A shocking program on animal cruelty NBC-TV's ``Dateline,'' which aired on April 26, and a follow-up broadcast on May 10, has brought the torture and filth associated with puppy mills into sharp and disturbing focus.
The bright lighting, clean bedding and scrubbed pups seen by pet store visitors too frequently mask the animals' heartlessly cruel background.
Using film provided by an undercover agent of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), ``Dateline'' provided viewers with a look at a puppy mill called Nielsen Farms in Kansas.
The conditions provided for the dogs confined there was a chamber of horrors. The dogs' feet were rubbed raw and bleeding from continued contact with the bottoms of wire cages - never touching the ground.
The dramatic film segment showed sadistic scenes at Nielson underscored by a soundtrack consisting of the raucously incessant and crazed barks of animals shown little mercy. Such cruelty is surely appalling even for those with only a slight concern for animals.
Among the horrors afflicting the dogs were filth-encrusted cages that were far too small; exposed and untreated wounds, and illnesses ranging from mange to ear infections. Such cruelty, unfortunately, is commonplace.
William Ecenberger visited 53 puppy mills in seven states for his special investigation published last year in Reader's Digest. ``What I saw not only broke the law; it broke my heart,'' he wrote.
Among the conditions he found afflicting the dogs were tumors, a half-dozen dogs blind from glaucoma, rats scampering in and out of cages, and, on the porch of a ramshackle farmhouse with filthy cages, a decomposing dog carcass dripped fluids onto a live poodle below.
Sadistic neglect of animals entrusted to the care of humans must have been one of the things Mark Twain was thinking about when he wrote: ``Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to.''
Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated and charged Nielsen Farms with violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, such enforcement is rare. Only after PETA exposed the dreadful conditions did the government act.
Unfortunately, the federal government and most states have done little to protect the public or dogs from puppy mills. Yet consumers can do themselves and the animals a favor by choosing dogs and pups from animal shelters rather than pet shops.
By doing so consumers are far more likely to get healthy pets. And it will mean one less animal has to be ``put to sleep.''
The old song was ``How much is that doggie in the window?'' Far better to ask: ``How sick is that doggie in window.''
When the pet store in a Houston, Texas, closed recently, the mall owner - Houston Galleria - offered the space at a reduced rate to the Houston SPCA. That's the way to go.
Larry Maddry is a retired columnist who wrote for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper for 30 years and is a member of Norfolk, Va.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.