Frankie Lister-Fell investigates the dark world of puppy breeding.
It was lockdown that convinced Richard to finally succumb and get a dog. Having fallen in love with their neighbour’s cavapoo, he didn’t hesitate in choosing Dexter.
Dexter is more teddy bear than dog. He insists on sleeping in the master bedroom, next to Richard and his wife, Amelia. Dexter is a fussy eater, with a particular affinity for poultry. ‘We’re roasting a whole chicken for him every week,’ Richard chuckles. With pleading eyes matched to curled off-white fur, he’s hard to resist.
While Dexter lives a life of luxury now, his first few weeks at his new home were traumatic, because Richard unknowingly bought Dexter from a puppy farm.
True to their generative semantics, puppy farms produce dogs that are bred for profit. Churning out a fast turnover of litters, often in unhygienic environments, the animals are then passed onto the front-of-house ‘breeder’. Dirty surroundings and swift separation from parents mean the puppies can contract chronic health and behavioural problems.
Last year promised to be a game-changing year for clamping down on puppy farms in the UK and abroad. A law regulating the industry – ‘Lucy’s Law’ – finally came into force in England. Now, breeders must show the puppy with their mum in their place of birth. A comms campaign was scheduled to educate the public on how to safely buy a puppy.
Then COVID happened. The comms operation was pulled. The new legal protections were temporarily lifted in lockdown. Though breeders were considered a business, collecting puppies – an opportunity to look for signs of negligence and abuse – was deemed a non-essential journey. Puppies would now be delivered to your doorstep. Lonely Brits rushed to replace co-workers with cuddly companions. Last year, the average value of a puppy for sale was £808. It’s now £1,875.
Safe-seeming breeders are often not what they appear. Raffles, a ‘family breeder’, has been rearing cockapoos for six years. Its website credits its ‘acres of land’ in the Cheshire countryside as giving their dogs the ‘best of everything’. But in a Facebook group called ‘Raffles have your say’, dog owners have been sharing their eerily similar stories of the health problems their Raffles puppies have contracted.
This is where Richard unwittingly bought his beloved, soft-eyed Dexter from. Locked down at home, he chose his new pet over a video call. When he pitched up outside Raffles, Dexter was carried out to him.
Within two weeks, Dexter had visited the vets on three occasions. His bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea were getting worse and worse. The breeder said this was normal. The vet diagnosed Dexter with parvovirus, a ‘puppy killer’ disease usually contracted from dirty bedding.
Dexter spent the next 12 days undergoing intensive treatment, including a plasma transfusion, at a veterinary hospital two and half hours away from Richard’s home. He drove there to visit Dexter every day, even though he wasn’t allowed in the same room as his dog – parvovirus is contagious. On the fourth day, Richard bought one of his t-shirts for Dexter to sleep on. Luckily, the puppy pulled through. Dexter cost £2,000 to buy and £6,500 to treat. Raffles denied any responsibility and refused to compensate him for the vet bills.
Animal welfare expert Wendy Mulela discovered that in 2019, Raffles sold 252 litters at an average price of £3,000 each. Their yearly income was over £5m. ‘If you’re breeding animals on that kind of scale, their welfare has to be compromised,’ she says.
On 31 January 2021, Raffles announced they are ‘taking a break from breeding’. Yet breeding will continue in some capacity. Younger members of the Raffles family have set up ‘Humphries Poos’, with their own license.
The normalisation of delivery and the ease of posting a free ad online, often without needing to verify a seller’s identity, made it even harder to verify the legitimacy of breeders. So just how unscrupulous is the online puppy marketplace? Searching on Gumtree, I came across a suspicious ad. I contacted ‘John Paul’, who is selling ‘purebred collies’ for £1,100 each. The blurry photos depicted the collies huddling together in a concrete pen with a sawdust floor. I asked John if he could send me pictures of the puppies with their mother.
