When I pull onto the private property to park in the grass in front of the auction pavilion, the first car I see is the Barry County Deputy Sheriff SUV. Normally an auction gets me excited, but today I’m only nervous and slightly headachy over the idea of what I’m doing and where I am, because this experience has been on my mind for the last six weeks of planning. After all, I’m here incognito. I’ve brought my parents for cover, but when we finally arrive we barely talk because I become completely engrossed in absorbing all of the things—the sights, the smells, the sounds and the people who are arriving with us.
I’m at a dog auction—an event I wouldn’t be able to imagine existed before this summer. I’m here to see the whos and hows, but they won’t answer the bigger question: Why do dog auctions exist? And do people really know where their dogs come from?
I first read about dog auctions in the April 18 Washington Post article “Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn.” Living in northeastern Kansas, only a few miles from the Missouri border, I couldn’t quite kick the idea of traveling to one of the two auctions mentioned in the article—Southwest Auction Service in Wheaton, Missouri, or Heartland Sales in Cabool, Missouri. A quick Google maps search showed Southwest would be a closer drive, so I settled on a date for an upcoming auction—June 23—and registered online.
The auction is held on private property, and the warnings on the website are quite firm: no photography, no recording. In an age of transparency, it’s an alerting feeling to find there are places where the cell phone is an unwelcome intrusion. Before I share my auction experience, let’s take a closer look at the players involved.
Retail rescues and commercial breeders: What do they have in common?
The primary groups I’m looking for at the auction are commercial breeders and retail rescue groups. What exactly are retail rescue groups, and how to they differ from other rescue organizations?
Apryl Steele, DVM, is president and CEO of the Dumb Friends League in Denver. “We have some groups in Colorado that we call retail rescues that are bringing in large numbers of puppies from these areas in the South or New Mexico, not protecting them from heartworm, not vaccinating them, not spaying and neutering them, and then quote, unquote adopting them within 48 to 72 hours for hundreds—$500 sometimes. They’re making a lot of money, but they’re nonprofits,” she says.
Besides the financial gains the retail rescue makes, they’re also hurting the pets and the pet-owning public, Dr. Steele says, because they’re sometimes adopting out animals with some significant medical diseases.
In Colorado, the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) program regulates pet care facilities through licensing and inspection. Dr. Steele says PACFA’s consumer complaints have gone up more than 400 percent with the influx of these retail rescues.
“That’s a big problem, and it’s a big problem for a lot of reasons,” Dr. Steele says. “It’s bringing disease into our community, the animals are suffering, and people are like, ‘Why would I ever adopt another animal?’ They think they’re saving an animal by quote, unquote adopting them. That’s not always the case in those situations.”
Bob Hughes, who co-owns Southwest Auction Service in Wheaton, Missouri, with his brother Chadd, has a unique perspective on animal rescuers. Southwest Auction Service is the largest legal dog auction in the United States. It’s one of the places breeders buy and sell their breeding stock—from Chihuahuas and akitas to beagles, Frenchies and goldens. While Hughes says most of the buyers at his auctions are professional breeders, rescue groups do sometimes attend.
Can rescue groups work with commercial breeders? Will we demonize both groups for this? To answer this, you must first look at who these groups are—and how their interactions occur.
The first category of rescue groups are the organizations that take retired breeding dogs or dogs not deemed saleable from commercial breeders. The second group, sometimes labeled retail rescuers, attend dog auctions, paying what can add up to hefty fees to purchase dogs that they later place for adoption.
“I feel ‘retail rescue’ is a profit center similar to a distributor, one who buys at a price and then increases the price for profit,” Hughes says. “It’s as simple as starting a nonprofit organization and distributing funds as expenses. However, it basically just comes down to the nature of the people you are dealing with. There is good and bad in everything, you just have to pick which side you want to be on.”
At the auction, organizers carefully instruct the attendees on their behavior, which I assume is related to the concern that rescuers might arrive and stir up conflict. Several scans of the parking lot later, I fail to see any signs any rescue group is in attendance.
But when I ask Hughes how much it changes the auction when rescuers are in attendance, he says, “Not much. However, reputable rescues provide services for rehoming dogs that are unsuitable breeders or have reached an age for retirement.
“Some rescues are breed-specific and have a passion for a certain breed that they prefer and they only will bid on that breed. They have a desire to see that specific breed in pet homes and not professional kennels. I’m not saying that is right or wrong, it is just their prerogative. If rescues could work hand-in-hand with professional breeders, it would be a win-win for the dogs. We may get there someday, but it will take some more understanding on both sides.”
