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Sixth Day Ranch

I am a lawyer with a penchant for animal legal issues. I have a client, Stand Up For Animals, which contracts with Monroe County, Florida to provide animal control services in the Middle Keys. I met the Director, Linda Gottwald, several years ago when her organization took custody of a severely neglected Macaw, and petitioned the court for permanent custody. Much to her surprise, the previous owner of “Capper” hired an attorney to fight for the bird. Ironic that he had money for a lawyer given that, in spite of the fact that she was missing half her feathers, he had never once bothered to take her to a vet.

The group needed legal representation and the County Attorney’s office refused to back them up. Of course as a non profit they were not rolling in money, but I agreed to help. The attorney that represented Capper’s former owner did not ultimately succeed in getting the bird back for his client, but he sure did succeed in getting the case dragged out longer than I ever would have believed possible. Several false starts and trips from West Palm Beach to Key West later the Judge finally ruled in our favor. Capper has grown her feathers back and now lives in a free flight sanctuary where she enjoys the company of other birds instead of in a barren, filthy cage so small that she cannot flap her wings.

Stand Up For Animals has the luxury of being an almost no-kill shelter. They are fortunate not to be completely overwhelmed with unwanted animals like the Miami-Dade shelter 100 or so miles to the north, and other shelters in the more populated South Florida counties. And while it is far from luxurious, the shelter is always spotless, and Linda and her staff work very hard to make the animals comfortable, healthy and happy.

Stand Up For Animals doesn’t get very many puppies, so Linda is sometimes able to take litters from more crowded shelters. Last summer I drove down with a litter of rescued puppies I had been fostering that were at last old enough to be spayed or neutered and adopted to good homes. I had a law student working with me from Portland, Oregon, and she had never been to the Keys. A friend of mine from high school was joining us, and after delivering the puppies we were planning on snorkeling and then an evening in Key West.

For me, it was not to be- the week of my trip I suffered an ulcerated cornea and was told by my eye doctor no swimming and certainly no snorkeling. So I had planned to hangout at the shelter while Mary and Julie snorkeled, make myself useful or entertain myself by snuggling with some of the long time resident cats that are always grateful for a little extra attention. Linda asked if I would come with her to inspect “Sixth Day Ranch”, a commercial breeder down the street from the shelter, and I was happy to ride shot gun. Some neighbors had called in complaints about the warehouse where a family in the dog selling business had recently set up their operation.

In order to discourage irresponsible backyard breeders, Monroe County has an ordinance that requires breeders to register each litter and pay a $50 litter fee. Linda had spoken with the mom of the family the day before and told her she would be coming the next day to inspect the facility. Mr. Jones met us at the door and explained that his wife was upset about the inspection and threatening to go back to their previous home in the Panhandle. During the course of the conversation Linda told him we have a shelter full of dogs and the last thing the Keys needed was someone deliberately creating more, but he explained that they sell their pups all over the country using the internet, some for thousands of dollars. They needed the money.

Sigh. As if that justifies intentionally adding more dogs to a world where we kill them by the millions for lack of homes. After much conversation and polite negotiation we are finally allowed inside, provided we wear paper booties to keep out the germs Mrs. Jones is oh so sure we are carrying from the animal shelter.

You would think with a 24 hour heads up about the inspection, the place would have been ship shape. Or at least clean. The stench of ammonia was apparent from when we walked in the door. Although there was an air conditioner, it was not keeping the place even remotely cool. One door into a side room is opened for us- revealing four large goldendoodle puppies-at least 4 months old, and several adult dogs, one of which is very pregnant. There is a plastic swimming pool full of cedar chips. I am not sure if the dogs were supposed to sleep in it or use it as a bathroom. I don’t think the dogs were sure either. The room reeked.

In a room the size of a walk-in closet, 14 more puppies are behind a baby gate. There is one small water bowl for 14 puppies. And it is empty. Side door number 2 is opened to reveal six large adult dogs, three standard poodles and three golden retrievers in a room maybe 5 x6. There is urine on the floor, and the one window in the room is closed. There is one small water bowl for the 6 large dogs and it is empty. The room is hot and stuffy and the ammonia literally makes me gag. Side door number 3, five or six more large adult dogs, in a similar sized room, no ventilation. Side door number 4, five or six more dogs in an even smaller room.

I must admit for the most part the dogs were well fed, and while there were certainly a few that need bathing or grooming, I have seen worse. The Joneses protest that the dogs just spilled their water, or maybe drank all their water, and that the puppies have no water because they splash around it in and spill it.

“Of course they do” I think-“they are puppies and they are hot”. Their tongues are all hanging to their knees as they pant in the hot humid stinky air. Surely someone who claims to be a professional breeder is smart enough to figure out how to secure a bucket of water so that it cannot be overturned?

Linda and I are in semi shock. So many dogs shut in so many tiny rooms. We confer. As the animal control agent for Monroe County she has two options. She can seize the dogs and petition the court for permanent custody, or leave them with the Joneses and make them subject to an “order to provide care.” I am fairly certain that if we go to court we will win, but it is a serious thing to take someone’s animals, and where the hell will we put all those dogs? On the other hand, even if we order them to provide better accommodations for the dogs, they obviously do not have the space to house them properly. Outside in the back yard of the warehouse someone has erected a couple small chain link runs with two plastic dog houses. It is too small for so many dogs, and it is on the pavement with no shade from South Florida’s relentless July sun. Totally unsuitable.

