Amish and Mennonite Puppy Mills

No other religious or ethnic group use their culture as a selling tool to market their dogs. The Amish actually exploit their religion as a marketing tool for all the goods that they sell including their dogs. They even have their own web site: What other religion associates themselves with the marketing of dogs?    It is important that the public know that Amish doesn't mean quality, especially when it comes to puppies.

~ Bob Baker, Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation (MAAL), former puppy mill investigator for HSUS


The Pennsylvania Amish Puppy Mill Connection

Lancaster County: A booming tourist trade

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a 946-square-mile area, is described as an agricultural oasis.  With its gently rolling green hills and lush pastures as far as the eye can see, the pastoral county is home to over 4,000 farms.  It is also home to almost 22,000 Amish, whose ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in the mid 1700’s. 

Setting them apart from modern society are their distinctive plain, dark-colored clothes, wide-brimmed straw hats (men & boys), organdy caps (women & girls) and horse-drawn buggies. Outsiders are captivated by these unobtrusive people who seem virtually suspended in the 18th century.  Along with shunning modern conveniences like cars and electricity and using old-fashioned mule power to plow their fields, the Amish draw attention unlike any other religious group.

They are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Pennsylvania, due partly to the critically acclaimed 1985 movie “Witness” which was filmed on location in Lancaster County. Starring Harrison Ford as the handsome Philadelphia detective and Kelly McGillis as the beautiful ethereal Amish widow, it is the story of forbidden love and colliding cultures, and the use of guns and violence to settle disputes, something that is anathema to the Amish. The movie, with its stunning cinematography and gorgeous musical score, enticed millions of viewers to look further into this mysterious sect known as the Amish.  

Each year about four million tourists flock to Lancaster County, pumping over 1.2 billion dollars into the economy, and looking for a chance to gawk at the Amish, eat at Amish-themed restaurants, and buy Amish-made crafts (furniture and quilts in particular) and homemade preserves and pies.

Truth and fiction in the Puppy Mill Capital of the East

Lancaster County is also a place where you’ll find the lines between truth and fiction closely guarded.  The Amish are not quite as anachronistic as they may appear at first glance: contemporary Amish have cell phones, caller ID, answering machines, generator-operated heaters and propane-driven appliances. While car ownership is banned, they see nothing wrong in riding in them and often hire others to shuttle them around town.  Telephones are not allowed in Amish homes, but many are found in barns or booths, called shanties. Many Amish own freezers but keep them in non-Amish neighbors’ homes, sometimes paying rent for the space.  (Mennonites, the older, less-strict religious order from whom the Amish split in the 1600’s, drive cars and have electricity. Old Order Mennonites, also known as “horse & buggy” Mennonites, are but a mirror image of the Amish.) 

Besides raising cows and chickens, hundreds of Amish (and Mennonites), are engaged in another “agricultural” venture, that of large-scale dog breeding known as puppy mills.  When it comes to the subject of dog breeding and the Amish, nowhere are the sounds of silence by tight-lipped local officials and the Tourism Board more apparent.  Given that the Amish are well known for their agricultural skills, it’s no wonder that most people are stunned when told that many Amish, with their large-scale commercials kennels, are responsible for Pennsylvania’s reputation among the animal welfare community as the “puppy mill capital of the east.” 

So how and why are the Amish engaged in such a controversial, exploitative industry as puppy mills?

Birth of an industry defined by cruelty and greed

pw4aThe Midwest gave birth to puppy mills during the Depression as means for families to earn extra income during hard economic times. Today, even after decades of controversy, these mills continue to operate, unabated, contributing to the burgeoning animal overpopulation crisis and the collapse of sound breeding practices. 

