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A dog-rescuer working with breeders? Take a peek into the gray area of rescue work

"The Doggie in the Window" author Rory Kress found that cultivating relationships with puppy mills can be controversial, but one Colorado-based organization saves thousands of dogs that otherwise would be killed

Rory Kress is a journalist who has covered stories around the world.

A two-time Emmy Award winner, she holds a BA in creative writing from Princeton University and graduated at the top of her class from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

She lives in Denver.

The following is an excerpt from Kress’ book, “Doggie in the Window.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Nonfiction

Melissa* is sitting in the open back hatch of her dusty SUV, whispering to an apricot-colored corgi in a cage. She’s a dog breeder in her late thirties and has her black hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. She wears a Bluetooth earpiece and faded jeans. Her car bears bumper stickers from Protect the Harvest and slogans like My other auto is an AK-47. Melissa has met us at her mother’s house outside Lebanon, Missouri, where both she and her younger sister have come to give up a few longstanding members of their breeding stock to a rescue—the more humane form of retirement. They followed in their mother’s footsteps, continuing the family breeding business. The younger sister opens up her car to reveal two rambunctious Boston terriers and several Pomeranians in a separate cage. The rescue team approaches her car first, careful to avoid the emotional outpouring coming from her sister Melissa with the corgi.

“Will you guys keep in touch and let me know where they end up?” the younger sister, Jamie, asks. “Maybe even send me a picture of them with the families they go to?”

“Of course,” one of the rescuers says as she takes a pair of Pomeranians in her arms and makes her way to one of the two Sprinter vans filled with nearly one hundred rescued dogs.

Jamie approaches the van cautiously and looks at the cages of dogs stacked and tethered together all the way to the ceiling. “People are really going to adopt all these dogs?” she asks incredulously. “Like, they’ll all get homes?”

“Doggie in the Window” author Rory Kress. (Photo by Andrea Flanagan Photography)

“Some might take a while longer than others, but yes. Eventually, they all will,” Theresa Strader, the head of the National Mill Dog Rescue, informs her plainly. Since 2007, her Colorado-based organization has rescued, rehabilitated, and found homes for more than ten thousand dogs from breeding facilities. She’s agreed to let me tag along on one of her monthly rescue trips across the heartland.

“Melissa is really struggling,” Jamie whispers to us, nodding toward her sister, now openly weeping over her ten-year-old corgi’s cage. “I don’t know if she’s going to give him up.”

With the corgi as the last remaining dog on the list to rescue at this stop, Theresa approaches Melissa with a tenderness she typically reserves only for four-legged animals.

“I don’t think I can let him go,” Melissa says, brushing her tears into her slicked-back hairline. “He’s my lapdog.”

“I know,” Theresa says as gently as she can. But she knows that this corgi has never been and never will be a lapdog as long as it stays here. “It’s time he got to retire and enjoy his life as a dog.”

Melissa slowly opens the cage. Instead of handing him over to Theresa’s waiting arms, she pulls the animal awkwardly into her own cumbersome embrace.

“He’s Corn-Husk. That’s his name,” she says, attempting to rock him in her arms. He blankly allows the gesture, his bat ears brushing against her cheek.

“The Doggie in the Window” by Rory Kress.

“That’s a perfect name for him,” Theresa says, trying not to telegraph her impatience, as the team has several more stops to hit and about fifty more dogs to rescue before midnight. “He’s going to be so happy in his new home. I can promise you that.”

Melissa sucks back her tears and asks to have her picture taken with Corn-Husk. She smiles for the flip-phone camera and then bursts into tears as she finally hands him over—a clumsy exchange as the chubby corgi goes stiff amid the commotion.

“This one’s never missed a meal,” Theresa says, grunting to lift him. “That’s okay, Corn-Husk. Neither have I.”

Melissa hiccups out a laugh through her tears.

Theresa’s team scans the corgi’s microchip, gives him a paper collar with a number, and stows him in a large crate in one of the vans. Within twenty-four hours, they’ll give him a new name, erasing Corn-Husk from the record so that a new family can make him theirs.

We hit the road, heading for the next stop on Theresa’s rescue itinerary.

“You see that corgi?” Theresa asks me.

“Of course,” I say. “I didn’t think she was going to give him up. She seemed to really love him.”

“For as much as you can love a dog that lives in a cage, they do,” Theresa says. “Did you see his feet, though?”

“No,” I admit. I was just so struck by the breeder’s grief that I didn’t notice anything else. Typical—I’m always looking at the human; Theresa is always looking at the dog. “He seemed healthier than most of the other dogs you’ve gotten today.”

“He had splayed feet and interdigital cysts,” Theresa says of the painful red sores and welts that are almost universally found on the dogs she rescues. “That means he’s likely lived his entire life on either pea gravel or in a wire mesh cage.”

So much for being Melissa’s lapdog.

After months of research into the Animal Welfare Act and the USDA, this is my first time being up close and in direct contact with commercial breeders and their facilities. On the ground, it’s a very different scene than anything I was able to learn from inspection reports and in interviews with either side of the dog-breeding debate. Moments like this, where a breeder weeps to give one of her dogs up to a rescue, were not at all what I had expected to find.