We conclude there is simply no option other than to remove the adult dogs to the shelter where they will at least be inside the air conditioning or outside in the large shady fenced play yards. The puppies we will make subject to an order to provide care: constant access to water, urine and poop must not be allowed to accumulate, proper ventilation must be provided.

Linda goes to get a citation book so all of this is done properly. I stay and spend what seems like an eternity awkwardly avoiding eye contact with the Jones family. I don’t doubt that they felt some affection for the dogs, but it was hard to reconcile that with the reality of the dogs’ circumstance. How could they have possibly felt that it was ok to keep 22 adult dogs shut in tiny rooms in a small stuffy warehouse? That a water bowl that holds two cups was adequate for five or six big dogs? Did they not notice the ammonia that was making me wretch?

Linda returns and writes a citation for a manner of keeping violations-other staff arrive and we start taking the dogs out and loading them in the trucks. Some are very shy, but most just seem happy for an outing. The dog in the picture below was the worst. His mats were soaked with urine and he smelled horribly. As I walk by with him to load him in the truck, Mrs. Jones tells me she was waiting for him to put on weight before she groomed him. I am dumbfounded.

I am also dumbfounded by what I find when I get back to the shelter and google “sixth day ranch”. This is one of their ads:

We offer quality canine companions to those special people who will love and care for their new pet as much as we do. Each of our dogs are an integral part of our family life and live in our home and on our ranch. Our puppies are raised in our home and with TOO much love and attention from our children (well and us grown up kids as well). We believe in 100% nurture and raise each of our puppies as if they were going to spend their lifetime with us. We practice the "Golden Rule" and all of our puppies are guaranteed healthy and sold with health certificates. We have many references available. Our number one goal is that we can provide others with that same touch of gold in their life as we have enjoyed for years with an emphasis on health and temperament. Check out our web site for in depth information and photos of our dogs and puppies.”

Here is another:

Sixth Day Ranch offers exquisite English, English/American, and American GoldenDoodle puppies as companions to approved homes only. We also offer a few English Golden Retriever and English/American Retriever litters per year. Our dogs enjoy life on the ranch with a spring fed lake to dip in and woods to romp through. Our mama doggies all deliver their puppies in our home where they are raised until they are delivered to their new families. Our dogs and puppies are part of our family and are lovingly raised and enjoyed each minute we have them. We offer a health guarantee, Florida state health certificate, full vet exam, and age appropriate vaccinations.”

Much to my relief the next day Mr. Jones tells Linda he will sign over all the adult dogs and the puppies if we let him keep the one puppy that already has a buyer, and if he can avoid going to court. No matter how strong your case is walking into court is always a crap shoot. Linda hates to let even the one puppy go to an undetermined fate, but having lost many animal cases I should have won I convince her that if someone is paying top dollar for the puppy surely they will be able to take care of it. She reluctantly agrees and I draft a quick release. When I go over to the warehouse with Linda to get the release signed and pick up the puppies, Mr. Jones tells me, in a tone strangely flat and absent of malice, that we have ruined their lives, but that they are going to donate all of their equipment to the shelter. I honestly don’t know whether to say sorry or thank you. By the next day they the Joneses have packed up and left town.

When we seized the adult dogs the day before, the daughter asked if they could keep the one female that was ready to whelp, and Linda agreed. When we picked up the puppies the next day the momma had indeed given birth, six teeny tiny babies and their momma come to the shelter with the other 18 puppies ranging from 3-4 months. Mr. Jones says we ruined his family’s life, but I think we did them a huge favor. If they had 18 puppies older than the 8 weeks at which puppies can legally be sold, and only one buyer, business was obviously slow, and there were several more litters on the way. Puppies are not like canned goods that can sit on the shelf until a buyer comes along.

Linda miraculously managed to accommodate all those dogs and puppies. The momma with newborns was quickly whisked off to a quiet foster home, adult goldens and puppies enjoyed the freedom to romp in a big play yard and take a dip in their new kiddie pools, filled with cool water instead of cedar shavings. The poodles and adult doodles were lounging happily in the AC.

Once news got out, there were plenty of adopters who were happy to rescue a purebred golden or standard poodle or an adorable designer puppy. And also once the news got out, we heard from people that had purchased puppies from the Joneses in the past. Some that had been happy with their pups were shocked to learn about the kind of outfit their puppy had really come from. Now it made sense why the Joneses wanted to deliver the puppy to them, or meet them somewhere other than at the “Sixth Day Ranch.” Others that contacted us had been very unhappy because their puppies had genetic problems that needed thousands of dollars worth of orthopedic surgery, and were angry that the Joneses would not reimburse their vet bills or otherwise honor the warranty they had given.

The circumstances at the “Sixth Day Ranch” are certainly not unusual for commercial breeders, and in fact the dogs, even crammed into over crowed small rooms were better off than the breeding stock at larger commercial puppy farms, where a dog may spend her entire life in a cage the size of a dishwasher.

As far as internet sales go, anyone can take some pictures of a dog or some puppies in a clean, pretty place and post it on the internet-that does not mean that the dogs are well cared for, only that they were clean long enough for a picture to be taken. If you are not encouraged to stop by and see the puppy and meet the parents- to see for yourself how many dogs are there and how well they are cared for, you are not just supporting an inherently cruel industry, you could be making a costly error by “ordering” a puppy that will require extensive veterinary care. And when your puppy arrives, sick or with a debilitating genetic problem like bi-lateral hip dysplasia, as the Joneses' disappointed customers learned, you will have a very hard time getting a single penny from an out of state breeder that sells puppies online.

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