PROP B (or how things changed after 2012)
You talk to any breeder in Missouri for longer than a hot minute and you’ll probably end up hearing about Prop B. In 2012, Proposition B, more precisely known as the Missouri Dog Breeding Regulation Act, was passed to regulate the large-scale commercial breeding operations in the state. Missouri has long carried the rough reputation of the puppy mill capital of the nation, thanks in part to the number of breeders from the state that have made the Humane Society’s “Horrible Hundred” report. The result: Hughes says kennel production has fallen from 3,000 kennels in Missouri to around a thousand. The law also restricts the number of dogs a commercial breeder can have in a kennel—a move that Hughes says is responsible for the plummet of the average of 125 dogs per kennel dropping to about 50.
“This is around 325,000 dogs less than prior 2012 in Missouri,” Hughes says. “Prior to 2012, we were conducting approximately 50 auctions per year, with an average of 250 dogs per auction. Now we conduct around 20. So we have downsized over 50 percent.”
The tradeoff, according to Hughes, is that he sees a higher level of professionalism in the buyers he sees today. “They are much more particular about quality, genetics and temperament than in previous years,” he says.
So who attends auctions? The answer, Hughes says, is professional, USDA-licensed and inspected breeders. In other words, this isn’t where people go to find the family dog. It’s where the commercial breeder goes to buy the dog that may produce the family dog for sale.
What do the Amish got to do with it?
Would you be surprised to know that the Amish are heavily involved in the practice of dog breeding?
I was struck at the auction by the strong presence of Amish families. So I asked Hughes about it.
“The Amish community is associated strongly with this industry,” Hughes says. “Some of the best kennel operators and animal husbandry specialists come from the Amish community. I have a high regard for their ability to create unique and very creative kennel designs. The Amish professional kennels are some of the best I have ever seen. The Amish have hundreds of years of practical education in caring for animals. They are people I have grown to admire and respect over the past 30 years.”
An Amish breeder is behind the top dog to ever sell at Hughes’ auction: a male toy poodle that sold for $18,000 in February.
At the June 23 auction, the Amish presence is large. Children in suspenders and hats do some of the work of fetching and holding the dogs that go up for auction, as well as cleaning and supervising the dogs in their cages and continually refreshing water bowls. A black horse-drawn carriage with the distinctive reflective orange triangle on the back is parked outside. I’m not sure whether the Amish are auctioning any of their breeding stock today, but they’re definitely buying. I see them bid, and bid high.
Are you ready to go to the auction with me? Here we go.
Dog-tion time: a personal perspective on dog auctions
We arrive at the auction site in Wheaton, Missouri, at 9:04 a.m. I’m worried we’re late. The auction building is a dark green structure, with a peaked roof over the indoor auction pavilion you enter through an open garage door. To the left of the pavilion is a door to the office. The right is the entrance to the kennels.
First we see the dogs in outdoor runs, in a clustered line: German shepherds and golden retrievers.
For a brief time, we are completely distracted. I’m drawn to the goldens. Three are two months older than my own pup. It’s challenging to see them there. They watch me with those soulful brown eyes. It’s hard to not anthropomorphize them, to assume they are wary or suspicious or sad or desperate for social contact. Three more puppies are redder, and they are in a second run. Across the way is a 1-year-old male, who is desperately jumping against the cage. His tale wags energetically and he makes small whines and barks when people come near.
The females are in the next kennel. One is extremely obese. My mother instantly falls in love with her and wants to rescue her and try to get her on a diet to a healthy weight. They’re shedding heavily, and they need to be brushed.
I’m trying to say kind words to each dog, engaging in baby talk at first, till I become aware I am the only one doing this. Other people attending the auction study the dogs analytically, without smiles. Some have their auction catalogs out, and they make notes about the dogs.
The runs are on grass, and I comment to my parents on the fact it’s temperate today, somewhere in the 70s. On a hotter day this could be miserable. I can’t check the temperature on my phone, because cell phones are not allowed.
A 13-year-old boy with a sticker on his chest that reads “Staff” watches over the dogs, presumably to make sure they are all well and watered and not being bothered by the auction attendees.
I’m feeling uncomfortably aware that I am an interloper, so I decide I should collect my auction number to blend in. We head to the auction building, where a deputy sheriff stands outside. I’m nervous, but I approach him and ask where I collect my number. He smiles and points inside. I hope he doesn’t evict me before the day is over.
