It's a distinction no state wants. The Humane Society of the United States says Ohio has the second-most puppy mills in the country.
John Goodwin runs the Stop Puppy Mills Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States.
Every year his group publishes the "Horrible Hundred" list releasing names of what Goodwin calls the worst breeders in the country; 13 are in Ohio.
"Puppy mills are a factory farm for dogs. Instead of mass production of pork or veal, it's mass production of puppies," he said.
As second-worst, Ohio is considered a hub for what officials call a "dirty, profitable and loosely regulated business that rakes in huge money every year."
"If the general public saw the conditions so many of these puppies come from, they would be horrified. And that's why the retail outlets are so far removed from where the puppy is born. When you see that cute puppy in a display case at the pet store, ask yourself where is its mother and how is she being raised?" Goodwin said.
"When a puppy is born in a puppy mill, let's say it's a little boy dog, he gets on a transport vehicle where he's transported with other puppies from other mills, he often goes to a broker who is a middleman, who collects a lot of different puppies from a lot of different mills, and then that broker will ship the puppies on another transport vehicle to a pet store? And if it's a pet store that's on the coast and the puppies are coming from the Midwest, they can be on the vehicle for three days with their waste building up beneath them. It's really a terrible way for people to get puppies."
THE LOCAL RESCUE
"The designer dog era has been wonderful for these people because there's no paper trail," activist and rescue leader Kristina Biondolillo told News 5.
Biondolillo rescues and rehabilitates puppy mill dogs through her nonprofit Marilyn's Voice.
"You can get your yorkies, your mixes, from a lot of places. I won't be popular for saying this: reputable breeders do not breed designer dogs," she said.
Marilyn's Voice's mission: To rescue, rehabilitate and find loving homes for severely neglected and abused dogs from commercial kennels, puppy mills and other unfortunate situations; to eliminate the puppy mill industry in Ohio by raising awareness through education, outreach, protests and other events; to help individuals find responsible ways to acquire dogs as companion animals.
Her group often exchanges the anonymity of a breeder for the rescue of an animal.
"It's not uncommon that they will kill them when they are done breeding them if they're no longer useful to the breeding program," Biondolillo said.
She said folks usually don't realize they're purchasing from a puppy mill, even if they meet the breeder face to face.
"What they have are staging areas. They have their two most beautiful dogs, most social dogs, who live in the home with them, they're clean they smell good, they're friendly. Those aren't the dogs being bred. It's the outbuilding in the back. When you drive out and hear barking? There are 200-300 dogs in there in cages. That's where the real deal is," she said.
WHERE IS IT HAPPENING?
Of the 291 Ohio state licensed large-scale dog breeders, 149 of them are in Holmes County; and of the 13 Ohio breeders on the Humane Society of The United States' "Horrible Hundred" list, seven are in Holmes County.
"I do get emailed by people on a regular basis that see the advertisements out of the Millersburg area and they ask me, 'Is this breeder reputable?' We have attorneys on our board, and I have to be very careful what I say, but let me just say in very broad terms and in very general terms -- this is what I've seen. And I hope people can read between the lines," Biondolillo said.
Several puppy mills are in Millersburg.
"There's one puppy mill in Millersburg where the dogs had such severe dental disease that when an inspector touched the molars in the back of the mouth they were wiggling. There was another one with severe eye injuries. There was one guy who had 24 dogs whose toes were bleeding. The inspector asked why are all these dogs toes bleeding? Well, he had recklessly cut their toenails that morning," Goodwin said.
VISITING THE BREEDERS
We wanted to see it for ourselves. So, we took a two-hour road trip to see for ourselves exactly what Ohio's puppy mill hotbed really looks like. We visited three of the breeders on the Horrible 100 list.
We aren't naming the breeders, sharing their addresses or showing their faces in this report because, while they're on the list, they are technically in compliance with standards set by the state of Ohio.
Our first stop: a town just outside the Holmes county limit.
"What is it like for you when those lists come out and say that you're a problem breeder?" we asked.
"It's not bad. We just fix it. Whatever we need to do," one breeder said.
According to state inspection reports, this breeder was warned three times in one calendar year for unsafe wire flooring and excessive feces and unsanitary conditions. According to inspectors, "The flooring on the inside of the sheltered structure sagged and bent under the dogs."
State officials told us he is in compliance right now, but we were forbidden to go look - camera or not.
"I don't want you to go to my kennel," he said.
Another breeder on the list, just a few miles and a drive through the woods away.
We could hear loud, intense barking before we pulled up the driveway but found something more disturbing as we inched closer.
A dead puppy in the middle of the road.
