JEFFERSON CITY —It's survival of the fittest for 161 malamutes recently rescued from a dog kennel in Jefferson City.
"Some are doing better than others," said Wendy Hergenraeder, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, a Billings resident who is part of a team assisting in caring for the dogs.
The dogs were recently removed from the residence of Mike Chilinski, 51, who was arrested and charged with cruelty to animals in Jefferson County. Authorities also found 200 marijuana plants on the property at 275 S. Main, located several miles south of Jefferson City. Chilinksi also faces felony drug charges.
Officials said they found dogs living in feces-encrusted pens, most without food, water and shelter. Many of the dogs are underweight and suffering from parasite infestation and untreated wounds.
Extra volunteers, including four veterinarians, have helped in examine, vaccinate and micro-chip the dogs.
The canines, which include several litters of puppies, nursing moms and pregnant females, are evidence in the prosecution of Chilinski. If he were to relinquish ownership or the case is settled, the staff could begin the process of adopting the dogs, but that will likely take months, said Gina Wiest, executive director of the local humane society.
While Wiest said she is pleased with the dogs' disposition despite the conditions they were removed from, they need to be evaluated, cared for, and spayed and neutered if possible.
"It's a magnitude of dogs," Wiest said. "Right now we are trying to meet the dogs' immediate needs."
She said she hopes none of the malamutes will be euthanized.
The Jefferson City case is not the only puppy mill and animal cruelty case in Montana in recent years, and such incidents are not uncommon nationwide.
The Humane Society of the United States estimated in 2008 that there were 10,000 puppy mills in America. The head of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle, now thinks the number is closer to 15,000, according to Carol Bradley, a former Great Falls newspaper reporter who studied animal law as a 2004 Nieman Fellow at Harvard and later wrote the book "Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills."
Bradley said puppy mills are commercial kennels where dogs are treated like livestock and puppies are produced in squalid conditions. She said any breeder who subjects his or her dogs to filthy cages or runs, extreme temperatures, inadequate food and water and little to no socialization or veterinary care is operating a puppy mill.
Bradley became interested in the subject during her reporting days when a bust took place in 2002 involving a breeder attempting to bring 180 collies across the U.S.-Canada border in northern Montana. After her fellowship, she just couldn't stop thinking about puppy mills, Bradley said.
"When I came back, I had a burr in my bonnet and felt like someone needed to write about it," she said.
Her book weaves the facts of puppy mill abuses, state legislation and animal rescue attempts with the story of one particular puppy-mill dog, Gracie, and her new owner, Linda. Gracie is a purebred Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that was tortured, abused and bred constantly for six years, while being kept 24 hours a day in a small, dirty crate.
"We spend way more time researching a potential vehicle purchase than we do on a dog that is a 15-year investment sometimes," Bradley said.
She wasn't shocked to learn of the Jefferson City kennel raid. "It's not surprising," she said. "Puppy mills are all over the place."
Bradley said that about every 6-1/2 days, a puppy mill is busted in this country.
Many say Montana's laws do nothing to prevent the potential puppy mills.
Adding to lax laws is the fact that "Montana is an isolated state," Bradley said. "The conditions are great."
"The state needs some type of regulation to oversee this so we aren't in the same situation we are today," Hergenraeder said. "There needs to be some type of law."
Rep. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, has unsuccessfully carried such bills in recent legislative sessions.
"It's distressing," she said. "It seems like maybe farmers feel like any attempt to say how animals should be treated might infringe on the treatment of their own animals."
Malek said it's in people's best interest to care about puppy mills because when they get busted, the care of the animals becomes a burden to local communities.
Harrison said caring for the 161 dogs and puppies is a massive undertaking but help continues to arrive.
It seems the word about "Project Malamute" has gotten out. The Lewis and Clark Humane Society has a link on its web site about the confiscated dogs.
Science Diet has offered to help with dog food; HSUS is contributing financially for the care of the dogs and will remain in Helena to help until at least Tuesday. PetSmart Charities sent two large semi tractor-trailers full of kennels, food, bowls and leashes to help with the effort. Van's Thriftway sent a large lunch spread for staff and volunteers at the shelter on Friday.
"It has hit the malamute wire," said Liz Harrison, a shelter official.
In the first day, $3,000 donations arrived from England, Canada, Ireland, Sweden and Nova Scotia. The largest single donation came from Colorado in the amount of $500, Harrison said.