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Saving Gracie
REVIEW: “Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills,” by Carol Bradley (Howell Book House, 256 pages, $21.99 hardcover)

It was 158 days before Dog 132 would show a hint of personality. At first, the waif-like black and white Cavalier King Charles spaniel was not much more than cloudy eyes peering out atop rotten teeth. Still, the dog practically melted into adopter Linda Jackson as she sat on her lap for the first time in an SPCA shelter.

Just four months earlier, that spaniel was one of 337 dogs living in deplorable conditions in a puppy mill in Chester County, Pa. Her eventual rescue was part of one of the largest seizures in SPCA history.

This rescue, and the story of one dog's transformation afterward, is the subject of Carol Bradley's first book, "Saving Gracie."

In distribution channels that run from "backyard breeders" to mall pet stores, shabbily bred, fearful animals living in deplorable conditions cross from the shadowy world of puppy mills, through a long line of money-greased palms, to become suburban commodities.

Worth just about $100 to breeders, pedigreed pups pack wire cages some five and six at a time. Bradley first introduces us to this plight via those cages coated in urine and feces.

When dogs eventually leave puppy mills, and cross state lines, brokers pay a higher fee, then sell them to pet stores where they may fetch as much as $1,600. Anxious, scared, and unsocial, they are given little time to adjust and find their place in an even bigger world.

Bradley, a former newspaper reporter who spent 26 years covering the U.S. Congress and state legislatures in Tennessee and New York, and wrote features and investigative stories for the Great Falls Tribune, paints a grim picture of an epidemic most are unaware exists.

She estimates that some "10,000 cramped kennels in America produce as many as four million dogs." Myriad breeds born into inferior conditions become the "emotionally damaged animals" sold at a high price to"unsuspecting families."

Bradley follows this canine cataclysm by first telling the facts of this enormous cruelty case through the story of Gracie, who escaped the shady world of American puppy mills to find love on the other side.

By book's end, although hundreds of counts of animal cruelty and six-figure fines had been levied, and most of the 337 dogs had found new homes, happy endings are eclipsed by still more tales of animals cruelty and lives of squalor.

***

Much less an allegory of a single dog's salvation, "Gracie" is emblematic of the low value our society places on companion animals. Haunting statistics speak to expendable creatures whose lives are devoid of love, affection and dignity.

National statistics on euthanasia suggest that backyard and puppy mill breeders account for at least 10 percent of shelter deaths, where space constraints force workers to make tough decisions based on factors such as health and temperament.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, as much as 90 percent of pet store puppies are products of mass-production farms that feature substandard breeding conditions and inbreeding that can lead to health and behavioral problems in puppies bred there.

Since the 1980s, the Humane Society has been fighting to shut down these facilities. According to a 1990 study conducted in California, more than half of puppies bought from pet stores became ill very soon after being purchased - which does not account for temperament problems rampant in haphazard breeding.

In the case of the raid that saved Gracie, behavior was the least of it, Bradley says. Emaciated dogs with missing eyes, open oozing sores, scabs and mange are a horror show that illustrates the plight of dogs raised in puppy mills from Montana to Arizona to Minnesota and many other.

Bradley tells terrible, palpable truths, and attacks this issue with the brio of an investigative reporter. But malls in our own hometowns still pack puffy small breeds two and three to a cage, to lure uninformed families into purchases that often end up in shelter surrenders.

Puppy mills are a million-dollar business, and until that changes, Bradley notes that the problem will continue. The saddest fact, she says, are the millions of dollars of expenses incurred by shelters across the United States that attempt to squire these canine casualties to the other side.

Columnist Lori Grannis may be reached at 360-8788 or eating.missoula@gmail.com.

 

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