RONKS, Pa. — Megan Anderson's nerves are shot. But she presses ahead — the dogs need her.
She pulls into the driveway of Scarlet-Maple Farm Kennel. She tells the adolescent boy who greets her that she's looking for puppies to give to her nephews for Christmas.
It's a lie. A necessary one, Anderson thinks, but a lie nonetheless. That's why she's jittery. Will the boy swallow her story? How about the Amish man with the long gray beard, straw hat and plain dress — the kennel's owner? Will he discover her ruse and chase her away?
She hopes not. If all goes well, Anderson will leave with at least one dog, maybe more — and perhaps with evidence that could help put this kennel out of business for good.
Over the past four years, Anderson — who works for Main Line Animal Rescue, a shelter outside of Philadelphia — has managed to coax some of Pennsylvania's largest commercial breeding kennels to part with their unwanted canines, usually females past their reproductive prime or young males they couldn't sell.
Main Line's founder, Bill Smith, would like to shut down Scarlet-Maple Farm Kennel and others like it. Smith and other animal welfare activists pushed for a new state law — regarded as the toughest in the nation — designed to end the inhumane treatment of breeding dogs in the large commercial kennels popularly known as puppy mills. Kennel owners say the law is unnecessary and too expensive to comply with, and that it is eliminating many good breeders along with the few bad apples.
After listening to Anderson's tale, the boy disappears into the kennel, leaving her to wait outside in the November chill.
She knows the drill. Large operations like Scarlet-Maple rarely allow prospective buyers inside. They don't want the public seeing how their breeding dogs live.
It's no wonder.
State regulators say the smell of a high-volume puppy mill is unforgettable, an overwhelming stench of urine and feces. Ammonia fumes burn the nose and eyes. The simultaneous barking of hundreds of dogs creates a wall of sound that makes it hard to think, let alone converse.
Puppy mill dogs spend most of their working lives inside cramped wire cages, stacked one atop the other. They get little grooming, veterinary care or attention of any kind.
Lacking a bone or toy to occupy their time, some dogs go into a frenzy every time they see a human. Other dogs circle endlessly. Still others just sit there, staring, like a "warm statue," says Jessie Smith, special deputy secretary of dog law enforcement at the state Department of Agriculture.
Breeders often act as their own vets, performing delicate surgical procedures — docking tails, "debarking" dogs by hacking at the vocal cords, performing Caesarean sections on pregnant females. The lack of medical training can have disastrous results. Main Line recently took in a critically ill boxer with a mummified puppy in her belly, the apparent result of a botched Caesarean. She was rushed to the hospital with bleeding and a severe infection.
The physical wounds, horrific as they may be, are treatable. Tougher to heal are the psychological ones. Bill Smith says the volunteers at Main Line spend weeks or even months working with rescued dogs so they can be adopted.
"Every day it must be so difficult for them to try new things, especially when they're 7 or 8 years old and they've spent their entire lives in a box in a dark barn," says Smith, 48.
All of this has contributed to Pennsylvania's sordid reputation as the puppy mill capital of the East Coast. It's an image that state lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell are working to shed.
In 2008, Rendell signed off on strict health and safety standards for large breeding operations. Key provisions that went into effect in October required large-scale breeders to double cage sizes, eliminate wire flooring and provide unfettered access to exercise. The new law also banned cage stacking, instituted twice-a-year vet checks, and mandated new ventilation and cleanliness standards.
Between the new legislation, the bad economy, and heightened public awareness — the state has established a tip line, and Bill Smith persuaded Oprah Winfrey to do a show on puppy mills — pressure is building on multiple fronts against people like Daniel Esh, the owner of Scarlet-Maple.
The boy returns with three dogs. They cost $500, $400 and $300, he says. Too rich for Megan Anderson's blood.
"Do you have anything cheaper?" she asks.
The boy goes back to the kennel. This time he brings her two small dogs, offering both for a discounted price of $250. At 5 months, they're too old to sell as puppies, he explains. He tells Anderson they would make a good breeding pair.
Deal, she says.
It's an unusual transaction. Main Line almost never buys animals from puppy mills. But it will purchase a dog as part of a cruelty investigation. If these dogs show signs they have been mistreated, Main Line will take them to the PSPCA to determine whether charges can be filed. A cruelty conviction could result in the loss of Daniel Esh's federal dealer's license, hasten the removal of his dogs, and prevent him from simply joining his father's kennel business, which is operated on the same compound, Smith says.
