Sometimes I feel hopeless when faced with the enormity of the problem of puppy mills. THOUSANDS of dogs at this moment languish in puppy mills. I saved one. Through this blog I hope that I’ve indirectly helped a few more… but it’s still a drop in the bucket. There is so much suffering and we live in a society in which a lot of people, honestly, don’t care very much about it unless it touches their lives directly. Some days I find that deeply discouraging.
Fortunately, on those days, Kira is never far away and I look over to see her happily watching me or curled up cozily, sleeping with toys all around her. She is a constant reminder of resilience, of hope and of the possibility for healing.
If one thing characterizes a newly rescued puppy mill survivor it is a complete lack of hope and Kira was no exception. Hopelessness is a “loss of confidence or faith that future events or occurrences will be positive. Those that are experiencing hopelessness are oftentimes unable to mobilize their energy on their own behalf.” This describes perhaps every puppy mill dog I’ve ever encountered or heard about.
In dogs, we call this “learned helplessness”, a conditioned response in which an animal (or person) learns that they cannot control their world and cannot do anything to provide relief from their circumstances. Not only can puppy mill dogs not envision relief from their circumstances, they cannot imagine a world in which other circumstances could exist. Puppy mill dogs like Kira have never experienced another world. For them the boundary of the known world is the bars of a cage.
In 1965 psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a landmark (and disturbing) study with dogs while researching fear and learning. He tethered dogs in a cage and gave them an electric shock, which they could not escape. When the experimenters untethered the dogs and provided them the freedom to escape the shock, they were stunned to see that the dogs did not attempt to escape, but simply laid down and accepted the shock. The dogs had accepted that escape was futile and that they had no control over their environment or what happened to them.
The puppy mill environment couldn’t be more perfectly designed to create and foster learned helplessness and hopelessness. Puppy mills are a study in hopelessness – prolonged exposure to inescapable and uncontrollable events. Some dogs whine and bark. They spin in circles. They claw at the floor of their cages until their feet are bloody in an attempt to dig their way out. They break their teeth against the bars of their cage. No one responds. No one speaks to them or touches them. The door never opens. The discomfort and pain they feel does not go away. Their hell is not escapable. And they give up. They have learned that nothing they do has any effect on the world around them.
Kira’s sole function was to make puppies…litter after litter of puppies. The sickening thing about puppy mills is that the breeding mothers don’t receive veterinary care. They are chronically sick and malnourished. Often puppy millers will perform c-section operations themselves. Kira was in terrible physical condition when she was rescued: malnourished, heavily infested with parasites, and suffering from various infections, and yet the vet found that she had just weaned a litter of puppies.
In a normal breeding situation pregnant and nursing mothers are given extra food and nutrition to support the growing puppies. In a puppy mill, the dogs are in a constant state of undernourishment and their bodies will use all available nutrients for the puppies. With every litter, the breeding dogs grow weaker and sicker. But the mills don’t sell the mothers, only the puppies, so only the puppies need to be healthy for them to continue to profit.
The beautiful sheltie, Lacey, who was rescued with Kira died shortly after she was rescued. She was older, 6 or 7 years, and the burden of years of breeding and neglect was just too much for her little body to recover from. She spent her last weeks in a home where she was dearly loved and tenderly cared for. Her family adored her and they were deeply grieved to lose her so soon, when she finally had the chance at a better life. In another few years, it would likely have been too late for Kira and Skye too.
The only good thing I can imagine is that Kira’s puppies must have given her moments of feeling like she mattered. Amid the filth and neglect, she had a job. She had little warm bodies that snuggled close to her. They would have played with her, as all puppies everywhere do, and she would have enjoyed that. To this day, at the slightest touch she lifts her back leg – whether it’s a sign of submission or an instinctive reflex from spending most of her life nursing puppies, I don’t know. She grooms stuffed toys obsessively. She nibbles them all over with her little front teeth in what I would guess is an attempt to remove fleas and ticks. I found a nest of tiny baby rabbits one year and it made me so sad to see that before they even had hair, the tiny babies were completely covered with fleas and ticks. That is what I think of when I imagine Kira’s puppies. It must have been a full time job to keep them clean in such squalor. It is both sweet and heart breaking to see her groom her toys. I hate that her tender care of her puppies was at her own expense and that cruel and greedy people profited from her mothering.
A year and a half ago, Kira arrived in a state of hopelessness and learned helplessness. She had lost all confidence in anything good happening. She simply shut down and accepted whatever happened to her with docile apathy. In Kira’s whole life she had learned one single, consistent thing: that she didn’t matter.
…..Nothing she did mattered.
Today, if there is one message that Kira gets every single day of her life, it is that she matters so very, very much. She has learned to love being loved. It was a completely new concept for her. At first it was deeply alarming to her if I responded to her at all – even positive praise was terrifying. It frightened her that something she did would cause something to happen. She is still terrified if she bumps something and it moves or falls. I learned to use a soft voice and never to single out anything she did as the focus of special attention. She slowly adjusted to a world in which things happened, but they were very consistent and very predictable things. Good things. Slowly she learned that she could even make good things happen. She is still utterly delighted when she touches me with her paw and I respond by petting her. It is the only thing that she actively “asks” for and she is so pleased when it works.
She follows me every night when I carry her bed in and put it next to my bed and before it is even all the way down she is jumping onto it so she will be ready for bed. She stands beside her crate and barks in excited anticipation when I pick up her food bowl. She peers into the house, looking for me, if she feels she has been outside for too long and she wags her tail when she sees me because she knows I will let her into the house.
In time, with slow, halting steps, Kira has re-learned her life. Her willingness to embrace hope will never, ever cease to amaze and inspire me. Hope must be so deeply ingrained in the hearts and souls of living things, for it to remain intact through such terrible circumstances. In a time when world events increasingly turn our focus towards despair and hopelessness, Kira is a perpetual reminder for me of how important it is to kindle the flickering lights of hope in our own hearts and in the hearts of those who are suffering. Kira’s story is just one tiny drop in the bucket, but I remind myself that it IS one drop and together, one drop at a time, we can fill many buckets…
One life at a time.
Kindling one tiny light of hope at a time.
This year please consider supporting one of the many organizations working help puppy mill dogs:
And the wonderful rescue that saved Kira’s life: Almost Home Dog Rescue of Ohio
An Advocates Guide to Stopping Puppy Mills: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/pets/puppy_mills/advocate_guide.pdf
For more information about laws & legislation, visit: Animal Legal Defense Fund.