Animal Planet and Petland: A HumaneWatch Recap

Last night the Animal Planet network premiered an investigative report targeting the Petland chain of pet stores. More than half of the documentary consisted of footage provided by the Humane Society of the United States.

While Petland's corporate leaders apparently didn't want to be interviewed on camera (wouldn't you?), we saw no evidence that the filmmakers made a serious effort to present a balanced report. (HSUS's position had about a ten-to-one advantage in terms of how many people were interviewed on camera.) As a result, what aired was an over-sensationalized attempt to link a pet store brand with puppy mills.

Here's how our television's program guide described the show:

An in-depth look is taken at the widespread practice of dog breeding and a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States against the nation's largest puppy-selling retail establishment amid claims of inhumane treatment against animals.

Talk about this lawsuit kept popping up during the broadcast. But as with the rest of this documentary, we were left with more questions than answers. More on that lawsuit later.

We live-blogged the show as we watched last night, and the contents of that experiment are preserved here. And in the interest of fairness, we e-mailed Petland's main corporate office this morning, asking for a reaction "on the record." Here's what Petland says:

Animal Planet has become a talking puppet for extremist animal rights executives at HSUS. The video was not only outdated showing footage more than 3 years old, but it was sliced and diced so much the footage of the breeders and the stores were not even on the same timeline. The “dramatization” of the family’s experience was a sickening example of using a child’s emotions to further their cause …

Animal Planet refused to allow Petland access to the program ahead of time … Petland has asked for but has not received copies of any reports filed by Animal Planet or HSUS relating to this program with the USDA or any enforcement agency.  To go under cover and film the inhumane treatment of pets and to not take action is shameful. We must therefore assume no reports were filed by Animal Planet or HSUS, clearly demonstrating that both organizations are guilty of putting money before the welfare of America's pets.

Here are our own thoughts about what we saw, together with what we learned from the broadcast—and from the more than 1,200 of you who were reading along with the live-blog and sharing your comments. We went into this expecting to have our stomachs turned. It didn't exactly turn out that way.

We should preface this by saying that we're often suspicious of advocacy organizations that throw around pejorative terms without defining them. "Factory farm" and "puppy mill" are the two best examples we can think of with regard to HSUS, but there are probably more. Prior to last night, we had never seen HSUS offer a clear definition of what a puppy mill actually was.

But now there's a definition out there. According to the Animal Planet broadcast, a puppy mill is three things: (a) it's large, (b) it's filthy, and (c) its conditions are "sub-standard." (Note that this is the filmmaker's definition, not HSUS's. But we haven't heard them disagree with it.)

So far, so good. We agree with this definition. And we're no fan of people who bring puppies into the world in gigantic, squalid, indefensible environments.

We saw a few of these during the broadcast, and they sure looked like puppy mills to our untrained eyes.

Anyway, here are those thoughts we promised you, in no particular order:

  1. We still don't know if the puppy mills shown on camera were selling animals to Petland. HSUS didn't prove that. At one point, the voice-over said that HSUS had a "paper trail" linking a specific dog breeder to Petland. Can we see it?
  2. There were many references to a lawsuit that HSUS filed against Petland last year, mostly from HSUS lawyer Jonathan Lovvorn. But the broadcast didn't mention that it was already thrown out of federal court once. And when it was re-filed, 29 of the 31 legal claims in the second attempt were dismissed again.

    We went looking in the PACER database this morning, and found that only a few relatively weak claims are going to be litigated at all. And those might still be dismissed too. Time will tell.

  3. Trying to examine this without a cloud of emotion over our heads, we see that HSUS's investigation is trying to imply that the plural of "anecdote" is "data." Put another way: It would be more helpful to get a handle on what percentage of animals sold by Petland (or any pet store) are diagnosed with illnesses on their first veterinary visit. And then compare that with the percentage of animals adopted from shelters that wind up sick.

    It would also be good to know what kind of illnesses we're talking about—are they minor things attributable to normal parasites or upper respiratory infections, or bigger problems like parvo or mange? HSUS's anecdotes don't really tell us anything other than the fact that a few puppies were sick. They didn't seem to ask the important question: Is that unusual?

  4. Some live-blog readers reported seeing HSUS fundraising ads during the broadcast. (We didn't see any where we live in Virginia.)
  5. HSUS's Stephanie Shain alleged during the program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspection and licensing requirements for pet breeders aren't very strict. If that's the case, why doesn't HSUS up the ante and fund a private-label certifier to present the industry with something better to aspire too? Something like a J.D. Power Award or a Good Housekeeping seal. Lord knows they can afford it. HSUS could even staff its own inspection regime.

    HSUS could even publish an online directory of "acceptable" and "conscientious" dog breeders, and then pressure pet stores to only buy from breeders on its list. Why haven't we seen this from HSUS? It's a no-brainer to us. Puppy mills would get drummed out of the business when no one buys what they're selling—or at least no one will pay much for it. 

    We suspect that we'll never see this, probably for the same reason HSUS will never actually endorse a cage-free egg. Just like the "cage-free" campaign is just one stop along a longer road to a "no-egg" America, we think the "puppy mill" campaign is just an intermediate step for HSUS. Puppy mills are the low-hanging fruit, and HSUS can't very well endorse even the most sterling dog breeders, since it would like to force them to quit too.

  6. Toward the end of the broadcast, we learned that HSUS shot "more than 50 hours of footage" for this investigation. While it would be unfair of me to expect Animal lanet to air it all, or even a sizable portion of it, we think it's totally fair to expect HSUS to put all its video online for everyone to see.

    Could it be that HSUS found many conscientious pet breeders that socialized their animals and would be seen as model citizens? Maybe. Maybe not. But we'll never know unless HSUS steps up and shows everything it's got.

  7. Here's another thing that would be easily provable if HSUS would just show all its cards: Dr. Kerri Beck, a veterinarian who used to consult with the Petland store in Tucson, claimed that at one point during her employment 100 percent of the dogs she saw there ("all of them") were sick. That's just amazing to me. One family said they spent $4,000 in vet bills after buying a Petland puppy. If someone showed us the health records for all those dogs, and 100 percent of them (or anything close to that number) were walking-around Typhoid Fidos, we would be first in line calling for that store to close.

    So where are the documents? Dr. Beck seemed like a fine veterinarian, at least judging from what little we saw of her, but she's in private practice now. We think it's fair to ask if she made a good living by referring "sick" dogs to her own private practice for treatment. Far-fetched? We don't know. But if she had been asked that question and flatly denied it, her stock would have shot way up in our book.

  8. We didn't find it terribly impressive when Mary Beth Sweetland said that more than 50 people had complained to HSUS about dogs they bought at Petland. Does that indicate the top of a large iceberg, or is that the whole ice cube? We don't know how many live animals Petland sells nationally every year, but we're betting that 50 complaints is about the same proportion of McDonald's customers who call a hotline because their fries were too salty.

    And we have to admit that we nearly fell off our chair when we saw Mary Beth Sweetland. She was a long-time Senior Vice President at PETA, running their Investigations department (lovingly referred to as "The Eye" inside PETA). She's the PETA executive who as routinely criticized for campaigning against the use of animals in medical research while injecting herself with insulin every day to stay alive. If we recall correctly, Penn & Teller mocked up a page of the dictionary with her engraved portrait next to the word "hypocrite."

We could write much more about this program, but we think you get the idea. By all means, feel free to revisit the live-blog stream. And keep asking smart questions of the TV you see—especially when self-serving activist groups are calling the shots.