Two characters uncover the horror of a large scale puppy mill.
|A Horror Unveiled
“Jason, do you have the camera ready?” I whispered in my friend’s ear.
“Yes,” he replied, “Everything’s good to go.”
I took a deep breath. Weeks of preparation had been leading up to this moment. Nothing could go wrong without risking weeks of undercover investigation into that place. I opened the car door and slipped out as quietly as I could, pushing the door slowly until it closed with a muffled click. Jason mimicked my motions until we were both standing in front of my black SUV.
We had parked on top of a large hill behind a thicket of trees. I peered through the brush to observe the compound that was nestled at the base of the hill. I could just barely make out the shadows of a house, several dog runs, and numerous tool sheds lined up in slightly crooked rows. A sliver of moon was obscured by thick, dark clouds. It was the perfect night to do some more investigating.
I pulled out a small set of binoculars and crouched behind the tree line in an attempt to see if the shed doors were locked. In the weeks of our investigation, I never saw the actual property. I had only talked to the owner of the property, and numerous pet store chains. If Jason and I were going to bring that man down, we had to get a closer look than we both knew the man would’ve ever knowingly allowed. Through the binoculars I could just barely make out the shadow of large, rusted metal doors and the glint of a chain and padlock on each shed.
“Would you mind grabbing the camera for me? I want to go down there and get a closer look before these clouds clear out,” I explained to Jason, who had been leaning up against the SUV, waiting.
With a brisk nod, Jason retrieved the camera that had been resting on the hood of the SUV. I stood up and held my hand out in the black of night, waiting for Jason to hand it to me. I felt the solid weight of the handheld camera press down on my hand. Grasping it, I quickly popped off the lens cap and fumbled for the ‘on’ button.
A small red light illuminated my hands. I flipped the screen open and hit the toggle button to switch it to night vision. The screen went from black to multiple shades of green, showing everything crisp and clearly. That screen on the camera would be the eyes that’d help us find our way down to the buildings without running into something, or someone.
“Are you ready?” I turned to my left until I could see the green shape of Jason; his black hair looked a green-gray on the screen.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Jason replied, tossing an uneasy smile at me.
We started to slink our way down the hillside in silence. Jason stayed close to me, looking over my shoulder to watch the camera screen. I felt his warm breath blowing softly on the back of my neck. It was low and quick; extreme excitement laced with nervousness. I was doing the same thing.
We were about three quarters of the way down the hill when my sneakered foot slipped on some loose rock. I inhaled sharply and stopped, Jason nearly fell into me. The buildings were about half a football field away, and inside them the dogs began barking with incredible vigor. I wrapped my arm around Jason’s well-muscled arm to steady myself, and snapped the screen closed on the camera with my free hand; leaving us blind.
My head jerked to the left when I saw a light in the nearby house flick on. I could make out the silhouette of a man in the doorway. We’re so busted; I thought to myself and shook my head in frustration. Our cover was going to be blow because of a stupid pile of loose rocks. My thoughts flashed back to the countless interviews we had with people who had purchased sick dogs from this man, and how secretive he was. It was clear that something was going on behind his locked doors, and I was determined to find out. The slamming of the house’s front door pulled my thoughts back to the present. A man was walking off the porch with a flashlight in his hand.
“Shea! Follow me,” Jason hiss in my ear and grabbed my arm. We darted across the hillside to a gathering of dense bushes. As quietly as we could, Jason and I stooped behind the bushes. The man was walking toward the row of sheds and dog runs, tugging on the metal chains and locks. He worked his way down the line, slowly getting closer and closer. I inched closer to the bushes, my eyes straining to see through them. Finally, I saw him turning back toward the house.
“He’s going back inside,” I backed away from the bushes and turned toward Jason.
We both grinned at each other in relief. I crept out from the safety of the bushes, adrenaline coursing through my body. My heart felt like it was about to beat itself right out of my chest. I knew that the stakes had just gone up since the owner had been alerted. I closed my eyes and hoped he had gone back to bed.
“We’re going to have to be a lot more careful,” Jason stated quietly.
“I know. We can’t afford to get caught. Not if we’re planning on talking to this guy tomorrow.”
Resuming our trek to the nearest building, we made sure to be extremely cautious in where we placed our feet. Thankfully, we had made it safely to the bottom of the hill after only a dozen more nerve-wracking steps. I heaved a sigh of relief when I stood on flat, grassy ground.
Standing only a short distance away was the row of small tool sheds. I jogged over to the end shed. I was eager to see if I could capture video of what lurked behind its door. I gently lifted the lock and examined it.
“Can you hold this?” I passed Jason the camera, “I’m pretty sure I can pick this.”
