COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - With their big eyes and cold noses, the sight of a puppy can warm almost anyone's heart. But some look into those eyes and see only dollar signs.
According to national animal rights groups, South Carolina ranks 45th out of 50 states when it comes to having animal protection laws- including no laws preventing puppy mills.
In South Carolina, the laws treat animals largely like property. As long as you feed a dog or cat, state law shows that the animal technically never has to be taken out of its cage.
National animal rights groups say South Carolina is ranked 45th out of 50 states when it comes to having animal protection laws, including no laws preventing puppy mills. Even if an animal is starved, proving it to get a conviction is a difficult task. Animal rights advocates say it is because of these relaxed laws that backyard breeding is a thriving business in South Carolina.
"They're basically just used for breeding and used for profit," said Denise Wilkinson, CEO of Pawmetto Lifeline.
Experts say those puppies that are bred in backyards or even kitchen floors are often sold online in similar ads.
"They'll be nothing around it other than (a) pillow," said Holly Wagner, an animal cruelty investigator at Richland County Sheriff's Department. "It's either pink or blue at a lot of times and they'll put a male dog on a blue blanket with a little cute toy. That's typical of someone who's taken an animal out of the crappy environment that it's in and taken that picture so that it looks like something beautiful that you'd want."
Wagner said many of the dogs that produce these puppies are bred repeatedly for their entire lives or until they are no longer needed.
"They either put them in the garbage or bury them," Wagner said. "Or they leave them in a cage and don't feed them and they die."
With Wagner's help, it wasn't hard for WIS to find backyard breeders. WIS went undercover into flea markets and puppy shops, where our experts say new puppies arrive every week with little explanation as to where they come from. WIS found a backyard breeder through an ad online, who had 10 different breeds of dogs and five litters of new born puppies caged in the backyard. Even one pug that the owner identified as blind was bred, despite his health problems.
It can be a tax-free way of making a living.
"So your high-volume breeders have your Shih Tzus, your Maltese, your Poodles, Pomeranians and then your combination of all those mixed together," Wagner said. "The pugs – all the small breeds. They sell them from $200 to $1,000. They make money off of them. They've taken the runts and bred them back to runts to keep trying to get them smaller. A lot of the time, they have heart murmurs and skin conditions."
One dog WIS met, Sophie, was rescued by Pawmetto Lifeline last year, but the scars from her life in a puppy mill won't fade easily.
"Sophie lived in a cage most of her life," Wilkinson said. "She did everything in that cage. She ate, slept, and used the bathroom. She knew nothing but a cage and was used for breeding her entire life. She didn't know what it meant to be loved."
Sophie is one of about 50 dogs Pawmetto Lifeline takes in from puppy mill rescue operations per year, but the U.S. Humane Society told WIS, there are no hard numbers nationwide or for South Carolina. That's because rescuing these dogs from a life of confinement and exploitation is difficult and few are ever held accountable.
"I think in South Carolina, we've had an attitude for a long time that these animals are property," Wilkinson said. "I'll do whatever I want with my dog, but abusing an animal is against the law. And at some point this becomes abuse."
Wagner thinks advocates and law enforcement coming together to stop breeding improperly will be the way to make changes in South Carolina.
"It would take rescue organizations, local animal control agency to do that; the sheriff's department working together with a group of vets to do any sort of large scale animal cruelty case or seizure," Wagner said. "This is why so few of them get done. Because it's just such a huge undertaking."
That's one reason S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has introduced stronger animal rights laws in the State House.
"Basically anyone who is running a puppy mill and gets caught and abuses animals is up for misdemeanor charges," Taylor said. "That's virtually no penalty at all."
So far, all of his attempts to increase penalties and supervision for those found guilty of animal cruelty have failed.
"There are some legislators here that are leery of controlling the dog population, having those kinds of bills," Taylor said. "They're leery of felony penalties. I understand that. It's easy to have government overreach. The fact is, most breeders do it right. It's those exceptions we write laws for and need to write stiff laws for, so they don't do the wrong things."
Surrounding states have ranked slightly better than South Carolina when it comes to putting laws in place to prevent and shut down puppy mills. North Carolina ranks as No. 30. While Georgia fares at No. 41. Both neighboring states added felonies for repeated or aggravated animal neglect.
Experts warn people shopping for a puppy to always ask to see the parents of the puppy if they are on site and ask to see the environment the puppy was born or raised in. Buying an animal from a puppy mill might be tempting if you think you're rescuing the dog, but experts say it's only providing an incentive for the breeder to continue their inhumane business.