Interview With Director of HBO's "Madonna of the Mills"
Andy Nibley is the director of the new documentary, Madonna of the Mills, which premieres tonight (August 24th) on HBO. It's an important film that could add to the mounting public outcry against puppy mills. Joy Ward, author of some terrific doggy books, and former editor of the Dogster dog blog (yes, one of our own!),caught up with Andy for this interview.
Andy: The idea behind the film was really to show a couple of things. One, that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Laura is an office manager for a dentist on .Staten Island and yet she, on weekends on her own nickel, rents vans and drives down to Amish country and picks up somewhere between 35 and 50 of these puppy mill dogs who have spent their entire lives in cages the size of dishwashers. Theyve never been petted. Theyve never been walked. Theyve never been bathed and shes saved over 2000 dogs and shes done that all on her own. So that was one thing.
The other was what happens when you spare a life? So I follow four of the dogs that get saved and you see them rehabilitated from the point where they couldnt walk because theyve spent their lives in cages. Theres a nice story about an autistic boy and a golden retriever and one about a childless couple who end up with a cocker spaniel. It really shows these dogs can make wonderful pets if theyre adopted.
Joy: How did you get on to this story? How did you get into this?
Andy: Actually my wife came home one day with a cocker spaniel that had been debarked. One of the farmers puts a pipe down their throat and hits it with a hammer to break the vocal cords. Thats because they have hundreds of these dogs stacked up in cages in barns and they dont want the dogs to bark and alert the authorities that they have hundreds of these dogs in cages inside these barns. So she said to me, You need to quit your job as a CEO and make a movie and tell people the story that all of the pet stores, all of the puppies that are in pet stores have mothers that live in these cages their whole lives and do nothing but produce puppies for pet stores. Then when they cant produce puppies any more they are taken out and shot or stoned or drowned or starved. Thats their whole lives. So I left my job and we bought a camera and hired some camera people and some editors and we found Laura. For a year and a half I followed her around every weekend when she would go to these different farms to pick up the dogs. Then, as I said, I followed four of the dogs and recorded their story. I think a lot of people were surprised that most of the puppy mills in the northeast of the United States are run by the Amish and that its their puppy mills that feed the pet stores in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. But they feed pet stores all over the country. Thats primarily where they are.
Joy: How did you get them to open up? You have some very telling film where youre actually in the puppy mills and youve got a miller talking to you. How did you get them to open up?
Andy: Well, to be honest, its not illegal. Its perfectly legal under US law and I think thats why people are so eager to change the laws. They dont necessarily see that they are doing anything wrong. The puppy mill that we show in the movie is not by any stretch a very bad puppy mill. And yet it is very alarming when you see how many dogs are in there and you only have an Amish farmer or a Mennonite farmer and his wife looking after hundreds and hundreds of dogs. Some of the puppy mills we went in were just so gross to look at that we didnt even want to show people because we wanted it to be an uplifting movie. We wanted people to feel like they could do something to stop these puppy mills. We really kind of stayed away from the concentration camp theme that a lot of these puppy mills are like when you actually go into them.
Joy: Interesting that you wanted to go with the uplifting theme rather than the concentration camp theme. Talk to me a little bit about that.
Andy: I think that as a nation we Americans do not like to sit and watch things that make us uncomfortable. When you see these puppy mills they make you feel very, very uncomfortable. We really wanted to focus on what you can do about it so by focusing on Laura and focusing on other people who are out there on the weekend saving these dogs and picking up these dogs and turning them over to rescues and foster families theyre really making a huge difference and raising public awareness. And people feel good when they do that. So we thought lets concentrate on what people can do and not just show them the negative. We think when you see the dogs who have been rehabilitated and what they mean to the families who have adopted them and the changes that have come over those families its really heart-warming stuff. It really inspires you to want to do something, to end this cruelty to animals.
Joy: How has this film affected you?
