I’ve seen a lot of things on both the rescue and breeding sides of the dog business, ever since I started researching my first dog book, Little Boy Blue, back in 2010. I’ve met good and bad breeders and rescuers alike, and I’ve seen good and bad shelters and kennels alike.
I am a lifelong, award-winning journalist who happens to love dogs. I grew up with purebreds, and now, as an adult, I have mutts. Since writing Little Boy Blue and learning more about high-kill shelters like the one where my sweet boy Blue originated, I’ve also fostered 21 puppies and dogs, and I’d welcome 20 of them into my home again. The one I wouldn’t welcome back looked like a Flat-Coated Retriever mix. The rescue group told me she was friendly, but she tried to kill Blue and then bit me five times.
So I understand that there are good and bad things going on in breeding and in rescue, and I understand that purebreds and mutts alike can be awesome as well as problematic. And like most dog lovers, I at first understood the world of commercial dog breeding—which is often lumped together under the “puppy mill” umbrella, whether a large or small responsible breeder or an actual puppy mill—exclusively through what I saw in the media. The message always presented to me, at least in the media I favored, was that rescue is good and breeding is bad, especially when it’s commercial-scale breeding done on farms in places far from my home in the New York City suburbs.
When I wrote my new book, The Dog Merchants, which is half about breeding and half about rescue, I went to those places in middle America, and I realized things aren’t always so black and white. I did my best to present each side accurately and fairly in that book, and the number of thank-you calls and emails I’ve received from breeders has positively stunned me. They say that I portrayed their businesses accurately—which, to me, seems like I have simply done my job as a journalist. But from what they continue to tell me, from their perspective, almost nobody in the media ever gives them a fair shake and tells the whole truth.
The new film The Dog Lover is a response to that frustration within the commercial-breeding community, the feeling that the media isn’t telling their side of things accurately, that the media is in the tank for the rescuers no matter what. And whether or not I agree with what breeders of different kinds are saying and doing when it comes to dogs, I do believe they have a legitimate gripe about their side failing to receive equal and fair media coverage.
Once I realized the depth of the bias these breeders felt, I did an unscientific test. I was curious, as a journalist, about whether they were perceiving a problem that didn’t actually exist in the media. For a number of months now, I have woken up every day, Googled the word “dog,” and looked at the first few pages of news-feed results for the past 24 hours.
It didn’t take me long to realize how regularly the stories about breeders are negative, and how regularly the stories about rescuers are positive. I have yet to see a single positive news story about a commercial-scale breeder at all.
I’m sure The Dog Lover will receive resounding cheers from many commercial-scale breeders along with a cacophony of boos from every rescue-minded person in America who hates puppy mills. The film is entirely one sided from the commercial-breeding perspective, so much so that rescuers in multiple locations have organized protests outside of theaters that are showing it.
But the film’s one-sided nature, in my opinion, is exactly why everyone who cares about dogs needs to watch it. The breeders need to see that their voice is being amplified within the current media climate, and the rescuers need to see how they often come across to those they believe should change their ways.
Just maybe, in talking about The Dog Lover, reasonable-minded people on both sides will be able to have a fair-minded conversation that actually brings some much-needed change to the lives of the dogs caught in the middle.
The Dog Lover is based on the true story of a hunting-dog breeder in South Dakota whose dogs were seized in a puppy mill raid that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) aided. It was later determined that the search warrant for the raid was issued based on false testimony from a rescue organization. All charges of cruelty against the breeder were dropped, but not before his reputation was ruined and some of his dogs died. They contracted parvo in the custody of the people the media repeatedly framed as the good guys helping the dogs.
In The Dog Lover, breeders and rescuers alike are portrayed across a wide spectrum. Some are good. Others are bad. I’m here to tell you that no matter what you think of the movie or its message, I have met real-life versions of every single character it portrays.
What makes The Dog Lover different from previous breeding-side missives is that it’s the first high-quality film produced with name-brand actors, including Lea Thompson (Back to the Future trilogy), James Remar (X-Men: First Class and Django Unchained), Jayson Blair (Whiplash), Ali Afshar (Godzilla and Three Kings), and Sherry Stringfield (best known as Dr. Susan Lewis on TV’s ER). It’s a movie that, while sometimes over-the-top in its portrayals and dialogue, is based on a real-life case with real-life consequences. It is not a propaganda piece invented out of innuendo. The fact that most dog lovers have never even heard of the true-life case should be a lesson to us all in media bias.
To many rescue-minded people—and I proudly count myself among them—the plotline of The Dog Lover will seem incredulous because the commercial-scale breeders turn out to be the good guys. Some rescuers also will criticize the movie because Forrest Lucas is its executive producer. He is an oil magnate, cattle rancher, and self-described enemy not just of HSUS, but also of PETA, the ASPCA, and anyone else who stands with them. Lucas is also a founder of Protect the Harvest, which aims to fight just about any animal-welfare legislation anywhere it gets introduced.
I spoke with Lucas on July 6, and everything he told me about why he made The Dog Lover correlates directly to everything I have learned about the way that a lot of breeders across America feel. Those of you who have read my books Little Boy Blue and The Dog Merchants will know that I do not agree with many of the things Lucas says and does, but The Dog Lover movie exists because Lucas believes media coverage needs to be more accurate of breeders and rescuers alike—and that is a point on which he and I completely agree.
When I asked Lucas why he chose this film’s specific plot, about a wrongfully accused breeder in South Dakota, he told me it was because he had seen HSUS treat a breeder in Indiana similarly, with no consequences (media or otherwise) to the multimillion-dollar organization.
“That guy in South Dakota, his story was very similar to the lady in Indiana,” Lucas said. “She was not convicted either, but she was ruined. That’s what happens. They come in and hit you, and the news is in there telling things their way, and people don’t have time to react. That’s the way they work.”
Lucas uses strong language when describing animal-welfare groups. Several times during our conversation, he used the word “terrorists.” He believes the average person does not have a full picture of what is going on with the contributions they send, and he believes many dog lovers blindly give to organizations that do not always do what they promise. The tagline on the screen at the end of The Dog Lover urges viewers to “investigate before you donate.”
When I asked Lucas if he had ever shared his concerns with anyone on the animal-welfare side of the divide, he said, “I have personally not met anybody from the other side, on the dog side of it. They don’t talk to me. But they can’t scare me. They can’t hurt me or anybody around me. We’re not afraid of them. That’s what everybody has to understand. They don’t have to be afraid of these guys.”
The attitude Lucas has toward animals may be loathsome to many dog lovers, and anyone involved in fighting puppy mills will certainly denounce his film, but his beliefs and The Dog Lover movie are precisely what results from people like him feeling silenced, demonized, and enraged.
That’s why I strongly urge every lover of purebreds and mutts alike to see The Dog Lover. Whether inside theaters or in our own living rooms, we will for once all be forced to listen to the side that rarely gets an equal hearing in the media. We might just realize we share a little bit of common ground with the responsible commercial-scale breeders, and we just might find some hope for solving problems that affect so many dogs.
About the author: Kim Kavin is an award-winning writer, editor, and author whose writing about dogs has appeared in The New York Post, The Boston Globe, Salon.com, the New Republic, and more. Her 2012 book Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth, was featured on CNN and helped end the use of a gas chamber in a North Carolina shelter. Her 2016 book The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers led to amendments in “pet store puppy mill” legislation that is currently pending before the New Jersey state Assembly. You can order Little Boy Blue on Amazon as well as The Dog Merchants on Amazon.