Exhibit exposes 'puppy-mill' abuse

Posted: July 05, 2007

At the end of country lanes, behind tall fences, and inside picturesque barns lies Lancaster County's dirty little secret: thousands of purebred dogs - whose offspring sell for hundreds of dollars at pet stores in Philadelphia and elsewhere - living in Dickensian conditions: undersized wire cages; no exercise; minimal, if any, medical care.

Those images - well documented by undercover video and humane officers over the last 25 years - prompted animal lover and Old City gallery director Jennifer Yaron to stage what may be the first-ever exhibition dedicated to drawing attention to the plight of dogs in commercial kennels, known across the animal-welfare community as "puppy mills."

"We wanted to try to reach people through an artistic setting," said Yaron, cofounder of the FUEL Collection at 249 Arch St.

The exhibit, which opens tomorrow, is titled "Puppies Are Biodegradable" - inspired by comments made during a 2005 Lancaster County zoning board hearing when a dog breeder was asked what happens to unsold dogs.

He said they were "exterminated" and their carcasses spread over fields as fertilizer.

"They are biodegradable," he said.

Yaron said the title underscored the attitude of commercial breeders but also was cryptic enough to encourage readers to try to make sense of it.

"For some people, it evokes laughter, until they understand what it means," she said.

Inspired by the animal lovers around her - her mother, Harrise Yaron, and aunt, Jodi Goldberg - Yaron decided in spring to put together a show to raise awareness among Philadelphia-area residents who are pet-shop consumers but know nothing about the conditions under which the dogs are raised.

She received several hundred submissions, from which 40 were selected. Among the artists chosen are some who are deeply involved in animal welfare issues - Tammy Grimes, for instance, founder of the anti-chaining group Dogs Deserve Better - and others who had never heard of puppy mills before.

Philadelphia artist Jillian Kesselman created a digital image of an overall-clad farmer holding a headless dog upside down as puppies come tumbling out of it.

"Like a salt and pepper shaker," said Kesselman, 25, who was unaware of puppy-mill kennel conditions before being invited to submit her work.

"It was appalling, a nightmare," she said as she did research for her piece. "It was like a factory. Then, once their reproductive capacity is over, the dogs are disposed, dumped onto crops as fertilizer."

Chris Whetzel, 26, of Philadelphia, drew on his life experience for his pen-and-ink drawing depicting an oversized dog covered in ropes like a giant Macy's parade float, with tiny farmers climbing up it.

"I feel like I am being pulled in all directions," he said. "There was a correlation between myself and the puppy situation - everyone feels helpless at times and overwhelmed."

Yaron, 25, opened FUEL - it stands for Fostering Undergraduate Exposure on Location - in May 2006 with co-founder Marguerite McDonald, to highlight student art outside of institutions.

Yaron's love of animals and art is a family affair. Her mother rescued animals and has long been involved with the SPCA. Her father, developer Michael Yaron, owns the building housing the gallery, the historic site of the Corn Exchange and, more recently, the setting of MTV's Real World: Philadelphia.

"There were more pets than people in my house," said Yaron. "I have a sensitivity toward animal issues in general. It's part of my family life."

Exhibit curator Katerina Lydon-Warner said for some people the cause could be overwhelming: "They say, 'What can we do?' "

Lydon-Warner said the exhibit would include information about commercial kennels, pet shops and adoption centers, as well as before-and-after images of rescued dogs. Visitors can post comments on the "opinion wall" for display on a plasma TV in the gallery.

Strategically placed chicken-wire niches will offer a way to see the artwork both from the outside and from the inside, as through the eyes of a caged animal.

"We hope it will reinforce the feelings of the work," Lydon-Warner said.

The entryway contains a vinyl floorcovering bearing the digital image of Lancaster County broker Joyce Stoltzfus, one of Pennsylvania's most notorious puppy-mill operators, created from the pawprints of dogs rescued from her kennel. Stoltzfus' mills have been under public scrutiny since the mid-1980s.

The vast majority of commercial kennels in the state are located in bucolic Lancaster County. Most are run by Amish or Mennonite farmers seeking a year-round "cash crop." They provide a steady stream of purebred and "designer" mixed-breed puppies to pet stores in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

With the explosive growth of the kennels - some house more than a thousand dogs - has come mounting concern about the treatment of the animals, particularly the breeding dogs that must spend their lives in cages. Gov. Rendell has led efforts to improve conditions, firing the Dog Law Advisory Board and reorganizing and enhancing the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement; new regulations proposed by the Dog Law Advisory Board will require exercise time and larger cage sizes.

The FUEL exhibit has been praised for shedding light on a too-often-invisible problem.

"Most of the facilities are hidden away - and breeders are intentionally hiding them away. They tell me that's why they deal with brokers, they know people would be horrified by what they see," said Bob Baker, an ASPCA investigator who helped draft Pennsylvania's dog law in the early 1980s. "People who are buying puppies in pet stores are supporting this."

Yaron said she would like the exhibit to travel to colleges and universities as a way to reach out to young people.

As she noted, "They are the future dog owners."

"Puppies Are Biodegradable"

"Puppies Are Biodegradable" is at FUEL, 249 Arch St., through July 30. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. A Pennsylvania SPCA Dog Adoption Day will be held July 21 from noon to 4 p.m. Information: 215-592-8400 or www.fuelcollection.com.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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