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Wag: In the front line against puppy farming

MOST PEOPLE like to believe and are proud to claim the UK is the nation of animal lovers – especially dog lovers - but are we? When your dog is curled up on the sofa, well fed and well cared for then you can easily believe this to be true. However as we all know without a doubt, for every well cared for dog there are many who suffer from neglect through ignorance, or through a callous disregard for the poor dogs welfare. We all know about the vile and evil trade of the puppy farmers, whose only concern is the money they can make from these poor pathetic dogs which live their lives in the most revolting conditions imaginable, churning out puppies for an ever shrinking market.

So horrified by this trade the residents of Galston got together in 2002 and under the guiding hand of secretary Ken McKie, formed WAG, Waterside Action Group, when they discovered that a local man was applying for a licence, to follow this trade. Many residents raised objections with the council challenging the application, but these were ignored and the licence granted. Early investigations by WAG discovered that the person in question had been trading unlicensed and illegally for almost a year before he applied for the licence. To this day they are at a loss to explain how this could be allowed, by the local authorities, and vets, as they should be involved in the checking of the licence and conditions at the premises where the dogs are kept on a yearly basis.

Although WAG started out as a local campaign to fight one puppy farmer, it soon became apparent that most puppy farmers know each other very well and a it is not just a small localised trade, but one with national and international connections, and one which is undoubtedly illegally operating in many areas. The scale of the animal abuse taking place is totally unimaginable to the average pet owner, and Ken McKie believes that even the hobby breeder who puts every effort into rearing a litter of puppies, would be horrified if they knew the full extent of the scale of abuse that goes on. WAG has discovered that the network of dealers covers the UK, Eire, Europe and even the USA. They also have information to tie in dog thefts to this trade.

Dog theft is something which worries most owners and devastates those whose dogs are stolen. Many dogs are stolen for ransom, to fund drug taking or other addictions, but equally a growing number are being stolen to order. These dogs are then shipped out to puppy farms, in Eire, the Channel Islands and France. Once there they will live out their lives in the most horrific conditions, producing pups for the pet market. In December 2004 a boat leaving the Isle of Wight was spotted and reported for failing to use the correct navigational etiquette, it had 25 cages of dogs on deck and more were heard barking from below decks. Its destination was the Channel Isles and then France. Nobody in authority bothered to check whether the dogs where stolen or legitimately being taken over the channel. Had the boat owners been following navigational etiquette, neither the authorities nor coast guard would have bothered with it and it like many more would have slipped unnoticed from the UK.

It is not just small boats which are used to smuggle these dogs out of the UK, the puppy farmers openly use the cargo ferries. These ferries do not have the public accessing the vehicles unlike passenger ferries. P&O ferries are a major player in this trade. Despite campaigns run by WAG and demonstrations held at ferry terminals, they continue to aid these people. Recently a puppy farmer, Mr G (name withheld), identified by WAG was detained at Weymouth harbour, having left his vehicle for over 17 hours with puppies shut inside on a hot day. Luckily for the pups a keen eyed car park attendant spotted them, and having kept an eye on the vehicle eventually contacted the police and RSPCA, who came and released the pups. G, realising he had been caught, slipped by customs off the ferry and drove away in a hired car. The resulting court case is delayed and so G is free to carry on his ‘business’.

When the shipping of sheep and cattle was in the news as being a welfare issue, attracting large numbers of protesters to the ports, the government of the day introduced a transport welfare bill, called Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 1997. This act actually covers transportation of puppies and dogs, although no authorities or the ferry companies implement this act and no arrests have been made. Under this act, all commercial shipments of animals have to be made by a DEFRA/SEERAD licensed livestock transporter, this includes dogs, if the puppy farmers are shipping under licence then again they are breaking the terms of their licences, so why are the authorities not making arrests or taking away licences?

