dirt-infested cages. some were soaked in urine or covered in their own feces. The dogs were transported to shelters for evaluation and, eventually, adoption.
The Millises had been confined at the Brunswick County jail under a $1.5 million bond on animal cruelty charges until they pleaded guilty in Brunswick County court on Friday.
Neighbors living next to the Millis’ Rose Avenue home said last weekend that cars frequently came in and out. While they heard barking, they never saw any dogs outside.
No one answered a knock at the door over the weekend. A stone lying in front of the Millis’ house was engraved with the words, “Dogs Leave Paw Prints On Our Hearts.”
Brian Freskos: 343-2327
On Twitter: @BrianFreskos