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Puppies in Distress

Spotlight on Illegal Dog Breeding and Animal Abuse in the Czech Republic

Puppy farms are not as harmless as they may sound. On the contrary, they embody shocking animal-rights abuse occurring in the heart of one of Europe’s most dog-loving nations.

 

 

A hub for the illegal pet trade

With at least tens of thousands of dogs smuggled to Western European markets every year at much cheaper prices than legally bred ones, the Czech Republic is at the frontline of animal rights activists’ fight against one of Europe’s most lucrative illegal trades. Although its illegality makes it hard to grasp the true extent of this booming industry, the country has been described as a European hub in the continent-wide black-market pet trade, with up to 70% of these dogs – generally breeds that are high demand – being shipped to countries like Germany, Belgium, France, and Spain.

“I’m afraid there are hundreds of these farms (mnozirna),” said Sebastian Šimon, an activist who takes care of dogs from both Moravia and Slovakia. Other estimates even venture into four-digit territory. Due to its geographic location, the Czech Republic has become a gateway for illegal dog breeders, who are mostly located in the country’s western border regions, as well as a transit zone for puppy farms in countries further east, including Slovakia and Romania.

“According to some unofficial estimates, hundreds of thousands of puppies are exported from the Czech Republic every year,” warned Tereza Plicka, chair of the organisation Hlas zvířat (Voice of Animals). And while the problem has been getting worse, even following the country’s EU accession in 2004, authorities still lack the necessary means to crack down on this trade. The Czech population, with an estimated two-thirds of households owning at least a dog or a cat, remains largely unaware of the extent of the problem.

 

 

Canine cruelty

In such a dog-loving country, it’s difficult to picture the dreadful circumstances in which tens of thousands of dogs make their way to loving owners’ homes. Often packed together in people’s houses (basements, cellars, or old sheds) in the most unsanitary and inhumane conditions, dogs are deprived of basic healthcare. In many cases, they are stuffed with hormones resulting in excessive breeding, often with relatives and before reaching sexual maturity. In extreme cases, activists even discovered dogs’ vocal cords had been removed in order to prevent them from barking and attracting attention.

Biological and genetic deformities become commonplace and diseases are widespread, causing more than half the puppies to perish in transit to their foreign destination. Yet the trade remains outrageously profitable: while it may cost around €50 to breed a dog, breeders can easily earn anywhere between €500 and 1,000 per animal sold abroad (tax free, of course).

The entire industry appears to be run like a transnational mafia. But the Czech culprits at the heart of this booming enterprise are not what you might expect. “Puppy farms are usually operated by an elderly couple who realised early on that it can be a way to make easy money,” Plicka explained. “Usually, the man runs business matters (such as online ads, social media, email communication, or relations with smugglers) and the woman is directly in charge of the animals.”

Despite repeated calls by activists, illegal dog breeding has been allowed to prosper due to the lack of effective legislation to allow for the prosecution of breeders and negligible penalties that were not a deterrent. And while the underfunded State Veterinary Administration is allowed to conduct welfare checks, it may only enter private dwellings after having left a formal note. Needless to say, by the time inspectors come back, illegally bred dogs and puppies have been moved and hidden somewhere else.

With years of practice, breeders know all the tricks to avoid exposure: they regularly change their nicknames or telephone numbers on advertisement websites, and are often in cahoots with canine clubs or veterinarians, who provide them with forged papers (fake  vaccination documents, for example) to cover their tracks.

 

 

Microchips and personal responsibility

However, the era of impunity might be coming to an end. Last year, it became mandatory to inject an electronic ID microchip under a dog’s fur – although the absence of any central register makes it hard to act on – while breeding establishments with more than five female adults are also required to register with the authorities.

There’s more: a new amendment to the Criminal Code directly targeting puppy farms – “a major breakthrough” according to Hlas zvířat, who spearheaded the initiative and wrote the text – was signed into law in March, establishing the new criminal offense of “breeding animals in unsuitable conditions.” Animal abusers can now be sentenced to up to six years in prison (ten years in the most extreme cases of puppy breeding) , while law enforcement authorities were given extended powers of investigation. “This basically means the Czech Republic is about to have some of the strictest criminal penalties for animal abuse,” Plicka commented. Others, like Šimon, are not as optimistic, and described the most recent measures as a “PR stunt by the government.”

A number of additional measures are under discussion in the country, including attempts to create a legal definition of puppy farms or to create a mandatory central register by 2022. But transnational trade of this magnitude can only truly be tackled at the EU level. “This has to be followed by the adoption of harmonised mandatory microchipping at the EU level with compulsory registration,” Plicka cautioned. Echoing this view, in February MEPs voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of a resolution calling for an EU-wide action plan to crack down on the illegal pet trade.

But while actions at the top are paramount and civil society needs to maintain pressure to address the roots of the problem, ordinary citizens also have a part to play, especially in a country like the Czech Republic. This responsibility starts with being aware that even with the best intentions, one can end up supporting organised criminal activity, but that criminals will be unable to prosper as soon as we stop turning a blind eye.

 

Photographs of the rescued pets in this article were made by Julie Orolva, for Oko! Magazine, reuse without prior authorisation from Oko! Magazine and the photographer is not permitted.