On Friday, April 21st, 2006 I witnessed something that I was unprepared for, a problem I had read about but had not yet seen. As a guardian of a dog I love dearly and an animal lover in general, I feel obligated to share the story despite how much I want to forget.

Driving down a country road in Daejeon on a journalistic quest to photograph the dog farms that are notorious across Asia, I expected to find the typical, bleak-looking lots with rows of dilapidated cages that hold the "yellow dogs" raised in Korea for food, or perhaps just a single, mixed-breed dog tied to a post in some overlooked corner of a yard. Those scenes have become heartbreakingly familiar to me since I opened my eyes. On this occasion, however, my husband and I discovered a Great Dane sitting in the sun.

Such a large dog is a startling sight in Korea. Though the popularity of small dogs has increased exponentially over the past 5 years or so, seeing one of the large breeds is still a rarity. We quickly drove around the block, returned to park, and got out of the car.

As I approached, the Great Dane didn't budge or bark, he only looked at me lethargically from his pen. One of his eyes was red. He was not interested in the raw meat at the other end of his enclosure.

Then I saw 2 Rottweilers in the next pen, one had greenish crust around his nose. The Malamute next to them was friendly and wagged his tail. Behind an open courtyard dotted with several piles of excrement I glimpsed a Great Pyrenees with some Collies. Two dogs walked over to bark hello, but the third collapsed in the middle of the courtyard and lay there panting in the sun. She looked thin and frail.

By the entrance gate a Pomeranian and two other small dogs, all together in one cage, barked "Look at us, too" repeatedly. They were dirty but energetic. Not far from them, a Siberian Husky and a long-haired Sapsal-gae (Korean shaggy dog) sat next to each other in separate, dusty pens. They both needed a bath.

Then a man came to the entrance gate and so I said hello. He invited me in and quickly told me there were more dogs in the back.

"Are these dogs for sale?" I tried to put the question together in Korean in my head as the grim realization slowly set it, though I hadn't yet figured out exactly what they were for. I quickly nixed the idea that this could be a stray-dog rescue in need of volunteers.

A Siberian Husky with a gorgeous face pierced her blue eyes deep into my heart. Her voice was like a whisper. "Very noisy," the man said and explained something with a gesture to the throat. Her vocal cords had been removed.

Walking down a long row of steel cages with wire floors raised a foot or so off the ground, the man introduced me to the rest of his dogs with an undue sense of pride. A Siberian Husky with a gorgeous face pierced her blue eyes deep into my heart. Her voice was like a whisper. "Very noisy," the man said and explained something with a gesture to the throat. Her vocal cords had been removed. A couple of Malamutes with huge mats in their fur stood up and begged for nose scratches. I wondered how the wire of the cages felt between the toes of such heavy dogs. A Bassett Hound, more Collies, a "Russian dog", a yellow Lab, two Poongsan-gae (another Korean breed), black dogs, yellow dogs, brown dogs, white dogs -all purebred of some sort- about 20 or 25 altogether here under the greenhouse-like roof, unseen from the road. He pointed out which ones were pregnant.

Despite the overcrowded conditions, most of the dogs seemed friendly and wanted to lick my hand. "Don't touch that one" the man warned in Korean, "all her puppies died two weeks ago. Stress. She'll bite." And then I started looking beyond the dogs' pleading faces to the surrounding details. Under each cage's raised wire floor a foot-high pyramid of excrement had accumulated, in some cases so high that the peak protruded into the cage itself. How many months' worth? Some cages had mounds of feces inside. The dogs couldn't sit or lie down without touching their own waste. Food dishes made of rusting metal hung on the cage wall along with water dishes, though I can't say for sure that what filled the containers was water. The liquid was green or yellow and had chunks in it.

"Her nose looks hurt" I said, pointing to the sentinel. "No, no. Not hurt," he dismissed me without much concern. "Want to see some puppies?"

Three golden-coloured, long-haired dogs huddling together in a cage caught my attention because they were the only small ones in this dimly-lit hall. One trembled and stared up at me from under an extremely matted brow. Her buddy sat like a sentinel, a pose my own dog takes when she's scared, cold, or stressed. I crouched to look at this one more closely. Half her nose was missing. I gestured to the man to indicate shivering and he said something about sunlight. I guessed he meant when the sun comes in through the cracks in the wall, the room gets warmer. I asked, "Scared?" and he nodded and pointed to the big dogs with the big barks in the neighbouring cells. "Her nose looks hurt" I said, pointing to the sentinel. "No, no. Not hurt," he dismissed me without much concern. "Want to see some puppies?"

So, off to a room on the other side of the greenhouse we went. He showed me a Husky mother and, in a dark corner of her dirty, boarded-up pen, a few sleeping puppies. One was coughing in its sleep next to a puddle of urine. The mama frantically licked my hand through the wire cage. Then she coughed, too. We just looked at each other for one quiet moment. I silently begged her to forgive me for leaving her there.

"Do you sell these dogs?" I asked aloud, but by now I knew the answer. "Not these ones, no. I sell the babies. If you want a puppy, come here". I thanked the man for showing me around and I headed to our car.

On the way out I noticed it, beside the front gate on the inside of the building, swept into a dustpan. One tiny, black puppy. Dead. A "Malamute Club" sticker was stuck to the door.

I returned to the car where my husband was waiting for me. He said, "These dogs out here are sick. I saw two of them vomit. The Great Dane vomited green onto his own front paw". I sat in the car and wept.

Crying is not enough, I realize. This is not an isolated case, an exception that should be put out of my mind. This is a puppy mill: a horrific prison where life is commercialized. Adult dogs are kept and bred in dungeon-like conditions and their puppies- those that survive- are sold in the hopes of turning a profit. The well-being of the animals is of little or no concern.

The practice is not exclusive to Korea, of course. This type of dog factory is the result of the relatively recent pet dog trend here, but puppy mills have been supplying pet shops in the US and Canada with puppies for decades. In Korea, however, unsold puppies in pet stores and dogs that no longer serve the breeder's purpose run the risk of being sold to dog meat traders. Such dogs are doomed to die violently by hanging, beating, or electrocution.

There is a lot of work to be done to end puppy mills and to improve the lives of dogs around the world and on this peninsula: enforcing and strengthening existing laws to protect animals, educating the public about the proper care of animals, and providing homes for the animals who have had the good fortune of being rescued. All of this is possible with hard work. We can help the dogs in Korea live happier lives, one animal at a time.

Please read more about the serious issue of puppy mills by visiting the links below and tell everyone you know: Do not buy pets from pet shops!

This article was written by Karen Busch and originally posted in May, 2006.