“People see these breeders crying to give up the dog, and they think it’s bullshit,” Theresa says. “It’s not. They really feel it. But they live out here where the life of a dog is not very revered.”

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It’s true. Melissa might have let Corn-Husk live out his days and escape the gunshot that so often accompanies the retirement of a breeding dog. But the scars he bears demonstrate that he did not live the kind of existence most of us would bestow on our pets.

Theresa’s organization is unique for its inside access to commercial breeding operations. Over the past decade, she has built relationships with breeders across the heartland so that when a breeding dog stops churning out litters that are healthy enough to sell, they call Theresa to come pick it up and find it a home where it can become a pet. In return, the breeder agrees not to shoot it or otherwise euthanize it. It’s for this reason that I have changed all the names of the breeders and dogs in this chapter: I don’t want to interfere with Theresa’s hard-won relationships and her ability to continue rescuing dogs in the future.

Most of the breeders on this rescue run seem relieved to have the option of releasing these dogs to Theresa, happy to not have to kill them when their economic value diminishes or fades. It’s a self-selecting group: the very worst puppy millers out there would likely not give Theresa or any other rescue the time of day. But even among this group, plenty of these breeders are bad enough.

After watching one breeder callously yank a half dozen cowering shih tzus from their cages by their paws and matted scruff, Theresa loses her cool in front of the rescue team.

“He hands us over dogs from ’05, ’04?” Theresa says, referring to the dogs’ birth years, eleven or twelve years ago. The fact that the breeder has opted to spare the dog from certain death is not enough. “I mean, give the dogs a break. If you retire them at five or six, they at least have some life left in them.”

But her anger is short-lived as a bigger issue soon arises. One of the rescuers radios Theresa to let her know that a dog is missing from the list. All three vans in the convoy pull over on the dirt road where we’re traveling. A breeder at the last stop had told Theresa she’d be bringing a husky but forgot to pack it into the open bed of her pickup with the rest of her dogs and bring it to our meet-up.

“They’re going to go back and kill it,” Theresa says, preparing to divert the mission and return to the breeder’s farm with her. To do so would mean driving all three vans carrying about one hundred dogs a full hour off the itinerary, delaying the five stops and meet-ups arranged with breeders for the rest of the day. Theresa performs the mental calculus, taking into account the poor condition of the rest of the dogs from this facility—so covered in mats that the breeder had pulled her Maltese dogs from their cages by the painful clumps in their fur as if they were handles.

Theresa jumps from the van and hustles to catch the breeder on the road. She makes her promise not to kill the dog and to hold it until Theresa swings through the area on her next monthly run. Theresa reluctantly moves the caravan ahead on the day’s mission, still grumbling about that husky, not so sure that the breeder will keep her promise.

Not all breeders are created equally. As we log hour after hour on these rural roads, I see firsthand how a breeder in Missouri, where the Canine Cruelty Prevention Act raises the bar for dogs’ treatment somewhat, differs from one in Oklahoma, Kansas, or Arkansas.

Theresa does not paint breeders with broad strokes. She operates in an unusual gray area where few, if any, other advocates for dogs are willing to. Where most would find it abhorrent to even speak to a breeder who runs what can only be called a puppy mill, Theresa is willing to build relationships that, to the observer like myself, appear to even border on friendship. Many of the breeders we meet along the way hug her and her team, happy to see them again. With the breeders, Theresa is a brighter, friendlier, warmer version of her otherwise cynical, New York–native self. When one ragged Havanese with bloodied paws is transferred into her care and the breeder tells her its name is Jolene, Theresa breaks out into the Dolly Parton tune of the same name and gets everyone merrily singing along, even the breeder. The dog doesn’t blink—she doesn’t know her name; no one’s ever called her anything before. Once we’re safely back in the van and out of the earshot of the breeder, Theresa unleashes her fury on the state of that breeder’s dogs. It clearly isn’t easy to walk the line she treads every day.

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While some animal rights activists decry the breeding of dogs altogether—be it in a puppy mill or a sparkling clean and ostensibly humane facility—Theresa sees a more nuanced palette. Of one commercial breeder she works with in Missouri that we do not get to visit on this trip, she says, “If every facility was like hers, we wouldn’t have a problem. There wouldn’t be any puppy mills.” But then again, Theresa does not consider herself an activist.

“I’m a person who believes in all living things’ right to humane treatment. I’m not a humaniac,” she says, creating a portmanteau of the words humane and maniac. “I’m not even an animal rights activist. Animal rights and animal welfare are very different. I do want animals in my home and in my life. Animal rights people think we never should have done that… There’s nothing radical about the way I act. I go in and very diplomatically work with these people to bring dogs home. Some people say it’s like I’m in bed with the breeders, like I’m protecting them… We’ve rescued over ten thousand mill dogs in less than nine years. How many times do you think we could bully [breeders], push them around, stab them in the back, whatever—and continue to bring these dogs home? At the end of the day for us, it’s about bringing these dogs home, out of that life. Nothing else.”

*All breeder and all dog names in this chapter have been changed. In the case of the dogs, I’ve tried to stay true to the spirit or tone of the original names.

Copyright © 2018 by Rory Kress. Reprinted from the book “The Doggie in the Window” with permission of its publisher, Sourcebooks.

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— Interview: “Doggie in the Window” author Rory Kress