"Do you know you're on the Horrible Hundred list, for problem breeders?" we asked.
"Oh, ok," he said.
"Did you know that?" we asked again.
"Yeah, I know they had something," he said.
When we brought up what we saw: "You actually have a dead dog on the road. Right in front of your property. It looks like one of your puppies got out. There's a dead puppy on the road right outside."
"Down here, well that's not. I mean, it's not one of our puppies," he said.
"Oh you don't think so?" we asked.
"No," he said.
Like the first breeder, he wouldn't show us inside the old barn where that nonstop barking was coming from, and he wouldn't tell us how many dogs or what kinds he's breeding.
"There are folks who call what you're running a puppy mill. Would you call yourselves that?" we asked.
"No. They got all the room to run on the hill," he said.
But despite the hill and all of his land, inspectors found dogs in cages that were much too small. A "very underweight" female Great Dane and another with "protrusions of both eyes."
Inspectors said he's in compliance with state standards now.
"There was Great Dane that was underweight?" we asked.
"We got rid of him," he said.
We shot some video of the area, and when we left about 20 minutes later, the dead dog was still in the road.
Our final stop was the loudest of the properties we visited.
It's on the Horrible Hundred list for reasons like tail-docking, cutting a dogs tail off and dew-claw removal -- chopping off a claw on the side of a dog's leg, without a vet. Inspectors also reported that dogs were kept on uncoated wire flooring, excessive feces and filthy conditions.
"Do you know you're on the Horrible Hundred list?"
"No, I'm not on it anymore," he said. "I don't want to talk about it. And I ask you to leave," he said.
THE LAWS AND THE GOVERNMENT
So, why are dog breeders on the Horrible Hundred list still licensed and considered 'in compliance?'
News 5 has investigated and reported those answers for months.
Dog breeding laws in Ohio have been lax, only starting to require basic care this year.
"The new laws require fresh food twice a day, continuous access to clean water. Those things are no-brainers," Goodwin told News 5.
Dr. Melissa Simmerman oversees the state's commercial dog breeding program for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
"What do you say to people who are critical of Ohio and the laws here and say we aren't doing enough to crack down on puppy mills?" we asked her.
"I think we need to remember that Ohio does have laws on the books and not every state can say that. I think we've made great strides the past five, six years. And the law passed just recently," she said.
"These folks we are hearing about, doing awful things to animals and seem to be getting away with it, may just be doing it right under the level of compliance where they don't have anyone investigating them or inspecting them?" we asked Simmerman.
"Sure. We only know about the folks who come forward and identify themselves to us and say I believe I meet your definition of a high volume breeder or broker," she said.
Goodwin is critical of the other government entity in charge of regulating breeders: The USDA.
"I would say that right now, in 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture is the biggest problem that puppy mill dogs have," he said.
Getting information on breeders has been increasingly difficult. For the past two years, the USDA has refused to release the names of breeders who are breaking the rules and violating the law.
"Recently we found an inspection report from a USDA inspection and this dog had, one of her legs had been broken off at the knee. And it was an old injury because it had healed. They kept her alive so they could breed her. We have no idea who the breeder was because that vital information was redacted. So people could be buying puppies from that breeder and supporting someone who is so negligent and who was cruel and they would have no idea," Goodwin said.
"We have determined that the protection against potential embarrassment or harassment of the licensee far outweighs any public interest in revealing the personal information in these records," the USDA said.
The privacy of the breeder with non-compliance issues outweighs your right to know how the animal, you're about to add to your family, has been treated.
"It is obscene that the USDA has started redacting the inspection reports that came forward when people were cited for violating the animal welfare act. They claim they want to protect the privacy of these breeders, yet these are people who willingly enter into a federally regulated interstate industry. If you don't want to have your inspection reports Posted, don't go into a business where you get inspected," Goodwin said.
However you put it, the lack of information makes it hard for folks in the market for a puppy to really know where it's coming from.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU
The puppies from breeders with a history of issues, breeders on the Horrible Hundred list, are selling for top dollar.
After I left Holmes county, I found dogs from one of the breeders we visited for sale for between $700 and $2,300.
BUYING A DOG RESPONSIBLY
Biondolillo said the problem is fueled by the way we buy dogs, saying, "Pet stores are supplied by puppy mills. Reputable breeders do not sell to pet stores."
"I receive email and phone calls to the rescue weekly from people who really just wanted to get a pet for the family. And suddenly the pet is very sick and needs thousands worth or surgery or two thousand dollars...and then what that does to the children. The families are devastated. That's when they learn, this is where my dog came from," she said.
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