Andy: I think for me, in the process of making this, I really learned that there are people out there doing things that make a difference where theyre not making any money. I mean, Laura doesnt make any money doing this. Shes doing this because she loves the animals. That inspired me to be a better person, my wife and everybody who worked on the film to look at these people who are giving up their time to go out and do this. Bill Smith, what hes done with Mainline Rescue (Note: Mainline Rescue is one of the groups that takes rescued dogs to be rehabilitated) and saving all those dogs and building that facility and hes relentless twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year hes doing anything he can for these dogs and cats, too. Its just very, very inspiring.
Joy: Take me to a time that is most inspiring; it still hangs with you as you look back.
Andy: There were a bunch of times like that. I think the story about the golden retriever and the autistic boy really struck me because we could not actually get the golden retriever out of the cage. The dog was so terrified and was so like, Leave me alone. Leave me in this cage. This is all Ive ever known in my entire life, being in the cage and making babies. It couldnt walk. I had to actually drag it out of the cage. Usually I didnt participate in the film; I would just shoot it and direct it but this time I needed to help them drag the dog out of the cage. It didnt know how to walk. Its legs had atrophied and it was very uncertain. It was afraid of grass because it had never walked on grass. It was afraid of clear water because it had never had clean water before. To watch that dog turn into this loving creature that transformed this family in Manhattan with the autistic boy, the autistic boy just opened up, the dog opened up, the community did, the family united. To see that this was a dog that was go it could have that this was a dog that was going to be put to death and that it could have that transformative effect on a family and the community was just made you get goose pimples watching them.
That was a special moment and I think watching the dog that my wife and I ended up with that was only supposed to live a couple of months and now is almost five years with us and the impact that dog has had on our lives. It is tough. Its like having a special needs infant. She has to be held for twenty minutes after every feeding. Theres a risk that shes going to choke to death so she has to have a lot of, all of her food has to be pureed before she can eat it. There are a lot of things you have to do for her and yet shes the sweetest, most loving creature. To think she was going to be put to death and instead shes given us such joy over the last five years.
Joy: Thats Maisy (one of the dogs profiled in the documentary)?
Andy: Thats Maisy. Shes a sweet little girl. She was going to be put to death. Instead shes given us such joy over the last five years.
So if we save one dog from making this movie it will be worth it. Hopefully well save thousands of dogs and really what were hoping is that Congress and the state legislatures will see that this is ridiculous and theyll change the laws. I dont have anything against the Amish and I dont have anything against pet stores. I just want pet stores to go back to selling bowls and leashes and pet food and stop a practice that is leading to the torture of dogs. There are good Amish people who would abhor this if they knew what was going on in some of the barns in their communities. I just want the Amish and other people in other parts of the country that are running these dog factories, these dog concentration camps, to stop and for people to adopt. Theres millions and millions of animals who are euthanized every year. Adopt one of those. They need homes. They need love. So I think everybody can make a difference if they want to.
Joy: What tells you that the mass of Amish dont know whats going on?
Andy: I saw some Amish families who were very, very good to their dogs, treated them very well. And I saw some breeders, Amish and otherwise, who really care about the animals and its almost harder to adopt their dogs than it would be to adopt a child. They dont want their dogs falling into the wrong hands. So I know that there are good Amish people out there. As I said, I dont have anything against them or their religion or the people. I just know that in the Northeast they are the predominant owners of the puppy mills. Now in other parts of the country its a lot of people who arent Amish or Mennonite running the puppy mills. I dont really care about anyones religious affiliation; I just dont want them to torture animals.
Joy: Have you had any response legislatively or any feedback?
Andy: No because its still early. We did win the Best Documentary Short at the Garden State Film Festival. And selling it to HBO is a great tribute to my wifes ability as a producer.
There was an editorial this week in one of the Pennsylvania newspapers asking their legislators to watch the HBO premiere. Were hoping that is just the beginning of a groundswell of support for the movie from people who will urge their legislators to do something to stop this. We dont want to put dog breeders out of business. Thats not the point. The point is to stop the torture of animals and to get people to legitimately breed pets.
Joy: You mention that you had already spoken with some good breeders. How did you connect up with them?