The horrendous odor that was emanating from behind the locked door was gag-inducing. It took all of my will power to prevent myself from vomiting. I heard Jason behind me, coughing into his arm. I took small measured breaths and dropped to my knees. I pulled a tiny flashlight from my jeans pocket, turned it on, and held the handle of it between my teeth. I fished a bobby pin from my mocha brown ponytail and set to work on picking the lock. Several tense moments later, I felt the satisfying release of the padlock. I unhooked it from the thick chain that was holding the door closed.
“Jason, please tell me you’re getting this on video,” I asked. I wanted to make sure we had the shock-value of the reveal on tape.
“I’ve had it rolling since we got here.”
“Perfect. I just gotta get this chain off, and then I’ll be able to get the door to open up.”
There was a large hole in the wall, and another on in the door which the chain had been fed through. I knew it was going to be difficult to remove the chain without causing the dogs to start barking again. I already heard them snuffling and clawing at their cage doors.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” I noted. The chain kept making awful banging and jingling noises, which caused the dogs to start barking and growling fairly loudly. I rocked back on my heels and ran a hand through my ponytail. Now what are we going to do? I thought to myself as I struggled once more to remove the chain quietly. Again, the dogs barked.
“Here, let me give it a try,” Jason suggested and I felt him bump me with the camera.
I pulled the camera from Jason’s hands and stepped back, filming him as he made his attempt to get the door to the shed open. I continually glanced over my shoulder. The lights were still off in the house, but I didn’t lat that fool me. Many puppy mill owners, like that one, knew how to sneak around and catch intruders almost as well as we knew how to stay hidden. My ears and eyes were peeled, searching for our enemy in the darkness.
Thankfully, the dogs’ small raucous hadn’t seemed to awaken anyone in the house. Finally, I saw Jason slip the chain through the hole. He looked up at the camera. I took a couple of steps closer and zoomed in on the door. I knew that whatever was behind those doors wasn’t going to be a pleasant sight. I took another steadying breath and gave Jason the signal- a single hand wave- to open the door.
The door creaked and groaned, pretesting at being forced to give up its deepest secrets. I was blown back by the repugnant odor of urine and feces that was permeating the entire building. On the camera screen, I made out over 50 stacked wire cages. Each contained anywhere from four to seven dogs. They were crying and barking excitedly, scrambling at the cages’ rusted doors. Their fur was matted with filth, and the pain in their eyes stared at me through the screen of the camera.
Behind me, Jason whistled lowly, shaking his head in disgust. I carefully stepped into the shed. The dogs’ crying grew louder and louder. I was being surrounded by desperate pleas for help. There was a narrow aisle in between the two rows of cages- one row along each long wall. My face flushed with anger and horror as I walked through the small shed. Beneath my feet was a thick layer of built up filth. The stench was becoming completely unbearable. I swept the camcorder down both sides, taking in the faces of the dozens of dogs.
“Shea, I think we need to get out of here.”
“A light just came on in the house.”
I spun around and raced out of the shed. I threw one last glance over my shoulder- a promise that I would come back to help them. Jason picked up the padlock off the ground, slammed the door and locked it as soon as I had stepped free from the makeshift prison.
Jason and I gathered our flashlight, camcorder, and bobby-pin-turned-lock-pick before wordlessly bolting into the safety of night. The door from the house slammed shut, a familiar and terrifying sound. In response, I quickened my pace. My breath was coming in shallow gasps, my lungs screaming for more air which I could not provide. Jason remained a few feet in front of me, leading me up the steep hillside.
We didn’t stop until we arrived at the top of the hill and well-hidden behind the thicket of trees we’d parked the vehicle behind. There, we collapsed in a sweaty heap trying to catch our breath. I pulled at the tree branches and tried to see if the man had caught on to us. I could see his flashlight beam at the far end of his property, at the very opposite end we had broken into.
“I-don’t-think-he-saw…us,” I managed to stammer out between my deep breaths.
Jason looked through the trees where I had bent back the branches, and he nodded in agreement. The man was already walking back to his house. Once I had caught my breath a bit, I gingerly rose to my feet and stumbled tiredly toward the car. I hopped into the driver’s seat and quietly shut the door. Jason slid in the passenger seat next to me and buckled up.
“That was a close call.”
I nodded, “We’ll have to be really careful when we talk to him. I think we should wait a few days before making contact.”
“I think you’re right. We don’t want him to get suspicious of us. We just can’t risk it.”
I didn’t start the car until almost an hour had passed since the property owner had turned off the lights. We had to be extra cautious sneaking of the property. I kept my lights off and eased out of our hiding place. We drove in silence, both mulling over the gruesome scene we had uncovered.
After following a rough ATV trail, we finally came across a regular paved road. Only once we were there did I dare to flick on my headlights and get up to normal speed. It was a twenty minute drive back into town. On the way, there was nothing but looming irrigation systems sleeping over dry, cracked earth.