Ken McKie told Our Dogs "It is so difficult trying to get anybody in authority who could help our campaign to even listen to us much less implement this law. For all of the WAG supporters it is frustrating and depressing; we cannot get the people that are supposed to be upholding the law, using it to stop those guilty of such abuse from continuing to do so." In many cases it appears the ferry terminal workers and ferry captains do not realise that by continuing to ignore these welfare issues they are themselves breaking the Animal Welfare (Transport) Order and could in fact be arrested.

Not all the shipments are overtly carried, puppies have been found hidden in vehicles, and one shipment of puppies was found hidden in the chassis of a lorry. The number of puppies being regularly and openly shipped to the UK, it is believed, by WAG supporters, currently totals around 1,000 pups a week, and therefore some 52,000 a year, more than most breeds will register at the KC in the course of a year. In many cases these puppy farm bred pups are being sold for more than a puppy from a well reared litter, and most are registered with the Dog Lovers Register, as it is ideal for puppy farmers as they do not have to prove the parentage of any dog registered with them.

With the KC constantly looking at improving their registration policies, including the launch of their DNA profiling of all registered dogs at Crufts last year, the puppy farmers and those who over produce puppies should find it more and more difficult to register puppies. With the KC leading the way to ensure that puppies registered with them are exactly what the breeder claims they are, through DNA registration, this will ultimately lead to the KC registration becoming the "kite mark" for all pedigree dogs, as it once was. Ken McKie believes that the KC need the support of the caring breeders in registering their dogs’ DNA to help make the KC registration the "kite mark" and help towards putting an end to puppy farmers registering badly bred, badly reared, sick and dying puppies.

Most puppy farmers expect a high percentage of losses; as shown on the BBC programme Inside Out, losses of up to 78% were not uncommon, although the average was a little lower than that. The puppy farmer interviewed on the programme was very proud to announce he had only a loss percentage of 5% to 10%. Most puppy farmers are making their fortunes from the misfortunes of these dogs. With attitudes like this, it is not hard to understand that to these people, dogs and puppies are commodities like the latest fashion accessory simply to be discarded if they are un-saleable, and as WAG supporters know, they wastage is not kindly put to sleep at the vets, their fate, if they do not die naturally, or from their appalling treatment, or sickness, is not kind nor is it gentle.

WAG members believe that this situation is a ticking time bomb. If dog breeders and owners as a whole do not band together to fight this growing menace, then there may come a time when it will be taken out of their hands. Ken, like many readers, remembers the rabies outbreak which occurred in the 1960s in the UK. The newspapers, almost daily, displayed photographs of parties of men going out to cull all the wildlife from the area, where the rabid dog had been living. Any pet found loose was to suffer the same fate. After the debacle of the last foot and mouth outbreak can we afford to let these sick puppies continue to be shipped into the UK?

WAG has discovered that puppies are shipped from France to the Channel Isles, from there to Eire and finally into the UK. So in Ken’s opinion the possibility of a rabies outbreak or a more exotic canine disease appearing in the UK is not remote.

On October 11th 2005 WAG is to be represented by Ken McKie at an animal welfare cross party meeting, where he hopes to be able to put to Ben Bradshaw minister for DEFRA questions regarding the lack of implementation of the Animal Welfare (Transport) Order 1997 for the transport and import and export of dogs and puppies.

To help support Ken and WAG’s campaign, Ken is hoping that anybody who has read this article and feels compelled to help stop puppy farming, will take the time to write a personal letter to their MP and to Mr Bradshaw. WAG are not issuing a printed form letter, as these are often binned before the MP even sees them.

Perhaps WAG is right, perhaps it is time all caring breeders and dog owners did something for the dogs that aren’t curled up cosily on the family sofa, and just perhaps we owe it to our dogs for all the unconditional love they give us!

WAG have a website, where you can find out more information about the work they are doing, which is www.wag-ayrshire.org As WAG is funded by donation and fund-raising events if you would like to help them, details are on the website.