Jonathan Storm: Profile of rescuer, her dream job: Saving the mill puppies

Laura Flynn-Amato is the "Ma- donna," plucking pups from Lancaster County farms: "A lot of people don't get a chance to do what they want to do in their lives," she says.
Laura Flynn-Amato is the "Ma- donna," plucking pups from Lancaster County farms: "A lot of people don't get a chance to do what they want to do in their lives," she says. (HBO)
Posted: August 23, 2011

She sounds a little like Snooki, J-Woww, and the Situation, and, like several Jersey Shore party animals, she lives in Staten Island, but Laura Flynn-Amato occupies a different reality. The animals that come into her life are wretched and helpless, but at least not drunk.

She plucks them from their misery, and, with lots of assistance, some from Philadelphia-area people, gives them new life.

Flynn-Amato's the title character in a warmhearted documentary whose homey style (everyone's called only by first name) matches its subject. Madonna of the Mills, less than an hour, pops up on HBO2 Wednesday at 8 p.m.

"A lot of people don't get a chance to do what they want to do in their lives, like a dream," says Flynn-Amato, who has spent years driving between New York City and Lancaster County's puppy mills. "It's a pretty nice feeling."

Flynn-Amato figures she has pulled about 2,000 dogs from breeding facilities operated by Amish and Mennonite farmers, who supplement their income by selling puppies to pet shops. She, and almost everyone else in the film, would like it if nobody ever bought a dog in a shop.

Miss Patti Page, the Singing Rage makes an appearance, in her mid-80s, still looking great. She doesn't exactly apologize for "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?", one of the biggest hits of the early '50s, but croons an updated version reflecting her enlightenment about the source of most window doggies. It's called "Do You See That Doggie in the Shelter?"

One of the nation's most prominent shelters, Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs, plays a big role in the film, too, with executive director Bill Smith among the many talking heads.

Flynn-Amato also works extensively with Rawhide Rescue, in north-central New Jersey. One of their alumni, Woody the Dog, was plucked from the Staten Island Animal Care Center one day ahead of the executioner and has lived with a certain Philadelphia TV critic and his wife for almost 10 years.

So you could say I have a dog in this fight, too.

Woody lifted his head several times to look at the TV while Madonna of the Mills was playing, which is more than he does for Glee or The Good Wife.

Several rescued dogs, profiled in the documentary, are pretty much what you might expect - lame, suffering from horrible infections, and so forth. But one, a retriever named Liberty, is particularly moving. She doesn't seem to have any particular physical ailments, but, more than anything, she just wants to put her head in the corner and shut out the world.

The documentary, as you can imagine, has many sad and shocking parts, but nothing on TV this summer has been as uplifting as seeing some of the rescued dogs, which have spent their entire lives in cages, put their paws on grass for the first time and take off in amazement, dragging their handlers behind.

A strong point of the film is its visit with Mennonite farmer Edwin Martin, who shows off his fancy pooper-scooper and explains how his semi-industrialized breeding operation "provides well for us" and gives employment to younger family members.

The farmers see their dogs as agricultural products, like pigs or chickens, one of the experts points out. The rescuers see them as family members, with status almost as high as people (or maybe higher).

There seems to be no reconciling those cultures, but, Madonna of the Mills emphasizes, it would be nice if the agencies charged with assuring decent living conditions for the agricultural products could at least do as good a job as one woman from Staten Island following her dream.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Madonna

of the Mills

8 p.m. Wednesday

on HBO2


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

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