Inside, metal bleachers circle the auction stand. Some people have set up lawn chairs to get choice views near the front, to see the dogs best.
The deputy leads me into the building, behind the bleachers, where there’s a line to register. As I stand in line I pause to absorb the people in line and milling about. The crowd is smaller than I expected—maybe 50 people, and plenty of room on the bleachers. The first person I see is a one-armed Amish man. Other people in his family mill around. My mother whispers to me that teenage boredom is a universal condition as we note the bored young Amish lady standing beneath the bleachers.
Most people are dressed in jeans, belt buckles and hats, suspenders. I’m wearing my “I love your dog” shirt, because I thought this would help me blend in. Not so.
As I wait in line, the auctioneer begins to speak. They haven’t started yet. He mentions the auction and their industry have gotten some negative attention recently, and the pet industry had been under attack. I try to listen over the din of the room and look like I’m not paying attention too closely.
He tells the crowd if anyone is feeling harassed, tell the officer. He points to the Barry County Deputy Sheriff—the one who pointed me to the auction signup and payment line. The auctioneer reminds the audience this is private property, and anyone can be asked to leave. My mom points out the sign on the wall—no cell phones, no pictures or video recording allowed.
I reach the front of the line. I’ve already registered. I tell the clerk my name and she hands me an auction number and a sticker to wear, both with my number—51.
I am not bidding in this auction, but I need the number for legitimate cover. Once I’ve collected my number, we sit for a few minutes on the bleachers, until the auctioneer finishes his opening spiel. They plan to start with some small equipment sales first, then get to the dogs around 10:30 a.m.
We decide to go look at the dogs on the inside kennels. Smaller, two-tier kennels take up three-fourths of the space, and there’s a line of runs at the back. The Havanese, Hava Klee, Chihuahuas and poodles are near the front. The wire-bottomed cages allow the urine to drain into channels. Any poop seems to be cleaned up in a quick fashion. At least six teens shuttle up and down the aisles, replacing water and checking on the dogs.
Dog No. 244, a female apricot miniature poodle named Dancer, trembles and hides in the back of her cage. She’s not the only one. Dogs show a combination of boredom—sleeping or resting—and anxiety or fear. It’s an intense experience—more than 200 dogs in this room, with most the kennels full. Two hundred seventy-six dogs were originally registered for the auction, and some are pulled beforehand for various reasons.
We walk up and down aisles, past the gray Frenchie pup, the bulldogs. One lies on its side, panting heavily. Others simply watch from behind the bars of their cages. As overwhelming as it is for me, I am not on the other side of the cage. Dog 144A, an unnamed male shih tzu, is excited, jumping around his cage and stepping into his water bowl, spraying water on us as we walk by.
We walk past the beagles, corgies, bassett hounds. In the larger runs are the Labs, the mastiffs, dogues de Bordeaux. The kennels are regularly cleaned, but when the mastiffs urinate the fan blows the smell up into our faces, and we step over the sticky urine that’s running to the drain.
Suddenly the kennel areas are all too much. We step back out of the building and into the sun. I take a tour around the parking lot, trying to get a sense of who’s here. I’m looking for signs of rescue groups, cars with notable animal rights stickers or the “I love my rescue pug.” I see none. A white Vibe’s back hatch is stuffed to the brim with kennels. It is unclear whether they’re to be sold in the equipment part of the auction or waiting to be filled. Others are nondescript Chevys, Fords, and other varieties of cars, trucks and even vans.
The larger vans with the separate cabs give me a bit of a chill. On the auction flyer, there’s a caution to the buyers and sellers who will be transporting dogs, reminding them to transport their dogs in a temperature-controlled vehicle. It also recommends bringing ice and rubbing alcohol for the pads of their feet in case they overheat in transport.
I retreat with my parents to the car for a minute and scribble notes as we discuss what we’ve seen so far. We agree the animals look safely and cleanly kept, but there’s a lingering sense of depression that hangs over the place.
I am not comfortable with the auctioning aspect of this, and I’m beginning to understand why. As a pet owner, I think of these creatures as beloved companions, to be loved and enriched. In this place, the animals are livestock, not unlike cattle or hogs. Many of the physical needs of these dogs seem to be met, but I think of the completely social nature of the dogs—specifically gregarious goldens—and I’m struggling more than a little with the isolation of these dogs.
