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Bella English

Taking bark out of puppy mills

Deborah Howard’s nonprofit is dedicated to closing puppy mills.

Deborah Howard’s nonprofit is dedicated to closing puppy mills.

In 1989, Deborah Howard walked into an Atlanta pet shop and was shocked by the conditions. The place was dirty, and there were lots of sick puppies, including a small yellow Labrador retriever who pressed against the small cage with an oozing cut on his leg.

Howard, a public relations professional with a law degree, began researching. What she learned shocked and angered her, and set her on a mission that has become her life’s work. In 1992, she founded the Companion Animal Protection Society, or CAPS, a national nonprofit dedicated to closing down puppy mills where dogs are repeatedly bred and kept in squalid conditions, and the pet shops that sell the dogs.

Model Kiley Wirtz Jennings poses with Beatrice for "Models Against Pet Shops and Puppy Mills" campaign.

Companion Animal Protection Society

Model Kiley Wirtz Jennings poses with Beatrice for "Models Against Pet Shops and Puppy Mills" campaign.

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“A puppy mill is a commercial breeding factory that mass-produces dogs and cats for resale,” says Howard, 53. CAPS is headquartered in Cohasset, where Howard lived before moving to Hull three years ago.

For more than 20 years, CAPS has used undercover investigators to expose the abuses of the stores and mills, resulting in the closure of several of them. The nonprofit recently kicked off an advertising campaign featuring high-fashion models and dogs rescued from pet shops and mills.

The star of the show is Beatrice, a basset hound rescued from a puppy mill in South Dakota in 2003. She had pneumonia and glaucoma that left her blind in her left eye. Her elbows are deformed and she was recently diagnosed with heart problems. She is one of the three rescue dogs and two cats who live with Howard.

‘You should never buy a dog sight unseen.’

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“She walks with a limp, and she has physical therapy, a cardiologist, and ophthalmologist,” says Howard. She also has high veterinarian bills.

Bea is the spokesdog for the new campaign, “Models Against Pet Shops and Puppy Mills.” She’s the cute one sitting among a bevy of beauties with anti-puppy mill messages. The ads also promote the adoption of rescue animals.

The Texas-based models got involved after one of them, Kiley Wirtz Jennings, saw a documentary on how CAPS worked to bring down a notorious puppy mill in Minnesota. Wirtz Jennings, who has two rescue dogs of her own, called Howard and offered to donate her time and that of her high-fashion colleagues, including models, photographers, videographers, makeup artists, and clothes stylists.

The footage and photos are running across the country, on billboards, trains, and television stations. Beatrice is a high-tech hound, with her own blog on the CAPS website (www.caps-web.org) and more than 1,600 Facebook friends. She’s also on Twitter, Pinterest, about.me, and LinkedIn. She has her own business cards.

There are 700 model posters on commuter trains in metropolitan New York, and public television stations are running spots in various markets. But you won’t see Beatrice and her model friends featured in the Boston area. “It’s too expensive in this area to advertise,” says Howard.

CAPS has a dual warning: Don’t buy pets from pet stores because you’re supporting the puppy mill industry, and don’t buy dogs over the Internet because most are from the mills. Among other maladies, upper respiratory infections, the parvovirus, and distemper can plague such dogs.

“You should never buy a dog sight unseen,” says Howard. “You can get a sick dog, or you don’t get the one in the picture.” She receives hundreds of e-mails from people who report on such abuses, including one who told of a dog found dead in his crate on an airport luggage carousel.

Howard came to animal activism honestly. She grew up in California with a house full of dogs, cats, rabbits, and fish. She first learned to stand and walk with the help of the family German shepherd, Blitz.

Her mother, Mary Pugliano, was a North End native and a huge Kennedy supporter. At age 8, Deborah was stuffing envelopes, canvassing, and attending rallies for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Later, she became an organizer for the United Farm Workers.

CAPS works with the US Department of Agriculture, which licenses puppy breeders, to report the worst abuses. But a problem remains in enforcement. Many of the mills are in rural areas, where there is little cooperation from local authorities.

“These people all go to church together,” says Howard.

She’s happy to report that there are no pet shops that sell puppies and kittens in Boston, but outside the city limits, some remain. CAPS has been behind a number of ordinances banning the retail sale of puppies and kittens, including in California and Illinois.

Between 5 and 7 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters every year, and Howard’s group spreads the word on rescue animals as devoted pets.

“They really know you’ve made a difference,” she says. “If they’ve been in a shelter, it’s a horrible experience. Or if they’ve lived a lot of places, and then they come to know love and stability, they really appreciate it.”

It’s true. Ask my rescue dog, Gumbo.

As for Beatrice, her next goal is to get herself and CAPS on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. To that end, CAPS has had “pretty girls” with CAPS posters featuring Bea stationed at the entrances of Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, where the show tapes.

“Ellen is an animal rights person and a vegan, like Beatrice,” says Howard. “This should be a really appealing story for her.”

Beatrice has even started a
Facebook petition to get herself on the show. So far, she has 1,073 signatures.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.

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