He sent me a professional snap of a full-grown black and white collie in sharp focus with a blurred background. I reverse image searched the photo and found the exact same image, posted 10 years ago on Flickr by an American photographer. I assumed the photographer wasn’t John and told him. He replied: ‘What I meant to say that that [sic] it was what they grow up to be. I have a lot of interest so I’m getting confused with these problems.’ He called me, explaining how he forgot to take photos of the puppies with their mum as he was too busy ‘looking after’ them. The mum is currently at his mother’s house, but if I were to buy a puppy, he said he would ensure the mother is there.
Further dodgy dealers caught my eye. Two different Gumtree sellers in separate locations across London shared very similar descriptions for the Cockapoos they’re flogging. The sellers in question were ‘John’ and ‘Kieran’. They’re both looking for ‘5 star homes’ for their £2,295 eight-week-old puppies, their ‘bundles of joy’. The same cream leather chair featured in both sets of photos.
I asked John for a photo of the puppies’ mum. He shot back a blurry shot of a ginger spaniel galloping along a path. He then insisted on dropping the puppy off directly at mine, so that he can do a ‘home check’. But what if I wanted to do a home check on you too, John?
No can do, said John, it wouldn’t be safe, because of COVID.
We FaceTimed instead. John kept his phone’s camera trained on one puppy. He didn’t show the rest of the litter (or his own face). But when I contacted him on another Gumtree account, he informed me there were two left. I ask to see the puppy’s mum, but he explains that the mum is ‘at the groomers’, I presume without John. The next day, I ask him for a photo of the mum again but John’s out and can’t take a photo. He’s ‘out’ the following day too.
Kieran toes the same line: he wants to check out my home first. I’d rather FaceTime, but he declined, sending me a video instead. I instantly recognised the marble floor and the same indistinguishable leather armchair that starred in John’s photos.
I asked Kieran if he is in cahoots with John. Kieran tells me he has ‘no idea what I’m talking about’.
‘It’s not the same floor or chair or puppies, they are completely different,’ he replies, when I send him the screenshot of the same photo
Then there’s Ali, who was selling havanese puppies for £3,000. They look cartoonish in their cuteness. Spheres of grey and white fluff that could be mistaken for clouds at a distance. But Ali is giving off suspicious vibes – all the photos of the clouds’ ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ separately. The mum peers into the camera’s lens from inside a dog basket on a car seat. The dad reclines on a tiled outdoor staircase. There’s also a timestamp at the bottom right corner of the photo that reads ‘16:18’.
On a Saturday, I waded through low-hanging thunder clouds to arrive at the apartment block in east London. I waited outside, as Ali said he’ll bring the puppies out to me because of COVID. Ten minutes in the downpour went by, and I messaged him again. He sent me a voice note explaining he doesn’t have a basket big enough to bring them all down to me – even though the previous clip he sent me showed all puppies snuggled together in said basket. He asked which dog I’d like to take home. I replied that I’d like to see all of them to make a decision.
‘Sorry, my partner is saying no. She doesn’t want to show the dog. She is saying if you’re serious then you should pay a £100 deposit,’ he messaged.
I whined about the long journey it took me to get here, mustering a pathetic ‘this isn’t fair’ with a sad face emoji. He ignored my calls. I said I’ll pay him the deposit once I’ve seen the puppies for myself. But Ali rejected my offer; ‘bank transfer only’ he said. I’m frustrated and soaked. I buzzed a flat number at random and someone answered. But they don’t know ‘Ali’. Then someone left his building and held the door open for me, so I nipped inside and sent Ali a passive aggressive ‘I’m in your building’. It didn’t work.
‘Sorry she says no,’ he replied. I was unsure how to progress. Did Ali even live in this building? With as much restraint as I could muster, I fired back the terms of Lucy’s Law, which he’s violating, and declared I’ve reported him to the police. ‘Ok thanks’ he replied coolly. Ali blocked me and deleted his ad. I assume the police have bigger fish to fry than arresting ‘Ali’, whose identity is probably fake.
Were the cloud-like puppies even real? Or were they smoke and mirrors to get me to part with £100?
Under more ‘normal’ circumstances, it’s somewhat beguiling, too. When you’re already spending so many pounds on a puppy, what’s another £100 if it will guarantee your happiness? Love for man’s best friend knows no bounds. Especially during a pandemic, where unfettered joy is hard to come by.
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