As Anderson and the boy talk, a middle-aged man guides his horse-drawn buggy into the driveway. Esh climbs off his rig and strides toward them.
His business is already on the verge of collapse.
State inspectors combing through Esh's kennel found dogs with lameness, lesions, dehydration and dental disease; puppies' paws falling through wire flooring; excrement in food dishes. Esh pleaded guilty in January 2009 to three summary violations of the dog law and subsequently lost his state kennel license. That means he can no longer breed dogs — though he can continue selling the ones in his kennel — and must reduce his kennel population to 25 dogs or less, down from more than 500 as recently as two years ago.
Inspectors planned to visit Esh in January to make sure he has complied.
Esh denies ever mistreating his dogs, telling The Associated Press in a later interview that he has fallen victim to a radical political agenda that seeks the end of commercial dog breeding in Pennsylvania and across the nation.
"The dogs were feeding my family. They were helping me keep my farm. And we enjoyed it," says Esh, who has been selling dogs for 21 years. "If (activists and politicians) had any idea how many lives they hurt by doing this, I don't think they would sleep at night. ... I feel like we as breeders are doomed."
Many commercial breeding kennels in Pennsylvania are run by Amish and Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County. With milk prices in freefall, dairy farmers have increasingly relied on dog breeding to help pay the bills, selling to pet stores or directly to the public via the Internet.
Like Esh and many other breeders, Edwin Zeiset, 34, blames the new regulations for ruining his livelihood. Zeiset says he operated a clean kennel and had many repeat customers. But he recently shut down his EZ Puppies kennel rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on a big new building.
He's not alone: Nearly four out of every 10 commercial kennels in Pennsylvania told the state they would be closed by the end of December.
"The animal activists come out of the cities and tell us exactly how they want things done," even though "there's no science to it," says Zeiset, a third-generation dairy farmer who estimates his income will drop by half with the loss of the kennel. If there are breeders who mistreat dogs, he says, target them.
Bill Smith has heard such talk before. He says he's not out to ruin the lives of kennel owners. He just wants to improve the lives of their dogs.
Anderson holds back tears as she plants a kiss on the head of a black-and-white, poodle-bichon mix. Daniel Esh believed her story.
"New life, guys. New life," she murmurs from the back seat of a gray SUV. "No breeding for you guys. Sorry."
As the SUV pulls away from Scarlet-Maple, she clutches the dogs tightly to her chest.
They are filthy and fetid.
Anderson meets up with Smith, who has been waiting in a parking lot a few miles away, and loads the dogs into a crate in the back of Smith's SUV.
Mission accomplished, it's off to the next puppy mill, and the next, and the next. By nightfall, Main Line has visited five kennels and retrieved 12 dogs.
Back at the shelter, Anderson tests the pooches for parvo, a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease. Exams reveal the puppies from Scarlet-Maple have ear infections and intestinal parasites; two poodles from a kennel near the tiny village of Georgetown likewise need deworming. It's clear that none of these dogs have been groomed in a long time, if ever. Their fur is dirty and matted, their nails long, their ears filled with muck.
But these, in fact, are lucky dogs. They've made it out.
The dogs are spayed and neutered, treated for their ailments, and adopted out. Compared to dogs previously taken from Scarlet-Maple, these pooches — both designer mixes — are in good shape. And they're friendly. No evidence of animal cruelty.
The poodles from Georgetown, rescued the same day, will require a lot more work to prepare them for life outside the mill. Nearly two weeks after their rescue, the poodles — dubbed Mr. White and Mrs. White — are still very skinny, they haven't been eating, and they're terrified of humans.
None of this fazes Mary Remer, a renowned trainer and behaviorist who works with the dogs of Main Line Animal Rescue. She's seen plenty of puppy mill dogs in far worse straits that have wound up as great family pets.
It just takes time and patience, she says. And plenty of love.
Indeed, by the end of a 45-minute "shy dog" class, Mrs. White is walking, not hopping. Mr. White, an older dog, remains cradled in a volunteer's arms, still too frightened to be put down. But he is blinking normally and taking stock of his surroundings; his nose twitches, a sign his olfactory senses are awakening.
It's not a lot, but it's something.
"It's a beginning," Remer says.