When Joan Huber walked the corridors of North America’s largest dog show a year ago, she was greeted like Meryl Streep on the Oscars’ red carpet: an icon with generations of fans.
At 80 years old, she was the American Kennel Club’s Terrier Group Breeder of the Year and one of seven finalists for the purebred world’s top award: AKC Breeder of the Year. The miniature schnauzers that Huber bred northwest of Philadelphia were among the most sought-after in the nation. Her puppies could sell for $3,500, sometimes more. During nearly seven decades of breeding, she had produced more than 850 AKC champions.
But just days before that Florida event, Huber had been charged with eight counts of animal cruelty in Pennsylvania. Four months later, she was convicted of illegally cropping her dogs’ ears. Today, she is under house arrest with an ankle monitor for violating the terms of her sentence for two years probation, and authorities have seized 16 of her dogs and adopted them out at just $65 apiece.
Although Huber, now 81, is a criminal in the eyes of the justice system, she is fast becoming a folk hero in the dog breeding world. Outraged supporters have taken vehemently to the Internet, raising tens of thousands of dollars on her behalf and insisting the only thing Huber did wrong was violate a law that shouldn’t exist.
“This has got to stop,” read a recent blog post from the Cavalry Group, which describes its aim as “protecting and defending animal enterprise.” The post, titled “Animal rights terrorists will not be happy until there are no dogs left,” urged readers to “contact your legislators to put an end to these unconstitutional laws.”
Huber’s story is a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a luminary on the dog show circuit. It is also a window into the deepening cultural battle between breeders and animal-protection groups, whose “adopt, don’t shop” message is winning growing support from politicians, authorities and the public. The case, at its core, is about how longtime practices in the dog-breeding business compare to evolving laws with different requirements, and how animal-protection groups want practices to change in the future.
“I’m a top professional handler and breeder for 68 years,” Huber said in an interview. “I’m the best at what I do. I was married to a veterinarian for 6½ years who cropped ears, and I carried on and cropped ears for 50 years.”
The way breeders and pet stores have operated since the mid-1900s has come under tremendous scrutiny in recent years. Some states have enacted laws requiring kennel upgrades. More than 230 municipalities and the state of California have prohibited pet stores from sourcing puppies from breeders, in a push that groups led by the Humane Society of the United States say they hope will end commercial operations they refer to as puppy mills.
Breeders and pet-store owners have pushed back, saying activists have gone too far in attacking a regulated industry and removing consumers’ “dog choice.” Their argument — that people should have every right to shop for purebred, non-rescue puppies — has had some success: Last month, Las Vegas repealed a pet-store ban in the face of ardent lobbying to keep it in place.
Breeders like Huber are in the crosshairs of this national debate and, increasingly, on the wrong end of laws that now prohibit behavior they long considered routine. When Huber started out in the fancy, it was legal for her to crop, or cut, dogs’ ears so they stand up and look pointy. That changed in Pennsylvania in 2009, when lawmakers required that the procedure be performed only by licensed veterinarians.
Several countries prohibit ear-cropping, and nine U.S. states regulate the procedure, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, which opposes cropping.
The Montgomery County SPCA, which has the authority to issue citations in animal cruelty cases, charged Huber with cruelty after receiving several calls from former employees of her Blythewood Kennels, according to Tracie Graham, an SPCA shelter manager, and Kate Delano, a spokeswoman for the county prosecutor’s office.
“These calls didn’t come from animal rights groups,” Graham said. “They came from former employees who did the right thing because they couldn’t stand what they were seeing.”
At Huber’s trial, three witnesses, including a former bookkeeper, testified that she cropped dogs’ ears on her kitchen counter without following proper veterinary procedures, Delano said. Huber herself testified that the procedure was necessary to give her show dogs a “winning edge” in the ring, Graham said.
“The cropping itself was horrific enough. But to hear the testimony of the employees, the anesthesia protocol was not up to par. There was no pain medication. Some of the dogs were awake,” Graham said. “It was pretty barbaric.”
Despite her conviction, Huber remains defiant. She said she was only doing what many other fanciers do, and that she became a “sacrificial lamb” of “animal rights activists” who equate traditions and skills to cruelty.
“It’s an art form, my dear, knowing how puppies grow and develop, how to make the ear the best, to fit the dog and the breed,” Huber said by phone. “You have to know the breeds, and you have to be artistic, and you have to know how to handle drugs, and you have to know how to do it humanely. These animal activists, they don’t care, and that’s the end of the story.”
Brandi Hunter, the AKC’s vice president of public relations and communications, declined to answer several questions about the case, saying only that “currently, Ms. Huber is unable to use our services.” She continued: “Pertaining to ear cropping on dogs, the AKC advises that appropriate veterinary care should be administered.”
Huber, whose commercial kennel license was revoked following her conviction, is scheduled to be sentenced next month for violating probation terms that required she own no more than 25 dogs. When authorities inspected her facility in October, they found 41. While the district attorney’s office says that sentencing guidelines suggest Huber will remain on probation, she could face 16 years in jail.
Graham said the dogs and puppies that were seized were neutered or spayed before being adopted out to what she called “great homes.” Huber, for her part, calls the authorities who removed her dogs “the Gestapo” and said she feels like breeders are living in “a police state” across the United States.
“They wanted to take my top stud, Grand Champion Blythewood Full Metal Jacket,” Huber said, adding that she handed over other dogs and puppies instead. “I’m sure that those people who work at the SPCA are laughing and saying they got multi-thousand-dollar Blythewood schnauzers for free.”
Huber’s defenders have stepped up their outrage since her dogs were seized. On Facebook, the hashtags #istandwithblythewood and #westandwithblythewood have emerged, as has a “Justice for Blythewood Schnauzers” page. A GoFundMe fundraiser brought in close to $28,000 for Huber in seven days, with money still coming in. The magazine Best in Show Daily ran a story by AKC legislative liaison Elizabeth Brinkley warning breeders that the case was reason to watch out for “mentally unbalanced” animal rights activists.
Those activists “want to make an example of how foul ‘show breeders’ are,” Carole Weinberger, president of the American Miniature Schnauzer Club, wrote in a statement published by the show-dog publication the Canine Chronicle. “It’s a war between the AR’s and the show breeders that has finally impacted OUR breed and we have to do everything we can to fight back!!”
Huber, meanwhile, said she is already making plans to sell her Pennsylvania home and move her business somewhere more “dog-friendly, which is probably Delaware” — a state that does not regulate ear-cropping. “My market is New York and Philadelphia, where there is money and sophisticated buyers.”