By Guido Cocconi and Lily Plass
For John Kloiber, the connection was not instant when he first laid eyes on his dog, Comet, at a shelter. “I met him and I wasn’t sure I wanted him at that point. He’s big and I hadn’t had my own dog before,” Kloiber said. Three years later, Kloiber’s Instagram page is filled with pictures of his German Shepard. “I decided to go for it and it’s been amazing,” Kloiber said. But Comet’s life before meeting John was anything but easy. For nine years, he was used as a breeding dog in a puppy mill. “They never let me see his original pictures. They told me he was emaciated and thought he couldn’t bark because his vocal cords were damaged,” Kloiber said.
Comet is an example of what happens behind closed doors at a puppy mill. A puppy mill is a place where dogs are bred without consideration on if the cross between the breeds is healthy, how many times the mother has already given birth and the general health and well-being of both the puppies and the parents.
Puppies are produced for profit. They are kept at the lowest possible cost and sold at the highest possible price. Commercial breeders who care more for the money in their bank account than the dogs in their care use breeding dogs to cater to the market. Trend breeds often become popular overnight and dogs are then bred quickly to satisfy the demand. An example was the rapid breeding of Dalmatians after the 1961 Disney movie 101 Dalmatians: In 2003, 20 percent of Dalmatians in Germany suffered deafness from the breeding rush 40 years before, according to animal rights organization Four Paws.
For the puppy mill breeders, the quicker the puppies are sold the better. “The profit? It’s crazy,” Jackie Keeney from United Against Puppy Mills (UAPM) said. Keeney estimated the breeder’s profit at around one thousand dollars per puppy, but prices for popular breeds can go even higher.
Puppy mill breeders often advertise their dogs online. “In the past six years, the online demand for puppies has been booming. It is a new challenge,” Magdalena Peneva from Four Paws said.
Large online sales platforms opened the doors for dog breeders to market their puppies on a large scale and for a long time unbothered by local authorities.
That was supposed to change in November 2021, when the Dutch government tightened rules for breeding and selling puppies online. Dog breeders must also register their puppies at the Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland (RVO), translated Civil Service for Entrepreneurial Netherlands, a week after they are born. To register at the RVO a Unique Business Number (UBN) is necessary. Together with the UBN, the dog’s chip will be registered at the RVO in one of ten Dutch commercial databases for dog breeders. The changes in regulations require puppy breeders to equip their dogs with a mandatory vaccination passport and health certificate approved by a veterinarian. In the passport, Parvo, Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), Hepatitis Contagiosia Canis and Rabies vaccine should be documented. Especially, the Parvovirus is commonly found in puppy mills and can be deadly. Infected puppies may seem healthy from the time being but over time, they begin to develop symptoms of the virus.
The regulations were implemented to protect puppies from money-hungry breeders but how effective have they been in fulfilling their mission?
In the puppy trade business, the Netherlands is a so-called receiving country. A receiving country has a high demand for puppies and the desire for puppies only increased during the pandemic when people were looking for a companion. According to Four Paws, roughly half of the 150 thousand puppies sold every year stem from illegal breeders. The majority of these puppies come from countries in Eastern Europe but other source countries that have been named were also Ireland, Spain and Turkey, according to a study by Jennifer Maher and Tanya Wyatt on the European illegal puppy trade.
On Marktplaats, a popular online sales platform used primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. While the sales platform provides information on the laws regarding the sale of pets, the enforcement of the regulations remains in the hands of the consumer. During our online research, we came across several profiles that were not in accordance with current legislation. For example, this breeder is offering unregistered French bulldogs from Hungary. Aside from the fact that the puppies are not registered, the seller is offering to transport the dogs to the Netherlands which would mean that they do not have the chance to inspect the living situation of the buyer in advance. While this is not illegal, it is an indication that the breeder does not prioritize in whose hands the puppy will grow up.
Or this breeder whose dogs neither registered nor chipped, both requirements for the sale of puppies.
Since 2019, anyone advertising a dog or cat on Marktplaats must pay 1.50 euros. The small fee provides the website with credit card information the Dutch Food and Good Safety Authorities (NVWA) can use to trace illegal breeders. The sales platform has also created additional categories in the vaccination category so that the buyer can see against which diseases the animal has been vaccinated.
Yet, just because someone states that the dog has the necessary vaccinations and registration that this is actually the case. As Peneva and Keeney confirm, there have been several cases where veterinarians were willing to provide fake vaccine passports. Any health problems the dog has may only show themselves later.