Andy: A really good way is to ask your vet and theyll know good breeders. Ask friends who have gotten dogs from breeders. Pretty much, if youre finding the breeder on the Internet or through a pet store, its almost a 100% guarantee thats a puppy mill dog. If the breeder is going to fly you a dog from someplace but theyre not coming with the dog, theres a pretty good chance thats a puppy mill dog.
One of the things that I ask right off the bat is can I meet the mother and father? If they can produce a mother and father, thats usually a legitimate breeder. If they cant produce the mother and father, they are generally puppy mill dogs.
I think the thing that people dont realize about puppy mill dogs is that even if they dont care about their mother and father youre getting an inferior product for an expensive price. Youre paying someone somewhere between a thousand and two thousand dollars for this dog and a hundred percent of these dogs have parasites. So they are sick to begin with and then theres something like a 48 % chance that theyre going to die or have major surgery just in the first year. So youre really paying a lot of money for a really inferior product. Theres a lot of heartbreak when you get these dogs. In the film we feature someone who spent two thousand for the dog and then he spent twenty-three thousand in medical bills over the next year and a half. Thats very common.
Joy: Im really glad you brought that out because thats part of the discussion that doesnt get played up as much as it should. I love it when you have the vet saying, You can take back a car or you can take back something else but you cant take back a puppy.
Andy: You get emotionally attached from Day One. The reason you bought the puppy is because you were in the pet store. Its a very emotional purchase, very heartfelt. You feel like youre bonding with that dog and so thats why you make the purchase. So its very hard to go back and dump the dog off. And theyll do it, too. Pet stores will say, Okay, well you dont want that one then take another one. Or weve had instances of where somebody went in and theyll say, Oh the dog is sick. Well what the dog needs is a companion. And theyll sell them another dog for a thousand dollars. That one will have huge medical bills as well. Its pretty much of a sham and these pet stores have fake health certificates. They have fake ancestry charts. It really is a ruse. The simple, simple answer is dont buy from pet stores, period. Youre going to get a puppy mill dog if you buy it at a pet store. We need pet stores to go back to selling the products that you need to have a pet but not the pets themselves.
Joy: Theres hope that this will be part of the battle against the concentration camps. How can groups get a hold of copies of Madonna of the Mills?
Andy: Our plan is eventually to make it available to any schools or organizations. HBO has the rights for the next two years. We are going to negotiate a DVD distribution deal so people can get the DVDs. HBO is going to show it a bunch more times. Of course it premieres on August 24th at 8 PM. Then it runs 10 or 12 times during August and September. Its also available on HBO On Demand and HBO Go. Were hoping that eventually youll be able to see streaming copies of it and get DVDs. Well keep getting copies of the movie out there.
Joy: Have you had any interest from any of the large groups?
Andy: The Humane Society has been phenomenal and theyre going to promote the movie to get people to watch it when it premieres on HBO. The ASPCA, we did a lot of work with them too and theyve been terrific. A bunch of the rescue groups in Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut have been very helpful as well.
Joy: Are you planning on any follow-ups to this?
Andy: We are having some discussions about future projects and they may be for other animal groups. My wife, the producer, has gone over to Cameroon in the past and worked with gorillas and chimpanzees over there so there are some other projects we may take on. One of my personal ones is we live in bear country with the highest concentration of black bears in the world and its only forty, fifty miles from New York City. Id love to be able to make a movie about those incredible creatures.
Joy: Your wife sounds like an incredible woman.
Andy: Im very, very lucky. Im glad she got me to take a break from work to make this movie.
The rest of us are glad Andy and his wife dedicated their time to this documentary, too. But perhaps the ones who will appreciate the results of this work the most will never be able to express their gratitude the rescued puppy mill dogs and all the dogs who will escape the concentration camps because of the movie. If you care about dogs please make every effort to see this uplifting and energizing film. Joy
Read more from Joy at the Sunbear Blog. Joy also is the author of Haint: A Tale of Extraterrestrial Intervention and Love Across Time and Space, and co-author of the recently released Interviews from the Ark.