When the two women visited a suburban Chicago pet shop to find the perfect pooch, they discovered several adorable candidates. But it was Bella Mia who marched right up to Manzella and nestled into her arms. This unmistakable gesture of connection, not to mention comfort, cemented their instant bond. And home went Bella Mia, just a few months after her birth in February 2001.
The Yorkie was indeed a lucky dog. Bella Mia was about to start living the quintessential dog's life: She had a loving and devoted caregiver, a nice home and yard, and all the toys and tidbits a dog could ever want. All of this would have been hers for many years if not for one thing: Bella Mia was yet another victim of bad breeding at a puppy mill that had been repeatedly cited for various Animal Welfare Act violations.
Bella Mia was born with an unseen and serious condition called a portosystemic shunt, a condition in which the blood flows abnormally around the liver instead of through it. The condition would impair Bella Mia's health, and ultimately, contribute to her death at the age of six months. A portosystemic shunt is common in Yorkshire terriers, and experts say it is usually an inherited condition in such small dogs.
During her first veterinarian visit, Bella Mia was diagnosed with kennel cough and put on an antibiotic. When additional veterinarian visits and stronger antibiotics were still unable to cure the cough, x-rays and blood samples were taken to determine if there were some other cause for her loss of appetite and overall worsening condition. When Bella Mia became even more lethargic, Manzella took her to the veterinary hospital, where the owner first learned that her new companion might have a portosystemic shunt. Surgery was scheduled.
Although the surgery might have otherwise been successful, Bella Mia died immediately afterward because of the stress on her severely weakened system. Since Bella Mia's blood bypassed her liver, it remained full of the toxins usually filtered out by that organ.
The pet store was less than sympathetic about Bella Mia's death—and uncooperative about furnishing the dog's registration papers, which had been promised weeks before her death. While it ultimately refunded nearly the full purchase price of the puppy, the pet store would not reimburse Manzella for any of the roughly $2,000 she had spent in veterinary bills in under three months.
The pet store's sales contract states that only visits to veterinarians on its "approved list" would be covered. Manzella had taken Bella Mia to her own veterinarian, but only after visiting an "approved" veterinarian, who was unable to clear up the kennel cough and seemed unaware of the basic vaccinations needed.
With help from The HSUS, Manzella was able to obtain information about Bella Mia's registration and breeder. She filed a consumer complaint with the Illinois state attorney general, contacted the local Better Business Bureau, and followed through with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which enforces the Animal Welfare Act) to ensure that the breeder's facility in Missouri was inspected.
The Missouri puppy mill, in fact, was known to the USDA, which, after three years and at least six failed inspections, finally took action. That action, sadly, amounted only to limiting the number of animals that the breeders could have at their kennel and fining them $8,000.
"It's not about the money," Manzella emphatically states, "It's about the whole chain of events and the people who don't care. It's about the fact that this isn't the first time something like this has happened. Others have had the same experience, but people rarely know about one another's experiences, so these tragedies keep happening."
A review of records from previous inspections of the breeders' facility reveals conditions that seem to warrant closing it, not issuing essentially empty warnings. The record includes disturbing statements such as "[certain dogs] must have the chains cut off their necks and the necks must be treated where the skin has been broken" and "The small Dachshund with the broken back must be treated or euthanized."
In one report, the USDA noted a terrier with "hair loss, weight loss, and possible prolapse," yet the next inspection did not take place until ten months later, by which time the untreated dog had died. Another report stated that, "The animal care program and the exercise program were not made available for inspection." It is unlawful to prevent inspectors from reviewing these required programs; denying access to them implies that there were serious problems or, perhaps worse, the programs were nonexistent.
By spreading the word about puppy mills and about the risk people take in buying a pet store pooch, Manzella is doing her best to make sure that Bella Mia's short life was not in vain. Though deeply saddened by Bella Mia's suffering and her loss, Manzella says, "I have no regrets; I'm just angry at all of the people who were responsible for what happened and didn't care."
Manzella has turned her anger into a mission. The woman who wanted to heal her broken heart (only to have it torn in two again) has now found her own blood boiling: Simply put, she wants to help end the irresponsible and callous practices that led to Bella Mia's suffering. And her own.
What You Can Do:
The HSUS has been battling puppy mills for decades, and the fight continues. If you want to help make sure that good-hearted owners like Pat Manzella never have to suffer through another unnecessary grief, we can lend a hand. Our Stop Puppy Mills web site is devoted to shutting down this cruel industry. The site offers not only in-depth information on puppy mills, but also many different ways you can contribute to the cause of closing these mass-breeding facilities forever.