Mireille Heuvels said she spent over 5,000 euros on veterinary costs after she adopted a Labradoodle puppy off of Marktplaats. The list of ailments her dog has had in its life runs from a lung infection, bronchitis to a neck hernia and several stomach issues. Heuvels met the breeder several years ago on Marktplaats. “I was in awe of the sweet puppies there. I didn’t do more research into the breeder,” Heuvels said. The breeder never asked Heuvels any questions about her housing situation or if she had experience with dogs. She recalls that a female dog was present at the time she visited but in hindsight, Heuvels questions if the dog was indeed the same one that gave birth to the puppies because her nipples did not seem to be producing milk. “If I were to buy a dog now, I would be much more cautious. I was very naïve back then. Now, I know a good breeder asks you questions about your living situation and if the dog will be in good care in your hands,” Heuvels said. Knowing what she knows now Heuvels said she would not buy a puppy online again, “Especially not on Marktplaats.”
Later on, Heuvels found out that several dogs that were held by the same breeder experienced health problems. The breeder Heuvels bought the puppy from was Margriet van B. who is not an unknown figure in the illegal, commercial dog breeding world. She was in a recent documentary by RTL5 journalist Thijs Zeeman who confronted Van B. about her breeding practices. Amsterdam court documents from December 2021 show a Labradoodle breeder tried to stop the broadcast of the Zeeman show in which Van B.’s threats against people who criticized her online were revealed. The court documents state that producers of the Zeeman Confronteert show saw screenshots of messages that Van B. sent to a woman who created a Facebook page about her detailing her breeding practices. One of the messages read, “I can also call your husband from work and say that he touched my grandson. That he is a pedophile.”
The judge ruled that there had been sufficient evidence of Van B.’s threats to allow the show to be broadcast.
Yet, according to members of one of the Facebook groups that outed Van B. the breeder is still active under an alias. One of the members screenshotted a Marktplaats advertisement from a Labradoodle breeder in Nieuw Vennep which they claim is Van B. That post has been deleted but since then two new posts advertising Labradoodles in Nieuw Vennep from the same user have been posted. The Marktplaats advertisement post was created under the username ‘Labradoodle.’ Simultaneously, the website margrietlabradoodles.nl reports that three girl and three boy puppies are available to go to a new home within a week. We reached out to the seller, posing as a boyfriend wanting to buy a puppy as soon as possible for his partner. The seller agreed to hand over the dog the next day.
When asked to see the chip number, the seller claimed to have deregistered the puppy to sell it to a new owner and that an EU vaccine passport is sufficient to adopt a dog. However, according to Dutch law, it is illegal to buy a dog that does not have a vaccine passport and who is not registered.
The presence of such dubious sellers on Marktplaats shows that the new regulations have yet to show their effect. For now, it is still up to the consumer to make sure that the breeder they are buying from is qualified. Four Paws suggested introducing an automatic registration system between the online sales platform and the ministry database because even if the consumer checks the pet’s passport, these documents can be forged.
Certain signs can point to an irresponsible breeder, for example, short descriptions with vague information. “The Best Pomeranians you can get”, is a good example. Another sign is that the mother is not present. Yet, puppies from illegal, commercial breeders can look healthy in the pictures, sitting in a nice meadow or nestled in a cozy dog bed. Since illegal breeders wish to sell the puppies for a high profit, they will make them look presentable to achieve a high price.
It is usually the dog’s parents who are kept in deplorable conditions. “Breeder dogs out of puppy mills, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to walk on grass, they are scared to death. I encountered a case of a breeder dog that would not come out of her crate for over a year,” Keeney said.
Peneva cautions against taking home a puppy that a buyer suspects has been held by a commercial breeder in an attempt to rescue the dog. Reporting illegal dog breeders is the most important part of the process she says. Only this way are authorities notified.
Comet, the dog once destined for a long and painful life behind bars, is now “learning to be a house dog.” Kloiber said that when he first got Comet, he used to lick the kitchen floor at night. A habit, he believes Comet picked up because he had been underfed in his earlier years. “My dog is still an amazing dog but what would he be if he was allowed to be a puppy when he was young? What could he do now if he was allowed to interact with dogs and people?”, Kloiber questioned. “It’s heartbreaking to me that we deny that to these animals when all they do is love and we deny them the ability to do that when they’re young and they should be learning it.”
In response to the questions about illegal breeders on Marktplaats, the sales platform responded, “When buying a pet, the starting point should always be good information and education. We work continuously to inform our visitors extensively about buying or selling animals according to regulations and in a responsible way.”