Puppy Mills: Part One – Good-bye, Rosie the Riveter & Hello, Farmer John

The late 1940s turned the financial difficulties of the Great Depression and WWII around. The economic boom years of the 1950s brought the United States interstate highway system, widespread corporate wealth, and the construction of the American suburban sprawl. A new phenomenon, suburbia provided affordable houses to thousands of returning soldiers and their new families.

The U.S. Baby Boom generation of children became the first to be raised with pets as commonplace household fixtures in a burgeoning middle class population. Dogs were housed as companions, not contributing workers–an upheaval of the human/dog relationship.

The end of the war also brought American agriculture a dual dichotomy. Farming became easier and more efficient with the advent of labor-saving machines, widespread access to gasoline, and the development of chemical fertilizers. However, by the mid-1950’s, over-production of food goods lowered prices.

Conversely, labor costs rose as men returned from war and re-entered the job market. Jobs that had been held by women–who worked for far less money–through the war years were confiscated for men, because they were considered, the heads of households and therefore, needed to be able to support families. Women were once again relegated to unemployment in the home–to become literally once again, “barefoot and pregnant.”

The Human Baby Boom 

The infamous Baby Boom then occurred, with record numbers of children born into one-wage-earner family units. Birth control was unscientific, not widely available, and sketchy. As the economy grew, so did families. Human migration to urban and suburban hubs of economic and social activity lured many from rural life and farmers had to pay more for the workers they could retain.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, the prices of the tools of farming–machines, gasoline, fertilizer, high-yield seeds, and hired labor–continued to rise, as the prices of products dropped, due to continued saturation of the market. Surpluses of meat caused the prices per pound to tank. Hence, profit margins dwindled even more. The U.S. Federal Government instigated subsidies, to encourage farmers to leave large swaths of farmland fallow and unused, and encouraged controlled breeding of cattle, sheep, pigs, and rabbits–with the plan that less supply would drive up prices. Instead, the farmer paid more for his livelihood, was paid less for his products, and then was paid to not farm. The whole industry changed overnight.

Enter the concept of the “puppy mill”–a cash crop with comparatively little overhead, almost non-existent labor effort or cost, requiring no additional infra-structure on the average farm, and absolutely no government oversight or interference.

The Pet Boom

Following the financially bereft times of the 1930s and 40s, pet ownership reappeared in the 1950’s as a common part of the suburban family unit, and in some cases, a status symbol of the new affluent lifestyle. Pet dogs especially became status symbols—illustrating that the head of the family could not only support a wife, children, home, vehicle, and leisure time, but also freeloading canines, who no longer worked for their keep, as they had on farms.

Most suburban neighborhoods frequently experienced unintended litters of puppies due to the lack of widespread spaying and neutering. Most Boomer children obtained their first dog from a neighbor. But as the human population exploded, even local sources for dogs fell behind in the supply/demand chain.

At the same time, veterinary medicine was transitioning from primarily large-animal practices catering to food animal production. Labor-intensive and far-flung farm doctoring brought in little income with which to keep up with the ever-increasing costs of new scientific knowledge and technologies. Many veterinarians established less physically straining small-animal veterinary clinics which began to open in clustered neighborhoods. Small pet animal veterinary practices provided a steady income from suburban parents who could easily afford a pet’s medical needs–with high profit margins. In addition, patients were transported to the clinic so more animals could be seen on-site and during concentrated office hours, instead of driving from farm to farm at all hours of the day and night.

The Birth of Disgrace and Cruelty

This is when history’s largest increase in dog purposeful breeding occurred. The old European attitude of purchasing a “purebred” dog as a sign of affluence was socially imported, and “mixed-breed mutts” were looked down upon. Social status was attached to owners who could afford dogs with papers. American society and new purebred dog registries copied the European model of dog shows, from which dogs without extensive paper lineages were exempt, as well as their lower status people. Reaching back to the original flaunting of Queen Victoria’s pampered lap dogs and her fawning court–who began the competitive spectacles that became dog shows–Americans who sought Nuevo-status paid big bucks for specially bred dogs.

Farmers who were paid by the government to not produce food, turned to mass breeding of dogs to earn double incomes. Converting chicken coops, pigsties, rabbit hutches, and any other out-building, farmers began stuffing their empty structures with purebred dogs. Some did not bother to build enclosures, but just stacked wire cages on top of each other outside, and filled them with hapless prisoners. Breeding as quickly as the canine reproductive cycle allowed, millions of dogs were used as machines–meant to churn out puppies as profitably as possible. Physical comfort and health, temperament, and quality of life were not concerns. Sustainable income from low cost/fast production was the only motivator.

With puppy supplies abundant, the next new business to rise up in the suburbs was the pet store. Exorbitant prices were charged for higher status dogs who were kept in fancy glass cages in high-visibility storefront businesses.

Hence, the businesses of puppy mills and retail pet stores dovetailed into a clash of cruelty born of human greed. An entire business was founded, with tiers of dark money, shady dealings, and above all, shameful mistreatment of a sentient species.

By the mid-1960s puppy-mills, pet stores, local veterinary clinics, and suburban homes filled with many children, created a circle of supply-and-demand that reached its zenith in the highly affluent 1990s.

Puppy Mill Illustration

Unfortunately, few puppy farmers were experienced in canine husbandry and often began their operations with little money and under less-than-ideal conditions. They housed their dogs in the chicken coops and rabbit hutches they already had, provided little affection and socialization, and neglected good nutrition and veterinary care for the animals. 

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Sunny Weber

Sunny Weber

Author, Speaker, Behaviorist

Sunny Weber, CAP Board of Directors, is an award-winning author of multiple books for both Children and Adults, available in stores and on Amazon. See more on her website: https://sunnyweber.com