Oscar’s Law

WORDS Jill Fraser PHOTOGRAPHS Adele Van Es

“How much is that doggie in the window?”

These are the classic lyrics from a 1950s hit of the same name made famous by American songstress, the late great Patti Page. The warm fuzzy feelings the song evoked sent it rocketing up the Billboard and Cash Box charts to Number 1.

Fast forward to 2008 and the disturbing reality of puppy farms (called puppy mills in the US) upset Patti so profoundly she rewrote the lyrics, retitled it “Can You See That Doggie in the Shelter?” and recorded it for The Humane Society of the United States. 

Sadly very little has changed, in either America or Australia circa 2013.

Playful little puppies in pet shop windows and photos online camouflage the confronting truth of the industry that led to their conception and birth: the cruelty and neglect that is too often the reality behind the cute images that detract from the cold, hard facts about the business of puppy farming.

In 1993, when only an informed handful knew of the existence of puppy farms, Dandenong Ranges resident, Debra Tranter, began campaigning against them.

In 2010 after rescuing Oscar, a tiny, horrifically abused stud dog, from a Central Victorian puppy breeding operation, Debra started Oscar’s Law anti-puppy farming campaign aimed at, “abolishing the factory farming of companion animals, banning the sale of factory farmed companion animals from pet shops, online and in print media and insisting the government run a proper campaign on responsible pet ownership.”

Recently Oscar’s Law opened a retail outlet on the Burwood Highway in Upper Ferntree Gully. When Country Life caught up with Debra and Oscar, Oscar had already taken ownership of the space. Belying his miniature size he barked with great authority at a group of school children passing by.

He wasn’t always this cocky. When Debra first saw him his condition was appalling. “He was in a shed with 60 dogs and needed urgent medical attention,” she said. “His hair was so mattered his movement was restricted. His coat came off in one complete shell. He had black sludge coming out of his ears, rotten teeth, grass seed abscesses all over his body, urine burn on his stomach and he was severely malnourished. All the dogs were in dreadful condition.”

The owners of the puppy farm were away and a neighbour had issued a complaint to the animal welfare group to which Debra belonged. “The smell and sound of a puppy factory is unforgettable,” she said. “There is an overwhelming stench of urine and faeces and the simultaneous barking of often hundreds of dogs creates a wall of sound that makes it hard to think.”

A registered nurse, Debra took Oscar and two other dogs in need of immediate care to her local vet. Oscar was in such a bad state a general anaesthetic was required to treat his wounds and abscesses He was a mere 1.6kg. While under the anaesthetic, he was de-sexed.

Debra took him to her home in Ferntree Gully, planning to find foster care after he had recuperated. But around midnight 10 police officers came to her door and despite her protestations that Oscar had just come out of surgery, took him and charged her with theft.

Oscar was returned to the puppy factory. Devastated, Debra vowed to rescue him again. “I knew he was still alive because the puppy farm operators were trying to take civil action against me for lost earnings as a consequence of the de-sexing. I knew while they were suing me they had to keep him alive so I kept asking my solicitor to delay proceedings.

“Friends were keeping an eye on the place and alerted me to the fact that they were over-stocked and getting rid of some of their dogs. I scanned the Trading Post and saw they were advertising adult poodles for sale. A friend posed as a buyer and rang to make an appointment. The puppy farm operator said he would be away and someone would show her around. I bought a blonde wig and sunglasses and we went together.

“Oscar was in the same cage I’d found him in 18 months ago. He was an absolute mess. He was so terrified he was visibly trembling. I got onto my hands and knees and tried to coax him and eventually he tentatively made steps towards me.”

Debra opened the cage, scooped Oscar up in her arms, paid $400 for him and $100 each for two other dogs and left, crying her eyes out.

Her work on anti-puppy farm campaigns has taken a toll.

“I have to emotionally shut down when I’m about to walk into a shed,” she admitted. “When I’m photographing and filming the dogs and their environment I have to stay focused in order to collect evidence and get the job done. I break down later.

“Awareness of puppy farming is growing but in general the public is still taken in by cute puppies in pet shops. We shouldn’t be factory farming companion animals and pet shops shouldn’t be selling animals.

“To walk into a shopping centre and buy a puppy or kitten off the shelf sends a totally wrong message. Domestic animals are not products or commodities. We go to shopping centres to buy clothes or hats or handbags, not puppies.”

There are humane alternatives to factory-farmed dogs. Registered breeders don’t breed in puppy farms. Neither do they sell to pet shops. Dogs Victoria told Country Life that members would be breeching their code of ethics if they sold to pet shops.

The Victorian code of practice that applies to puppy farming, the Victorian Code of Practice for the Operation of Breeding and Rearing Businesses, is under review.

The current one was written in 1994. According to Debra it permits euthanasia via shooting and Blind Force Trauma (beating over the head with a blunt object), caging – often on wire floors – for 23 hours and 40 minutes a day, no exercise, no access to sunlight or heating and food simply thrown onto the floor.

In conjunction with the RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations, Oscar’s Law wants to see the factory farming of companion animals banned. But as this option is not on the table Debra, along with all the above organisations, has submitted recommended changes to the minimum standards of accommodation, management and care required by breeding and rearing establishments in order to stamp out the cruelty inherent in puppy farming.

“Even in registered puppy farms dogs are being treated as just breeding machines,” an emotional Debra told Country Life referring to some puppy farms as, “a cross between a pig farm and a concentration camp,” with rows and rows of wire pens and hundreds of dogs, many of whom have been debarked by the owner (as opposed to a vet) and pacing in “never-ending figure eights.”

“Besides the physical abuse (including ulcerated and weeping mammary tumours and prolapsed uteruses due to the unrelenting breeding cycles) there is enormous psychological damage to these dogs,” she said, confessing that the unspeakable cruelty she has seen will stay with her forever.

Debra’s vision is that exposure through education and knowledge will ultimately bring an end to factory farming of companion animals.

“When people walk past a pet shop and see cute puppies they never think, where’s mum. The reality has been hidden from the public for far too so long. There is no justification whatsoever for the existence of puppy farms.”

(For information about Oscar’s Law http://www.oscarslaw.org)

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