No one knows for sure when the first puppy mills surfaced in Pennsylvania but many were established by the mid 70’s, when it was learned that a dog broker from the Midwest arrived on the scene to promote dog breeding as a cash crop. At a meeting in November 1981, several hundred Amish and Mennonite farmers were told they could raise and sell puppies to the public and pet stores alike, and with little or no overhead, they could make a fortune. Centrally located, Lancaster County was easy pickings for customers in Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and New England. 
Unfortunately, the Amish began breeding and raising many different breeds of dogs with little or no knowledge of veterinary care and nutritional needs, and scant attention to hereditary problems, especially those caused by inbreeding. How was it possible that these amateur Amish breeders – who only attend school up to eighth grade and whose crudely made signs advertising puppies for sale often contained misspelled words – could read veterinary medical labels? Hidden away from the unsuspecting public, dogs are crammed in wire-bottom pens in and often behind barns or in converted trailers.  Thus, dog breeding gave rise to another cottage industry: the construction of Amish-made cages on legs, similar to rabbit hutches, used to confine the animals and to make cleaning up animal waste easier. The dogs live for years in these cages with no chance of release or relief until they are no longer able to produce puppies and are destroyed. 
A history of violations and consumer complaints

On March 17, 1991, The Pittsburgh Press ran a four-part series on the problems faced by puppy purchasers. The headline “Puppy Protection – Buyers Beg State for Dog Lemon Law” jumped off the front page. The editors followed suit a few days later by taking an anti-puppy mill position in a superbly-written editorial. Later that year, a Pennsylvania state task force was organized to study state kennel regulations and ways of offering protection for consumers who purchased sick puppies from breeders.  Yet by mid-1992, little had been accomplished. After one year, nothing more was heard from the task force.

In 1992-93, more articles in Pennsylvania newspapers warned of rising consumer complaints of sick puppies purchased from Amish kennels, and of deplorable conditions witnessed by customers and investigators alike.  The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) called for a boycott of Pennsylvania and Lancaster County until the breeders cleaned up their act. According to many Amish breeders who supplied puppies to pet stores up and down the East Coast, the boycott had no effect on wholesale purchases and Lancaster County tourism continued to boom. Pennsylvania dog wardens and humane agents discovered that many Amish breeders were violating animal health, shelter and sanitation regulations.

The issue intensified in 1993 when The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer ran articles with the headlines “Amish at Heart ofpw18a Puppy Mill Debate” and “Amish Dog Breeders Targeted over Cruelty.” Some Amish kennel owners granted interviews but would not allow reporters or photographers near the dogs’ breeding areas, usually in and behind barns or sheds.  Many breeders, who owned chicken and dairy farms, claimed they raised dogs just like any other livestock, keeping them in small cages and killing them when they are no longer “productive.” In September 1993 a state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement official reported that “the Amish are a significant part of the problem…a dog is the same as a chicken to them.”

Then, in December 1995, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a three-part investigative piece on Pennsylvania’s puppy mills. The headline and byline captured the heart of the matter:  “Breeding Dogs and Disease: Pennsylvania’s prolific kennels have spawned viruses and genetic defects. Some buyers get puppies that die within days. Puppy mills ruin the family pet.”

Two county dog breeders who reluctantly agreed to be interviewed for the Inquirer article, had difficulty understanding the way dogs were perceived by “city people.”

One Amish miller who was convicted of animal cruelty in 1990, said “We country people do not look at dogs that much different from other animals. When you have livestock, you have deadstock. Why is this such a big issue?”

The other admitted he began breeding dogs in 1974 with the purchase of seven cocker Spaniels from a Western dealer.

“It’s an animal. It’s just like any crop that comes along. We breed for the money,” he said. “That’s what we’re in it for.” 

In September 1996 The New York Post ran a scathing exposé titled “$4.4M Puppy Mill Scandal” that focused on Lancaster County’s puppy farmers. The NY ASPCA and The Post gained access to some of the worst kennels in the area and interviewed the owners. The reporter found animals crammed in cages in dark sheds; filthy, matted, feces-covered animals who were “unresponsive to a visitor’s presence and voice.” 