It was nearly three o’clock in the morning when we pulled into my driveway at the outskirts on the opposite end of town. Jason and I slipped out of the car and slammed the doors, thankful that we didn’t have to be so deathly quiet anymore.
“Thank you so much for doing this with me. There was no way I could’ve done this alone,” I whispered, my voice raspy from being so quiet for so long.
“No problem, Shea. It’s for a good cause. I’m always happy to help,” replied Jason. He gave me a quick hug before unlocking the door to his aging pick-up truck, “I’ll call you tomorrow so we can settle on a day to go visit that guy again.”
I nodded and watched him hop in his car and drive away. I walked toward my one level ranch-style house, unlocked the door, and stepped inside. Once inside, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. I’d finally run out of adrenaline and had nothing left to run on. I stumbled through the living room, the kitchen, and into the tiny laundry room. Grabbing a random t-shirt and pair of shorts I made my way to the bathroom to wash my face and change.
When I felt I was decently clean, I went into my bedroom, which was adjacent to the bathroom. I shut the lights off and crawled into the cozy comfort of my queen-sized bed. The stress from the night melted away, and I feel asleep almost as soon as my head in the pillow.
Soft yellow sunlight streaming in through my large bedroom window woke me from my deep, dreamless sleep. I sat up in bed and glanced at my alarm clock. It was one in the afternoon. I rolled my eyes, frustrated that I’d overslept; I leapt out of bed and hopped in the shower.
My cell phone rang just after I had finished showered and gotten dressed. Jason’s name popped up on the Caller ID and I flipped my phone open to answer it.
“Hey Shea. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m doing alright. Still a little tired from last night, but not too bad. How about you?”
“I’m good,” Jason said, “I just wanted to talk to you about meeting up with this guy.”
“Right. I definitely think we should wait about a week. There’s no way we can go snooping around there asking him all sorts of questions after last night.”
“That sounds like a good plan. I guess I’ll call you in a few days. I don’t want anyone else to think we’re up to something because we’re together all the time.”
“Okay,” I added, “Why don’t you call me on Friday? Today is Tuesday, so that should be plenty of time in between our contact.”
“Sure. I’ll call you Friday afternoon. Bye, Shea.”
“Talk to you later.”
I snapped my phone shut and sat down at the kitchen table. I allowed my mind to wander back to what had occurred the previous night. That puppy mill must have had a least a couple hundred dogs on the property. It looked as though there had been over 50 dogs in each shed, and there had to have been at least seven or eight sheds. Plus, there had been about ten outdoor kennels over by the house, and there was no telling how many dogs were in each of those runs.
I knew that Jason and I would be opening a huge can of worms when I brought the footage into the San Francisco Humane Society, the local SPCA shelter I volunteered at. If we could get just a few audio clips from the owner discussing the dogs, I knew we’d have him nailed to the wall. There’d be no way he could escape getting arrested and thrown in jail. The fact that we had technically broken into the property would be rendered irrelevant since there were no private property signs posted on the property. We had checked all borders of the property the day before, just to be sure. We couldn’t do anything too illegal and risk getting arrested ourselves trying to put that guy away.
I fetched the camcorder from the bench by the front door and plugged into my laptop. I quickly uploaded the video, attached it to an e-mail and sent it to the president of the San Francisco Human Society. Once I knew the video clip had sent, I unplugged the recording device and tucked it safely into its carry case.
The following week passed painfully slowly. Each day seemed to drag on forever. I tried to keep myself busy at the humane society working with the animals, and beginning another small investigation into a small-scale animal hoarding case. It kept me busy enough not to worry too much about the puppy mill case. However, it wasn’t enough to make the time pass any faster.
Jason and I had a brief conversation on that Friday, and agreed to visit the property the upcoming Wednesday. Once there, we would pose as owners of a new puppy store, and that we were interested in purchasing some puppies from him. We’d talk to him about how he cared for the dogs, so that we’d know what we’d have to do to continue their care once they were placed in our store. Hopefully at that point he would start talking about how the cages and how it’s okay for them to be piled in sheds like that; how they were just dogs and didn’t need any special treatment. That, paired with our tool shed footage and previous interviews were, with any luck, going to be enough to have him prosecuted.
Finally, Wednesday came, and Jason came to my house to pick me up. We had decided to take his truck instead of mine, just in case he had seen my SUV. The drive to the puppy mill felt like it took four hours rather than half an hour. About ten minutes away from the compound, I clipped a tiny digital recorder to the inside of my tank top. Jason and I made sure we didn’t wear any hats or bring in any bags. Both articles could set the guy off and cause him to think that we were secretly recording him (which we were).
