"The only way we can combat this growing problem is to adopt a zero tolerance approach - it's as simple as that." – Stephen Philpott, Chief Executive, USPCA
APPALLING SCENES greeted officers from the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals during a raid on one of the worst puppy farms ever discovered in Northern Ireland.
The shocking images - now in the possession of police - graphically show a horrifying catalogue of abuse and cruelty at an illegal breeding operation in Katesbridge, Co Down.
Photographs taken by the Belfast Telegraph show how:
Calves and lambs were fed to starving Boxers, Rottweilers and West Highland Terriers.
Dogs were fed dead rats.
Various dog breeds lived in concrete pits and sub-zero conditions.
Lamb and calf carcasses had been left to rot.
A dead Boxer had been left on a path.
Other images show how dogs were suffering from malnourishment, how they had no bedding and were penned in by breezeblocks.
It was also discovered that at least six West Highland Terrier pups were held in tiny makeshift dens, made from wooden doors.
Seasoned USPCA were horrified by what they found. Caged Boxer dogs were feeding on dead calves.
Other dead animals were also found on rubbish-tips, which had been set on fire.
While the images are shocking, the USPCA hopes publication of the photographs will persuade anyone who knows anything about illegal puppy farms to come forward.
Horrified USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott branded the slum conditions at the illegal breeding operation as "horrendous".
Mr Philpott commented: "In the 12 years I have been doing this job, the conditions at this illegal breeding operation were the second worst I have ever come across.
"The effort and the sheer scale of this operation cannot be underestimated. The dogs and other farm animals were living in awful conditions. The dogs were terrified and the only light some of them ever saw was when we shone our torches into where they were being kept. It just beggars belief how people could allow animals to live in such horrific conditions. It was terrible."
Mr Philpott added: "The only thing that matters to an operation like this is profit. There is absolutely no regard for the well being or the welfare of animals.
"The whole rationale behind a puppy farm is maximum financial return for minimum financial input. Putting the dogs in pits made out of concrete blocks is testament to this.
"I'm also very disappointed an illegal breeding operation on this scale could be put together without anyone being aware of it, especially as Northern Ireland is one of the largest puppy wholesalers in the UK.
"Illegal dog breeding has become big business and the scale of the operation in Katesbridge just goes to show you how well organised it is. People should never ever buy a puppy without seeing it with its mother and a good breeder will always give you a receipt."
The nighttime raid took place earlier this month after the USPCA received a tip-off from police. On the same night, the USPCA recovered other dogs from sites nearby which are believed to be linked to the Katesbridge operation.
It's also understood the USPCA uncovered evidence that dogfights had taken place at one of the sites.
After the raids, a total of 140 dogs had been saved from a life of misery. Many of the dogs have already been re-homed, with more set to find new owners after they were brought to USPCA shelters for health checks.
The number of illegal breeding operations in the province is believed to be growing, with many dogs being smuggled over the border.
It's also believed that criminal gangs, on both sides of the border and in Scotland, have been muscling in on the business.
A special conference is also set to be held in Dublin on February 6, with delegates attending from all over the UK, to discuss ways of combating the problem.
Mr Philpott has vowed to continue the USPCA's campaign against the illegal dog breeders. "The only way we can combat this growing problem is to adopt a zero tolerance approach - it's as simple as that," he said. "I've been all over Ireland and in Scotland investigating the welfare of animals at these sites and the problem just seems to be getting worse.
"But we will continue to do our best to expose the awful conditions animals live and experience in illegal breeding. We need the support of the public on this matter and if they know of any of these operations, they should contact us immediately."