by Elizabeth DePaul

While most eighth grade girls are gearing up for high school, finishing up spring season sports and picking out their graduation dresses, five eighth graders at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy have a distinctively different priority on their minds; they’re busy collecting donations for animal shelters as part of their school project on puppy mills.

Seen in one of their classrooms are Chestnut Hill canine crusaders (from left) Londyn Harry, Federica Cristofanilli, Taylor Harris, Nicole Novo and Maia Brown. (Photo by Elizabeth DePaul)

Every eighth grader who attends the school is required to spearhead a yearlong project on a cause of their choice, and for Federica Cristofanili, Nicole Novo, Maia Brown, Londyn Harry and Taylor Harris, their focus became educating the public about the appalling cruelty of puppy mills, a cause unknown to many people. (All of the girls are 14 except for Maia, who is 13.)

Since March the five teenagers have been working on their school project with help from project advisor Ellen Koenig. Puppy mills are inhumane places where dogs are overbred, abused, undernourished, shipped off to pet stores and sometimes even killed. Most puppies sold in pet stores throughout the country were purchased from puppy mills.

By educating the community about this topic, the girls hope to raise awareness and support local shelters and organizations that have been campaigning against puppy mills. Many puppy mills exist in Pennsylvania, including many in Lancaster County and among Amish farmers, but if these girls had their way, these canine concentration camps would not exist at all.

According to Sonja Meadows, executive director of Animals Angels, of Hagerstown, MD, one of many organizations that have exposed puppy mills, “Our investigation of the puppy mill industry shows widespread abuse of the puppies who are sold malnourished, sick and full of genetic disorders. Frankly, they are the lucky ones.

“The real victims are the ‘puppy mill moms’ who are confined to life in cages where they give birth on average to 140 puppies in their lifetime. Large puppy mills can have over 1,000 breeding dogs that produce cute ‘purebred’ puppies, primarily for pet stores. These dogs sit in their own feces all day in a small cage — often a chicken coop. Their feet never touch grass. They are not socialized.

“They are bred until they can’t produce any more puppies. Then when they are no longer useful, they are shot or killed with a rock or hammer. A few lucky ones go to rescue groups; others are sold to medical labs … One way to help is never buy a dog from a pet store. Visit your local shelter or contact breed-specific rescue organizations to adopt.”

Setting out with a main goal of making puppy mills illegal, the five Chestnut Hill students hope to someday start a petition to do just that. But for now, as Londyn Harry stated, “We just want to make a difference and make people aware of the dangers of puppy mills.”

As dog and animal lovers, the five teens picked the cause to inform people in our area of the cruelty of puppy mills through going door to door handing out brochures, putting up posters, setting up donation boxes in local businesses such as Cake and Bone Appetit, and recently holding a bake sale at their school. All the money raised was donated to Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in Radnor, with whom the girls have met to discuss their project, the Humane Society of the U.S. and the ASPCA.

“People should start caring more and being more aware,” said Nicole Novo. Through their ongoing efforts, the girls are continually informing people of the dangers of buying a dog from a pet store or even from a large chain like Pet Smart. Unless a pet store can prove with documentation where a dog came from, which many stores do not even know (or want to know), the dog was almost certainly bred at a puppy mill. Many dogs from puppy mills have physical and social problems from being in close quarters with numerous other dogs and don’t like being outside because they are so accustomed to being in a cage at all times.

The teenage girls will cover all of this in their end-of-the-year presentation to their entire class. They hope that by enlightening their peers and the community, word will spread to make more people aware of the horrors of puppy mills, the collaboration of pet stores and the almost unbelievable inaction by public officials to do anything to halt this epidemic of cruelty.

As the school year is set to wrap up, their project will continue well beyond the classroom; they hope to organize events, have a school assembly and continue to raise money for experienced organizations that can help them with their efforts.

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