Taking a few deep breaths, Jason and I got out of his truck and made our way to the house. We were posing as uneducated, careless pet store owners and we knew we had to act the part. I had put on a pair of short white shorts and a hot pink, low cut tank top. I casually held his hand and popped a piece of minty gum into my mouth. Jason dressed in khakis and a name brand polo shirt.
We walked up the worn wooden porch stairs and Jason rapped on the door. I could hear some rustling going on behind the door, and saw a curtain in the door’s window move slightly. The door swung open, revealing a man who appeared to be in his sixties. Thin white-and-gray hair jutted out at all angles, greasy and matted in some spots. He was wearing a torn up pair of work jeans and a faded red flannel shirt, despite the extreme California heat.
“Hi,” Jason began, “My name is Jim Rodney, and this is my wife Shauna.”
“Yeah, and,” the man said gruffly, “What the hell are you doing on my property?”
“Well, we are getting ready to open up our own pet store, but we have no puppies to put in it. We were told that you could help us?” I asked innocently, ignoring the barking dogs in the nearby run.
“Oh really? And who told you that?”
“A man named Patrick from the pet store called Pet World.”
As Jason said this, I watched the man’s wrinkled face for any signs of recognition. Sure enough, a spark ignited in his cold gray eyes. I smiled a little bit and stepped out onto the porch with us.
“Ahh, so Pat sent you,” he replied, “In that case, let’s talk about gettin’ you some dogs.”
“That’d be great! My wife and I are quite new to the pet store industry, so we’re not really sure about the steps we need to take.”
“I can help you there. First of all, the name’s Willy. And you’re going to want some small dogs. I’ll get you some Chihuahuas and Pomeranians. You’ll want a few larger dogs too, one or two Golden Retrievers along with some Black Lab puppies.”
We smiled with fake eagerness and watched Willy as he walked off the porch and toward one of the dog runs. He grabbed a few well-used puppy crates and handed each of us one, keeping one for him. He motioned for us to follow him toward the rows of tool sheds. He walked up to one, pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door.
We peeked into through the doorway and watched as he began to pull random, filthy and sick puppies from cages. He dropped them into the crates with an obvious carelessness. When he emerged he exchanged crates with Jason.
“So, are all these dogs healthy enough to be sold?” inquired Jason.
“Oh, yeah. There ain’t anything seriously wrong with them. Just need a little cleaning up. I got a couple things at the house to help make them look a bit perkier.”
“That sounds great,” I said, trying my best to sound enthusiastic.
We stopped at two more sheds and by the end of it we had about a dozen puppies loaded up into three crates. The three of us journeyed back to the old farmhouse. Willy left of standing on the front porch with the crates of weakly yelping puppies.
Willy came out of the house with a number of vials, needles and syringes. He opened up one of the crates and extracted a tiny puppy. He stuck a needle in one of the vials before injecting it into the scruff of the young puppy.
“What’d that for?” Jason asked.
“That’s just a little shot of vitamins to help perk them up a little bit. They can get a little tired looking after they’ve been taken away from their mamas,” explained Willy, “I’ll show you, Jim, how to do this and you can do it for the first few days that you’re open. Then maybe once a week after that till you sell ‘em.”
“Okay,” said Jason, “Honey, why don’t you run to the car and get the money so we can pay Willy and get these dogs back to the store?”
“Sure thing, babe,” I responded and skipped off to the truck to fetch the money.
We counted out a grand total of $2,500. It broke down to $200 a dog, and an additional $100 for the puppies’ “vitamin” injections. We loaded up the crated in the back of the pick-up truck, thanked Willy, and drove away. The moment we were off of Willy’s property, I shut off the recorder and fished my cell phone out of my shorts pocket. I dialed the humane society’s number, my hands shaking.
“Hey Cassie, this is Shea. I just wanted to let you know that we just bought 12 dogs from that puppy mill, and the owner of the property also gave of vials of some sort of drug used to hide the puppies’ illnesses. I think we’ve got this guy completely nailed,” I gushed into the speaker of my cell phone.
Jason and I chatted cheerily on the way back to the city. The humane society and the police were on their way to Willy’s place to arrest him and rescue his hundreds of sick and neglected dogs. It was going to be the largest puppy mill raid in over ten years, and I was a leading volunteer of the case. I’d never been so thrilled with the outcome of a puppy mill investigation. It was usually nearly impossible to get enough evidence to have the police make an arrest.
We had blown the lid off a huge operation, and the video we captured was shown nationwide on news shows. My phone was ringing off the hook, and I had been scheduled for numerous interviews with big name news channels. They all wanted the scoop on what it was like to sneak into a puppy mill and get that kind of video. We had finally lifted the veil on the horrors of the reality of puppy mills to the public.