In Missouri, it's one puppy mill down, and how many more to go?

In Missouri, it's one puppy mill down, and how many more to go?
Jennifer Silverberg

The tents are up and the bleachers ready as hundreds of people mill in the cold morning sunshine. They chat with old friends while keeping an indulgent eye on their children, who chase each other over and under plastic tables and up spindly trees, squealing and tossing gravel. Despite the early hour, the air crackles with excitement.

With blue skies above, a homemade concession stand and boisterous children all around, the atmosphere in rural Mexico, Missouri, this morning feels like a harvest festival.

It's a rare harvest festival, however, that features security like this: Just off the county road, vehicles streaming onto the property are stopped at a checkpoint. There, driver's licenses are photocopied, plates are photographed, and a document is proffered for signing: It bans photography, audio or video recording and anything that could be construed as ill will toward the property owners. The threatened penalty for violations? $250,000.

Jennifer Silverberg
Located a two-hour drive northwest of St. Louis, Mexico, Missouri, held one of the state’s largest dog-breeding operations. Until October 2010, the entrance to Herman and Bonnie Schindler’s property, seen from the county road at right, was home to nearly 1,000 dogs.
Kase Wickman
Located a two-hour drive northwest of St. Louis, Mexico, Missouri, held one of the state’s largest dog-breeding operations. Until October 2010, the entrance to Herman and Bonnie Schindler’s property, seen from the county road at right, was home to nearly 1,000 dogs.

And even beyond the security, there's the noise. Beneath the children's shouts is a cacophony of barking, yapping, howling and whimpering.

It's the sound of more than 800 dogs — and it echoes unceasingly.

This late October gathering on the rural Missouri property of Bonnie and Herman Schindler isn't a festival, and it isn't a fair. It's the end of what the Humane Society of the United States calls Missouri's largest — and, arguably, its most notorious — puppy mill.


Bonnie Schindler is a small, grandmotherly type: She has a voice that undulates like an unsteady rocking chair, loud to soft and back again, with pauses so long between statements that it's unclear whether she's decided to end the sentence early. She can also talk for so long without pause that if a call is dropped, and the person she's talking to calls back, she may still be rattling on.

Schindler refers to her dogs lovingly: Puppies are "babies" and adults are "mothers." She credits the time she spent with them for healing the cancer that invaded five parts of her body and earned a grim prognosis from her doctors.

"When I was so sick, I'd go down and sit in the puppy building with my puppies," she says. "I'd hold them and love them. And I beat it. I told my doctors, 'I don't have time to die. Dying's not in my schedule; I have too many babies to take care of.' And after I beat it, they shook their heads and said, 'You are a miracle.'"

It's when Schindler slips from "babies" and "mothers" — instead referring to them as "production animals" — that things start to feel a little less charming.

Bonnie Schindler and her husband, Herman, are both 75 years old. They've bred and sold dogs in Missouri for almost 50 years. At one point, records show, they had 2,913 dogs, all but a few hundred of them breeding stock.

This fall, they sold all of them. That's the reason hundreds of people flocked to the Schindlers' property on October 29 and 30: Before the couple could retire, they needed to get rid of their stock of 960 breeding dogs — 665 adult dogs and 295 puppies, according to a July 2010 count by the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Missouri has been called the puppy-mill capital of the country for years. One of every three puppies in America was born in Missouri, and almost 1,500 licensed large-scale breeding operations call the state home, along with an estimated 1,500 of their unlicensed, unregulated brethren.

Deserved or not, the Schindlers have become a symbol for those 3,000 or so breeding businesses. And after decades of relatively quiet existence in Missouri, "puppy mills" suddenly became a subject of great controversy this fall.

The so-called Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act was one of only two statewide initiatives on the November ballot. Sponsored and heavily backed by the Humane Society to the tune of more than $2.5 million, Proposition B would require that females be given rest between breeding cycles. It would outlaw the use of stacked cages and wire flooring, rewrite the formula used to determine cage size, require that dogs have unfettered access to both indoor and outdoor areas and ensure regular veterinary care. It would also create a misdemeanor crime of "puppy-mill cruelty," punishable with fines and the immediate confiscation of dogs.

By definition, Prop B would make operations such as the Schindlers' a thing of the past.

Under the old standard, 1992's Animal Care Facilities Act, the only requirements were that dogs be fed and watered every twelve hours, with minimal room for movement in their cages. There was no limit on how many dogs a commercial breeder could own.

Once the new law is implemented, however, breeders will not be allowed to keep more than 50 dogs as breeding stock, much less the 1,000 the Schindlers have kept in recent years.

And so depending on whom you ask, the scene in Mexico that weekend was either a triumph or a tragedy. To those in the dog-breeding world, Bonnie Schindler is a saint, a well-respected breeder who has lobbied on behalf of the Professional Pet Association on Capitol Hill, dined with then-Congressman Roy Blunt and presented workshops on canine pediatrics at conferences for breeders. Betty Dwiggins, another breeder, describes Schindler as "a wonderful person and a wonderful breeder," who works hard to ensure the health and quality of her dogs.

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