We met in a parking lot off the interstate. I was nervous. We’d exchanged photos and back stories and now he was moving from Boston to Maine for me. He’d spent hard time in Arkansas, he was blind in one eye and his teeth were falling out. He was scared and scarred – in my slightly a-tilt world, ideal.

He is Bodega, a puppy-mill rescue, the dog love of my life. As a Boston terrier sire at a puppy mill in Arkansas, he’d been bred until he was 5 years old. Kept outdoors in a wire crate with no kindness or medical care, he was to be shot when he’d outlived his usefulness. His captor gave a rescue group an hour to come get him; his liberators took him out of desperate filth just before Independence Day 2008, and he recently celebrated five years of freedom.

Puppy mills operate in a shadow world that few people know about. Otherwise thoughtful humans who won’t eat an egg from a caged hen or a steak from a factory-farmed cow are still, often inadvertently, supporting puppy mills by buying dogs online or through pet stores.

Puppy mills are commercial breeding facilities where dogs are a cash crop. The owner wants to keep “overhead” low, so dogs are housed outside in stacked wire crates, receiving no medical care, socialization or love.

Well-meaning people wanting to add a specific breed to their families go online and connect with disreputable breeders. The sites show healthy, happy pups. A deal is struck and a puppy is shipped to Maine, often from Midwest or southern states. And don’t be fooled by dogs from Amish communities. Many unsuspecting adopters mistakenly think these dogs are raised in idyllic and bucolic settings. In fact, these breeders are just as vile as the others.

Buying a dog from your local pet store is no better. According to “Madonna of the Mills,” a documentary that investigated gulag-like conditions at puppy mills, nearly 100 percent of pet-shop dogs are from mills. More than half of those dogs are ill with a host of ailments, from giardia to mange to heartworm. If your pet store insists that its suppliers are USDA certified, you should know that means nothing about the health of the dogs or the conditions at the facility.

There are 1 million dogs in puppy mills. When you buy a sweet pup at your local pet store, or have him shipped, realize that his parents are being held in dire, filthy conditions.

When you are ready to open your heart, home (and wallet) to a new dog, your first stop should be your local animal shelter. Maine’s shelters are home to dogs of all stripes and sizes. Many have been surrendered by families who can no longer afford them or make a craven decision to relocate without their family pet. Our most recent addition was a 2-month-old Boston terrier from a mill in Alabama. A Maine family bought him online, shipped him to Maine and quickly learned he had giardia, a parasite that can be transmitted to other animals and people. He was surrendered to the Coastal Humane Society within weeks. Since joining our crew, he’s been treated for giardia and worms, conditions that resulted from squalid conditions where he was bred. We are fortunate to have the resources to provide him with all the medical care he’s needed. But for many families, veterinary expenses on top of the expense of buying a dog are too great.

If you feel you simply must have a certain breed, you have plenty of options without supporting a puppy mill. Use petfinder.com to search by breed, location and age. Google rescue groups for the breed you desire. We’ve shared our home with two lovely lady Rottweilers from a New England rescue group.

And though I don’t support breeding dogs, there are some reputable breeders out there. If you insist on using a breeder, go to the breeder’s facility and witness how the dogs are treated – all of the dogs, not just the puppies. Do not trust pictures posted online of happy, healthy pups. A dog is a big investment of money and time. Don’t skimp on vetting your source.

Do your part to help eradicate the shame of puppy mills in Maine and throughout the U.S.

Kimberly McCall shares her Durham home with one patient human and an assortment of rescue critters.

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