Another kennel owner previously had his licensed suspended by the USDA and was fined over $51,000 for severe and repeat violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. This Mennonite farmer, who today is still the alleged “puppy dealer of choice” among many New Jersey illegal brokers, continued to sell dogs until he voluntarily surrendered his state kennel license in 2010.

Unlicensed kennels and lack of enforcement

Repeat violations and unscrupulous business practices notwithstanding, rarely is a kennel closed down permanently.  Since 2000, several   have been raided by the state and breed-rescue groups who were able to liberate a number of animals, rehabilitate them and find caring, permanent homes for them.  One state and humane society raid of a Mennonite-owned puppy mill that resulted in a kennel closing a few years ago caused quite a controversy. After selling some 59 dogs for $6,000 to a rescue group in PA and giving the remaining dogs to other rescues, the dealer held onto his USDA license and hightailed it to New York’s Finger Lakes region where he again set up shop running another puppy mill.  The Finger Lakes region is fast becoming a haven for Mennonite puppy millers. Left unchecked, the area is ripe to become another Lancaster County!

The “Amish problem”

pw28aMany puppies sold in New Jersey pet stores originate from Amish and Mennonite puppy mills in Pennsylvania, with the highest concentration coming  from Lancaster County. It’s a love-hate relationship, with some pet stores refusing to buy puppies from Pennsylvania because of the “Amish problem” while a few others sell only puppies from Pennsylvania because of the bad reputation of the puppy mills in the Midwestern states and the fact they act as their own brokers, driving to PA to pick up puppies directly from the mills.

For anyone who wants to make quick and easy money, Lancaster County’s puppies are there for the taking. Buyers living in bordering states can be in and out in a day!  There  is no oversight and no supervision of puppy sales, which opens up the avenues to illegal puppy brokering. People descend in droves on the area’s farms to buy litters of puppies for resale, either in pet shops or through classified ads.  Unscrupulous buyers pay as little as $10 per puppy and get even better bargains when they purchase “litter lots.”  Never mind that, by law, interstate animal transport regulations require an individual health certificate for each animal. These are easily forged. Never mind that people are selling these puppies as their own. They often lie.

Unsuspecting buyers then fork over cash for puppies that are too young to be taken from their mothers, are often unhealthy, or are not the “purebreds” buyers think they are. Oftentimes the “papers” include false names and/or addresses of the breeders.  In this network of fraud and deceit, the only likely winners are the puppy millers and their brokers.

The fallacy of “farm-raised” dogs

Several illegal brokers were identified and their names turned in to Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials. A few were ordered to stop selling animals, while others are being watched. Still countless others continue to beat the system and dupe customers, just as the Amish and Mennonites continue to do by having more dogs than legally allowed; by keeping them hidden from sight, crammed in cages in barns and trailers where they swelter in the summer heat and freeze in the winter; and by peddling their dogs in the classifieds as “Amish raised,” as if that were an attractive selling point.

Many naïve consumers have the impression that Amish or “farm-raised” puppies are better bred and cared for than their Midwestern counterparts. If anything, quite the opposite is true.

Bob Baker, Director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation (MAAL) and former puppy mill investigator for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), sums it up best.

“No other religious or ethnic group use their culture as a selling tool to market their dogs. The Amish actually exploit their religion as a marketing tool for all the goods that they sell, including their dogs. They even have their own web site: What other religion associates themselves with the marketing of dogs? It is important that the public know that Amish doesn't mean quality, especially when it comes to puppies.”

The Lancaster Intelligencer and New Era
The New York Times
The New York Post
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Pittsburgh Press
USDA AWA Dockets and Court Decisions

Note: a version of this article was written by Pet Watch founder Libby Williams and was originally published in Jersey Pets magazine in 2005 under the title Witness to Cruelty, The Plain Truth About Amish Puppy Mills.  Since then, much has happened in the puppy mill industry and states (Ohio, New York, Wisconsin and others) that have seen an exponential growth in Amish and Mennonite-owned puppy mills.


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