GAP, Pa. (AP) – The colorful, hand-painted signs offering puppies for sale at farms in scenic Lancaster County only add to the allure of Amish country. Some visitors cannot help but go home with a fluffy dog.

But animal activists say many of these seemingly innocent farms – nestled among the red barns and green grass in Pennsylvania’s rolling countryside – are actually a front for lucrative, virtually unregulated operations that crank out hundreds of purebreds, from Maltese to Labrador retrievers, sometimes amid miserable conditions.

There are dogs without teeth or a leg, activists say, as well as diseased animals and dark barns where animals are confined for breeding purposes. Those rejected as unfit for sale are destroyed, not always humanely. Consumers who find cute puppies advertised on the Internet or in newspapers rarely set foot in the barns, they say.

“If people could understand where the dogs came from, they wouldn’t buy them,” said Carol Araneo-Mayer, vice president of Adopt a Pet, which has helped find homes for rescued dogs in Lancaster County.

A Senate subcommittee this week hears testimony on legislation that would give the Agriculture Department the power to regulate breeders and dealers who sell directly to consumers. Some breeders – and even some animal rescue coordinators who sell they dogs they have saved – worry that the bill will place unneeded regulations on them.

Pennsylvania, which some have called the “Puppy Mill Capital of the East,” is not alone in the problem, according to animal rights groups. The Humane Society of the United States lists it with Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma as the worst violators.

A puppy mill, says the Humane Society, is a breeding facility that produces purebred puppies in large numbers. Potential problems, it contends, are overbreeding and inbreeding, substandard food and shelter, overcrowded cages and inadequate veterinary care.

The Internet has made high-volume operations more profitable because they are exempt from federal regulation yet can reach a national market. Consumers can have purebred puppies shipped to their homes or pick them up.

The price depends on the breed. For example, a beagle can go for as low as $50, but a blue American pit bull sells for $900.

The Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1967, set standards for the treatment of animals by breeders, exhibitors, transporters and researchers. It exempts “retail pet stores,” and large breeding operations are considered retailers by the USDA if they sell directly to consumers.

Many states – including Pennsylvania – have laws regulating animal breeding operations. Last year in Pennsylvania, dog wardens seized and impounded 16,890 dogs, including those at breeding operations.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., says that changes to the Animal Welfare Act are needed to protect not just animals but consumers who buy dogs with behavioral and health problems. His bill would give the Agriculture Department authority over those who sell more than 25 dogs per year. People who raise up to seven litters a year on their own premises would be exempted.

The bill is supported by the Humane Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the American Kennel Club, which maintains a purebred animal registry.

Ken Brandt, who lobbied in Harrisburg on behalf of breeders, said the Amish and other breeders in the state have gotten a bad rap. For many farmers, he said, a breeding operation is a way to supplement their income and keep them on the land.

“These people are caring and concerned people,” Brandt said.

Lori Rhodes, who operates Mountain View Kennels with her husband, Kenneth, in Williamsburg, Pa., said she hates the large breeding operations. But federal regulation, she said, would mean more work for her kennels.

“It’s unfortunate for the small business man that the puppy mills are making it bad on everybody,” she said.

Rhodes, who expects to sell about 90 Golden Retriever puppies this year, brings her pregnant dogs into the living room when it is time to give birth and keeps young puppies in a heated basement.

Kenneth Rhodes said state enforcement is far from lax. “We used to have a restaurant. It’s almost stricter with the dogs than serving food,” he said.

Animal activists say it is impossible to know how many puppy mills exist. Even in states where there is licensing, an unknown number operate outside the radar of inspectors.

Cheryl Roberts, a breeder in Chester County who opposes Santorum’s bill, said some of the responsibility lies with consumers looking for a good deal rather than finding a reputable breeder.

Roberts said she is lucky to get $500 for show-quality golden Retrievers and competes with operations that sell the puppies for $125 to $200. Some customers see her ad in the newspaper and call to complain about the price.

“I tell people you pay for what you get,” Roberts said.

Many consumers just are not aware of what they are buying, said Bill Smith, president of Main Line Animal Rescue. People who do see where the puppies are raised feel compelled to take one home, he said.

“You hear, ‘I couldn’t leave her behind,”‘ Smith said. “‘It was so horrible, so I just ended up rescuing the dog.”‘

On the Net:

American Kennel Club:

The Humane Society of the United States:

Agriculture Department:

Animal Welfare Act:

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