Investigating puppy farms

Our Special Operations Unit case officer Kirsty Withnall sheds light on what it takes to take a puppy farm investigation to court.

Investigating puppy farms is a complex, lengthy operation

While many people may think that a raid at a puppy farm and the rescue of more than 50 dogs and puppies is just the start of a puppy trade investigation, months - sometimes years - of work have gone into the case already just to get to this point.

We receive thousands of reports relating to the puppy trade each year. We follow up on every single call and while, sadly, some cases don't progress due to a lack of evidence or because witnesses don't want to make official statements, other times we're able to gather enough information to launch a full investigation. This, however, can be a lengthy process and this can sometimes frustrate the public who don't fully understand what needs to be done to ensure an investigation is carried out properly, legally and to ensure that dogs can be rescued and perpetrators can be prosecuted, if appropriate.

It seems some people believe that, as soon as a call is made and a report is logged, we'll be able to storm in and seize all of the dogs. The reality, however, couldn't be further from the truth.

We rely heavily on partnership working with the police as we don't have legal powers

Puppy rescued from puppy farm © RSPCAWe don't have any statutory powers and can only enter a private address with the permission of the owner. While we'll often make visits to properties at the centre of suspicion, we can only see what the owners are prepared to show us. To see everything, we'd need to join the police as they execute a court-issued warrant (we can't execute these ourselves as we don't have the powers), and getting a warrant can be a complex process.

In the Special Operations Unit, sometimes we can gather evidence quickly and police can obtain warrants promptly, but often it can take us many months and lots of hours of work to get enough information and evidence before we're in a position to make an official request to the police to apply to the courts for a warrant. We must gather evidence from puppy buyers and their vets, take witness statements, and seek expert input from a specialist vet who can say that the puppy sellers have broken the law.

A lot of preparation is required

We never know what we could be walking into so we have to put in a huge amount of work in the lead-up to the warrants to ensure that we have the staffing and space to take in an unknown quantity of dogs. Some previous cases have seen just half a dozen dogs coming into our care, while others have seen us rescuing more than 100!

We have to ensure we have enough vets to assess all of the dogs, enough vans to transport them all safely, rescue centres with enough kennels and staff to take in rescued dogs and provide care immediately. We must also have specialist facilities on standby to take in any dogs who may have been imported from overseas illegally and could be carrying dangerous diseases, as well as working with our behaviourists to help many of the dogs who will be incredibly frightened having missed out on vital socialisation during their sheltered lives.

We had to spend over a year investigating one lucrative gang

Dog with her pups in a a small pen © RSPCAOne investigation, which we launched in October 2017, took 13 months to collect enough evidence to allow police to apply for a warrant. We took 34 witness statements - each statement taken by a member of our staff and, typically, taking around two hours. That's approximately 68 hours - almost two working weeks - just to gather statements. In this case, it took our experienced vet almost a week to review all of the evidence and make his report.

Next, we went through approximately 88 online adverts on two pet-selling websites, gathered by our intelligence and research team following information from complainants. From analysing these adverts, we found that 21 alias names and a large number of phone numbers, email addresses and addresses had been used but we managed to connect them all to our main suspects. We were able to estimate that the gang had sold approximately 439 puppies over a three-year period, turning over around £253,000.

Finally, after presenting all of this to police who applied for a warrant, the court issued warrants for three properties, which were executed in November 2018. Seven of our officers, three drivers and two vets assisted a large number of police officers to carry out these warrants, gather and document evidence, and rescue animals.

Looking after the dogs whilst investigations are still underway

Puppy farm dog with skin condition © RSPCAOn this occasion, a total of 55 dogs and puppies - being kept in poor conditions - were seized by police and came into our care. Some of those dogs were pregnant and gave birth in our care, bringing the total number to 81. The suspects refused to sign the dogs over for rehoming so, while we continued to investigate, our amazing centre staff spent weeks finding foster families to take care of the dogs in their homes. While our staff and volunteers do an incredible job looking after the animals in our centres, kennels are no substitute for a home environment and, as these cases can take so long, we always do our best to get as many dogs - particularly puppies who still have such important learning and socialising to do - into a foster home.

Animals spending months, sometimes years, in rescue centres is something we have huge concerns about. That's why we launched our Second Chances campaign calling on the UK and Welsh Governments to allow us to start the rehoming process for the most vulnerable animals as soon as they've recovered and are ready for a new home.

Building evidence for court can be costly and time-consuming

Police also seized lots of items relevant to the investigation to gather further evidence of crimes committed. Eight mobile phones were removed, six of which were forensically analysed by an expert firm; a lengthy and costly procedure at approximately £800 per phone, but vital for providing evidence. The company downloads all of the content and hands that over to us; it's then down to our teams to sift through all of the photos, videos, messages, internet searches and contacts to link them to the investigation.

It would be almost two and a half years until the puppy farmers would appear in court for trial - where they were convicted of fraud and animal welfare offences - and a further four months until their sentencing. In total, the case had taken three years and nine months to conclude and cost £47,000 in investigation costs - including vet fees and boarding fees - plus legal fees to get the case to court.

It was a long and complicated case but we'd rescued 81 lives; dogs who were now living wonderful lives with loving families. We also managed to get justice for the families who had been conned by this gang and the 15 puppies who had lost their lives as a result of the poor care they'd received. And that, after all, is what it's all about; no matter how long it takes.

How to make sure you're not supporting puppy farmers like these

We're thrilled that the Government has, in recent years, introduced new legislation to crackdown on puppy farming here in England and is now investigating how to stop puppy imports. We'll continue to tackle the illicit puppy trade on the frontline, and it's also important that we educate buyers so that they can make informed decisions when searching for and buying puppies.

Buying a puppy is a minefield but there are steps you can take to help protect yourself as well as dog welfare. Firstly, we'd always encourage families to consider adopting instead of buying a puppy. We have thousands of dogs available for rehoming every year including all different breeds, ages, shapes and sizes!

Avoid being tricked by a puppy farmer

If you're buying a puppy then be sensible and follow these steps:

  • Use The Puppy Contract to help you find a breeder, ask the right questions, and find a happy and healthy dog
  • Be cautious if you're following online adverts and look out for bad breeders or dealers
  • Visit the puppy at home and see them with their mum, visit more than once and ask lots of questions - remember your puppy cannot leave mum until he is at least eight weeks old
  • Check the seller is licensed and ask for health checks and veterinary paperwork
  • Never pay cash, be pressured into buying quickly or arrange to meet a seller anywhere outside of the place they bred the pup
  • If anything seems dodgy then walk away and contact the relevant authorities
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