We walk past the outdoor runs again, the shepherds and the goldens. I find myself studying the puppies again, the ones who share my own dog’s coloring and are two months older. They are the same size as my dog, but their faces are more mature, their snouts longer and their noses fuller, closer to the full-grown dogs they will become.
As the time nears 10 a.m., we wander back to the pavilion. It’s fuller now. It’s supposed to hold roughly 300 people, and it currently looks about two-thirds full. They’re still auctioning equipment. A used covered litterbox sells for $5. Next are small and larger feeders, a couple of digital scales.
The auctioneer’s cadence and banter as he rattles off his auction chant is soothing. Next to him stands his big catcher or ringman, who takes note of bids and communicates them to the auctioneer.
Most of the dogs are sold times the money—so nine dogs at $100 a piece would be $900. The lead man announces what’s going up for sale. Some people bid for choice—the ability to choose first, then let other bidders take the rest for the same amount. If there are no takers after the winner takes first pick, the remaining unpicked dogs will be auctioned again, usually going for lower prices.
We’re seated on the far-left side of the pavilion, near the door that’s used to bring the dogs from the kennel into the auction area. On this door a handwritten sign in faded red marker reads: “No cell phones past this point.” The ringman routinely yips “yep!” to indicate a bid, causing me an occasional jolt.
The auction stand is ringed with stacks of dog and cat food. The lead man explains that these are salvaged feed—this means the bags have been punctured by forklift or they’re past expiration date. They can’t be sold as dog food, but they can be sold as salvaged feed, and people can choose to do with it what they like. Many of these bags sell, as do the treats that follow.
An American flag hangs above the auction stand, and a cowboy hat hangs beneath it. The woman sitting in a lawn chair in front of me goes back to the kennel periodically. I wonder if she’s a breeder checking on her dogs or if she’s inspecting dogs she wants to buy. She seems an old hand at this. She’s bought some of the pulled pork they’re selling at the concessions, and she now takes it from the paper tray and places it in some Tupperware she’s brought for this purpose.
Microchips sell for $4 a chip in lots of 20. The lead man admonishes, “This is the cheapest you’ll get these.”
A section of the interior of the building, further from the open garage doors, is designated “No smoking.” We think we smell incense, then realize it’s a woman in an orange shirt vaping fom a relaxed position in her lawn chair.
Before the first dogs come out, the lead man explains that all dogs are tested for brucellosis, and he recites a lengthy explanation of the testing and what’s guaranteed.
“We’re not vets, so we’ll call out what we can physically see on the outside of the animal, underbites, overbites, hernias,” he says.
He explains that they will not describe any dog as pregnant. They can be called bred. This means the seller has witnessed a tie. Presumably these dogs are more valuable, because they may produce puppies for the breeder.
With these statements made, the dog auction begins at roughly 10:44 a.m. Six youths march out and take a seat in the seats lined up in front of the auction stand. Each holds a dog.
The first eight dogs have been pulled from the auction, so the first dogs up are the Havanese, No. 9, 10, 11. They are placed and held on a table for the room to see. All three are females, born in 2013, and they’re a breed sellout—this means the breeder is selling out all of their dogs of this breed.
The three dogs are sold at once, for $270 a piece to the same buyer.
The Hava Klees are next. These are still puppies, born Feb. 26, 2018. The bidding reaches $315. The winner takes choice, opts for 14 and 16. The auctioneer starts again. No. 13 goes for $225, and No. 15, with a reverse scissor bite, goes for $75, all to the same bidder.
The beagles are next, and they aren’t selling. One doesn’t sell at all; two sell for $2, and the final one goes for $6—all less than the deposit required to enter property in the auction.
There’s such a breadth of what dogs go for, even dogs from the same kennel or even litter. A 5-year-old female miniature Australian shepherd that was bred sells for $425. A male puppy with an underbite goes for $65.
Next up are the Chihuahuas—another breed sellout. The owner, an older dark-haired woman with curly hair, regularly interrupts the lead man, the ring man and the auctioneer to add details about the dogs she’s selling—nine in total. They sell from $300 to $800.
The Labs barely sell at $15 a pop, with much coaxing from the auction staff.
There is mild confusion when the Akitas are pulled instead of the Alaskan malamutes. The auctioneer starts to sell them as the 4-year-old malamutes, but they are clearly puppies. The man behind me shouts that they’re akitas, and soon it’s straightened. They sell for $30 to $75.
