TV Preview

HBO's 'Dogs': A Gnawing Portrait of Despair

"Dealing Dogs" examines the fate of dogs consigned to Class B dealers, destined for use in research. (Hbo)
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A dog's trusting, imploring face is a tragic sight if you know the trust isn't going to be rewarded. But that's just the first layer of the tragedy in "Dealing Dogs," a fierce and unsparing documentary airing tonight on HBO.

This 75-minute film begins by informing us that research labs and veterinary schools buy 65,000 dogs a year. Of those, 42,000 come from pounds, shelters and small breeders -- rounded up and sold by what are called Class B dog dealers. "Dealing Dogs" then tells the story of a six-month undercover investigation of the kennel owned by a man described as America's most notorious Class B dealer.

At the outset, it's 2002 and a young man called "Pete" has arranged for a job at the Martin Creek Kennel in Williford, Ark. As he walks down a very long row of overcrowded pens, certain dogs try to connect with him, pleading for freedom or food or maybe just a little reassurance. But if he's to do his job, he needs to remain indifferent to them and the many hundreds of others he'll encounter there.

All of the dogs are doomed; the only question is how much abuse they'll endure before they die.

(Class B dealers are licensed and overseen by the Department of Agriculture through the Animal Welfare Act, we are told. But officials of Last Chance for Animals, the small animal rights organization that sent Pete on his mission, assert that the USDA does little or nothing to ensure that these dogs are treated humanely. In addition, they say, many of the dogs sold by Class B dealers are stolen pets.)

It's winter when Pete starts his job at Martin Creek. Part of his job is hosing down the pens, which sprays water and filth all over the dogs and their food and leaves them to dry slowly in the cold. Pete cannot let on, but the conditions appall him.

"They have nothing to do but sit in the same pen with three other dogs, fight over food and live in [bleep]," he says. "I mean, they're going cage-crazy."

Filmmakers Tom Simon and Sarah Teale never flinch in their depiction of this hellhole, which federal authorities shut down for good last year, partly on the strength of Pete's undercover work. Some of the footage straddles the line between painful and sickening. Dead dogs, dying dogs, dogs in various stages of starvation, dogs covered with hideous bite wounds, dogs with their ears half-chewed off -- all are prominent in the eye of Pete's hidden camera. Dogs with heartworm are shot so that the worms can be harvested for sale to researchers; apparently they fetch a higher price than the dogs themselves.

Dogs that are deemed to be biters, however scanty the evidence, are put down. We see a perfectly friendly cocker spaniel shot to death for just that reason. After pulling the trigger, the shooter shrugs and says, "Oh well, what the [bleep]." After lobbing the body onto a pile of carcasses, the man cries out jauntily, "Ex-dogs!"

Pete's camera also records visits from "bunchers," who come to the kennel three times a week to sell dogs. Nobody asks where the dogs came from, but given the number of purebreds and the number that look to humans for kindness and caring, it seems apparent that at least some of them were pets.

Bunchers receive $10 to $15 a head -- yes, they use livestock terminology -- and the kennel in turn sells the dogs for about $250 each.

This is hard material, and by the end, the parade of hopeless suffering becomes a strain to watch. It's easier to read about 65,000 dogs coming to various grievous ends than it is to watch just one of them wincing and limping through open wounds and malnutrition, and this film shows us many scores of victims.

There's a double sense of hopelessness here, of course: Pete and his allies are striving to bring about proper care for dogs that are going to be sold for various forms of research.

"We knew there were horrific things that go on at the experimentation labs where these dogs go to, but we didn't expect to see that here right at the kennel," he says.

In other words, it's a kind of half-victory they're seeking -- some trace of decent care before the later, seemingly inevitable terrors begin.

The film is poky in places; we could take Pete's search for housing on faith and dispense with his tour of the trailer he settles on. And the legal marathon that ensues after his evidence is presented to the authorities comes at us in rather tedious detail. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to honor this mission, but their methods do a minor disservice to the documentary.

That said, if you have felt the trusting-searching-adoring glow of a dog's eyes -- one of life's very special joys -- you might take a vital interest in the endeavors of these dedicated animal lovers. Just be aware that watching this powerful film could make you awfully, achingly sad.

Dealing Dogs (75 minutes) airs tonight at 10 on HBO.

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