October 11, 2008
They hold a Puppy Mill Awareness Day every year in Lancaster County, home of some of the most disgraceful puppy mills in the country. It's always an emotional event for animal lovers.
Emotions ran high last week as well after the Pennsylvania SPCA raided the inaptly named Almost Heaven Kennel in Upper Milford Township and found more than 800 animals living in hellish conditions. Many of them were sick, frightened, injured, dehydrated and crammed into overcrowded cages, investigators said.
The raid resulted in the seizure of dozens of animals, SPCA cruelty charges and state dog law citations against owner Derbe "Skip" Eckhart, and the revocation of his kennel license. His hearing on the cruelty charges and state citations is scheduled for next Friday.
On the off chance that you suspected the raid just caught Almost Heaven on a bad day or even in a bad year -- about the only conceivable defense for the state Bureau of Dog Law's failure to shut this place down long ago instead of crowning it with "satisfactories" at almost every inspection -- I thought it might be useful to tell you about Puppy Mill Awareness Day 2005.
Bill White E-mail | Recent columns
Who's watching out for me? The event featured 42 dogs obtained from Almost Heaven by a rescue organization. The dogs, which arrived at the awareness event by truck and SUV, were in such terrible shape that they received widespread media attention, although the source of the dogs wasn't revealed at the time.
I watched video of the rescue dogs, and it was heartbreaking. In fact, Lancaster Sunday News photographer Vinny Tennis won a national award for his photo of a man holding one of the kennel's terrified dogs in his arms.
Carol Araneo-Mayer, one of the event's co-founders and vice president of the New Jersey organization Adopt-a-Pet, told me she promised the rescue people who delivered the dogs that she wouldn't reveal where they came from. The fear was that if these and other dogs rescued from Almost Heaven -- mostly because they no longer were useful for breeding and/or couldn't be sold -- brought down bad publicity on the kennel, Eckhart wouldn't let them have any more.
Araneo-Mayer, who has taken in other Almost Heaven dogs since then, most recently earlier this year, said Eckhart's dogs are distinctive.
"They're not normal mill dogs," she told me. "They're not only neglected. These were traumatized animals that take years to come out of their shells."
I'll get to how filthy the dogs were in a moment. But they also were emaciated and terribly frightened. She said some of them were injured, sick, even burned. She said one young Irish setter had a broken leg and another, some kind of big burn on its back. Still another dog, a shih tzu that rescuers named Liberty -- because she finally was free of Almost Heaven -- was so sick that she died a few days later. She's pictured and described on an online memorial page to puppy mill dogs.
I've mentioned the distinctive smell of Skip Eckhart dogs before. Howard Nelson, CEO of the Pennsylvania SPCA, told me it's one of Almost Heaven's trademarks, and even repeated washings won't get it out. If you had been standing in front of the kennel last week, as I had, you would understand. The reek, even from that distance, was disgusting, so you can imagine how bad it was for the investigators inside.
This 2005 batch of 42 dogs was no exception. "You cannot get that smell out of the dogs," Araneo-Mayer said. "They were covered with some kind of tarlike substance that they couldn't wash out and had an awful smell that went right to the skin. There is a smell, a feel, that you'll never forget."
Carole Kirchner of Fern Hollow Rescue Farm in Lancaster County was the one who picked those dogs up from Almost Heaven that day and brought them to the awareness event. She went home afterward and showered three times. "I could not get that smell off my body," she said.
I asked Araneo-Mayer if they smelled like feces. She replied that their coats were covered with old feces and urine -- a complaint I've even heard about dogs shown to customers at the kennel -- but that the smell is much worse than that. "It's the worse smell that you ever have smelled," she said.
Bill Smith, recent subject of a People magazine profile, has been campaigning against puppy mills for years in his capacity as founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs, Chester County. They're the activists responsible for the anti-puppy mill billboards on highways around the state.
He said he wasn't really aware of Almost Heaven until that Puppy Mill Awareness Day.
He told me he was horrified at these dogs, many of them injured, very thin and/or covered with some kind of strange slime -- "it looked like afterbirth" -- and he asked Carol Araneo-Mayer where they came from.