The huskies sell for between $5 and $85. “Three years ago they was bringing $3,000,” the auctioneer says.
The auction heats up again as Bernese mountain dogs sell well, with one even going for more than $900. At this point, I see the goldens are close to going up for sale. I don’t think my mother will be able to watch the sweet overweight golden without bidding, so I exit the auction with my parents.
As I navigate the narrow, winding backroads, I turn to my dad and say, “That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And let’s never do it again.”
Speciesism—and how we value pets
One of the things I’ve been struggling with the most since I attended the dog auction was the idea of the value of pets. So I reach out to Carol Thompson, PhD, a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and an animal rescuer who teaches in the Human-Animal Relationships Program at TCU.
She introduces me to the sociozoologic scale, a concept used in sociology that explains the way humans order/rank animals in terms of an animal’s importance and value to humans. It is anthropocentric, in that it is mostly a reflection of humans' interests and not animal interests, intelligence or abilities.
“It has a lot to do with the historical use of animals and food, and the distinctions between urban and rural are very different in their exposure and use of animals,” Thompson says. Simply put, if it’s ugly, it smells and you can’t get it potty trained, it will fall lower on the scale than an animal that’s kept as a pet.
“A sociolozoologic scale is a useful tool for explaining where some animals get stuck. An example of that would be dogs,” Thompson says. “You have dogs and you have coyotes and you have wolves. And they’re basically the same, give or take a few little traits. So why is one wild and people think of it as needing to be protected, one is vermin and one is sleeping in the bed with you at night?”
Thompson explains it has a lot to do with history, culture and where the animal is relative to humans. “Wolves have been in rural areas, and they’re in competition with humans over the same food. Cattle are wolves’ food, and we’re in competition and we vilify them and we’ve made enemies of them until we got parks and urban people who go to the parks. And now there’s a culture war between the people who want to preserve a kind of idyllic nature with wolves in it and people who still see the wolves as competitor,” she says.
If you’re looking for the right answer for how we reconcile our complex relationships with animals, Thompson will offer this: “Unfortunately what I’m often left with is there are better answers and worse answers to relationships with animals,” she says. “But it’s not for one particular subculture to take their ideological world, pull it up and transplant it into another one and judge. And even in subcultures that use animals as livestock, there’s still humanity in the treatment of animals.”
She points to the work of anthropologists Mary Douglas and Margaret Mead, who did extensive work in the areas of humans and their relationships to animals.
“I think that what I’m arguing is that there is some cultural relativism,” she says. “There are also some basic values that I think people can agree on in terms of treatment of animals that I think we’re actually coming to, that I think our country is coming to.”
When I share with her my experience with the dog auction, she offers this insight. Part of what’s likely bothering me about the dog auction is that at heart I believe it is an unethical practice, but in the moment, in my experience, the animals at auction were ethically treated, at least in the sense of their being livestock. It’s my anthropomorphizing of the dogs that sees the auction as a minimally acceptable experience for that animal, because it lacks the relationships and enrichment I perceive a pet would need.
Whoa. She’s right.
“So the next question is, where are they going after the auction? Are they going to labs? Are they going to homes? Are they going to breeders?” Thompson says. “And in that sense it’s an immoral practice, how they were treated in that moment, because of the outcomes that are probable for the majority of the animals being auctioned. And so the whole idea of the auction is problematic because they’re being treated as property. At the end of the day, the thing that’s morally objectionable about it is not that they were being treated badly but that they were being sold.”
And this brings us back to the burning question I’ve struggled with since I began this journey. What makes us love dogs so much?
“Dogs are a species that coevolved with us,” Thompson says. “The fact that they have come to be sold at auctions is to kind of pervert their coevolution with humans. Because they were cohunters in our evolutionary paths … dogs have a kind of sacredness in society.”
That connection makes clearer the growing value we see some communities placing on their relationships with animals.
“It really is interesting to watch how when you don’t have strays running down the street—especially dogs—and you don’t have healthy animals being euthanized in the shelters and you don’t have hundreds of puppies just begging for a home, people value animals in the whole community more,” says Apryl Steele, DVM, president and CEO of Dumb Friends League in Denver.
In the end, this may be what saves us—and the canine. Because our love for them—and theirs for us—is such an unbreakable bond, we must continue the path to making safer shelters, safer homes and safer communities for these noble pets who have rightly earned the title: man's best friend.