He said she leaned over and quietly said, "It's Skip."
He eventually learned much more through two of the rescue organizations that brought dogs out of Almost Heaven and sometimes turned them over to Main Line Animal Rescue to find them homes or medical treatment.
Many of the dogs had multiple puncture wounds, which the rescue people explained came from fighting over the frozen, raw chicken Eckhart set on the floor for what amounts to a free-for-all. Pattie Fontana, a longtime former Almost Heaven sales manager who provided information that helped spark last week's raid, confirmed that this was how the dogs were fed. She said the strong dogs ended up being relatively well fed, while the weak ones starved.
Kirchner said they had to stop along the way because so many of the dogs were sick. "They were throwing up chicken guts and chicken bones and raw chicken," she said. "It was disgusting."
Although he has stopped the raw diet, the food competition continued when Fontana returned there to work for three weeks this summer, Fontana said. Dogs were being fed from troughs, and the older dogs dominated.
"I don't believe he's intentionally starving the dogs," Fontana told me last year, when we first began talking about Almost Heaven. "But a lot of the young dogs get the crap beat out of them and don't eat."
His oft-repeated motto, Fontana told me, is "The strong survive. The weak die."
Bill White E-mail | Recent columns
Who's watching out for me? Investigators and vets in the kennel last week said there was no food or water in many cages. Some of the animals, particularly puppies, were severely dehydrated.
Kirchner said she became so disgusted with the underweight dogs she had been rescuing from Almost Heaven that she took matters into her own hands one time. "I drove to the doggie food bank, loaded up my truck with dog food and took it up to his place. To be honest, I just wanted him to feed his dogs. I am not even certain he fed the dogs with it. Several kids there helped me unload it and we piled it in the driveway."
Smith will never forget that Awareness Day in 2005. He said volunteers were crying as they pulled the dogs out of their crates. He said, "They looked like they hadn't eaten in weeks. I thought, 'This guy's nuts.' "
The last straw, he said, was when Kirchner brought Main Line a horribly emaciated boxer with a fractured vertebra from some kind of trauma. It had originated at Almost Heaven, Kirchner said.
"He couldn't put his paws down; he was having a hard time standing up," Smith said. The dog, which weighed 20-30 pounds, died in his arms.
One of the most horrifying stories I've heard about the kennel involved an emaciated, toothless Italian greyhound brought to that 2005 Awareness Day. Araneo-Mayer said they found a microchip on the dog, and traced it to Lily and Elmer Scott, breeders from Kansas. The only other dog with a microchip traced directly back to Almost Heaven, she said.
She called the Scotts and discovered that they had sold this champion greyhound -- named Prancer -- and a female named Francesca to Eckhart in 2002. Elmer Scott actually drove from Kansas to Upper Milford to avoid shipping them and to see the facility and meet Eckhart so that Scott could make sure the dogs would be getting a good home.
When Lily learned that Prancer, a dog that had been obedience-trained and lived in their home, had turned up in this condition as a rescue dog, she was devastated. "She was crying on the phone," Araneo-Mayer said.
Lily said she decided to call Eckhart and see if he would tell her the truth about what had happened to the dog. "A woman answered the phone," she told me, "and I asked for Skip. When he got on, I said, 'This is Lily Scott' - and the phone went CLICK."
I asked Fontana about Francesca, whom the family remained concerned about. She said she adopted two older Italian greyhounds to a wonderful home after they became unsuitable for further breeding, and she believes one of them was Francesca. The family was grateful for that information.
Eckhart hasn't been returning my calls, but I've interviewed him in the past. Considering the cruelty charges, the fines, the scrutiny by investigators, the judicial tongue-lashings and all the negative publicity, I asked him back in 2002 why he has insisted on staying in this line of work.
"I could have very easily done something else," he acknowledged. "But you know, if you have a heart's desire, it's hard to change what's in your heart. I love dogs. I love dealing with dogs, I love training dogs, I love the whole aspect of dogs. I mean, dogs are my life.
"Kennel inspectors used to say all the time, 'Why don't you just get out of it?' I kept saying to them, 'It's in my blood.' "
Scary, isn't it?