ENCINITAS — Five years ago, Christopher Grimes said he wanted to answer what he thought was a straightforward question — how are the owners of commercial dog kennels, sometimes referred to as “puppy mills,” able to keep states and the federal government to not better regulate their operations, which have come under scrutiny in some cases for the inhumane treatment of the pets they breed.
Activists for years have cast a light on the mistreatment of animals from these facilities, which wind up in the hands of unsuspecting consumers who purchase them at retail pet shops in local malls or shops. Those consumers are often saddled with hundreds or thousands of dollars in medical expenses — or worse.
“This seemed like an easy political win,” said Grimes, the owner of the Illinois-based 5414 Productions, Inc. with his wife, Leigh Cavich-Grimes. “Why wouldn’t any politician jump at the chance to protect what for many families is their family pet? Who really would be on the side of allowing inhumane conditions to continue at these facilities?”
The answer to the question, as Grimes found out, was complex and inexorably tied to big money, which has shielded some of the most inhumane of dog breeders from the regulations that would halt the animal mistreatment.
It is this interplay between politics, animal welfare, and money that became the heart of his 90-minute documentary, “Dog by Dog,” which is screening May 7 at La Paloma Theatre.
“The most revealing thing to me was that it wasn’t the guys in overalls, but the guys in the suits on Wall Street, and big ag money flowing into the system that was putting the political pressure on state and federal lawmakers not to regulate puppy mills,” said Grimes, who graduated with a master’s degree in public policy from Northwestern University.
Grimes documentary took him into 19 states over the five-year period, with the crux of the film focusing on the states of Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, states with large concentrations of such kennel operations.
Among others, Grimes interviewed animal welfare activists, lawmakers, and consumers who fell victim to purchases of animals from such kennels to tell the story of how puppy mills legislation has been thwarted by big agricultural interests.
“Big Ag sees it as a slippery slope argument, that if you protect a dog, how long is it before you give the same protection to livestock such as a cow,” Grimes said. “The breakdown is that dogs are companion animals, they are with families 12 to 14 years, and we would never think of them in the same way we think of a cow.
“There is a clear distinction between the two, and big ag fails to respect that difference,” he said.
Grimes said he hopes that the documentary helps to raise awareness about the treatment of animals in these facilities and complements the work of activists who carry the mantle of animal welfare on a daily basis.
“I see it as one tool in the toolbox of education,” Grimes said about the film. “There is nothing out there like local activism, no film could copy their drive, these activists are the ones getting this done by education and by forcing politicians to pay attention.
“The folks who organized this screening (the Spay and Neuter Action Project and Not One Animal Harmed) are doing this every day, they are mostly volunteers,” Grimes said. “But I think everyone has a role to play, and one of those roles is to not purchase a dog in a pet shop. If everyone did this one simple thing, it would change the system.”
There have been more than 40 screenings of the documentary across the country, and Grimes said he can’t attend all of them, which makes his scheduled appearance May 7 special for organizers and attendees.
Grimes said he felt compelled to appear in San Diego due to the great energy of local animal rights activists, who have steadily racked up victories in the name of animal rights and consumer protection in cities like San Diego, Chula Vista, Oceanside, San Marcos, Carlsbad and Encinitas, which are among the cities that have banned retail pet stores or the sale of dogs from puppy mills.
“It hasn’t happened overnight, but I believe we are trending in the right direction,” Grimes said. “And it’s hard work, but I know for these people, it is very rewarding.
“I think Dog by Dog came at the right time for this issue,” Grimes said. “I get a little rewarded knowing that we are playing a part letting people know what is happening, and hopefully deciding to make different purchasing decisions.”
Grimes also said he is excited about the contingent of local lawmakers scheduled to attend the screening, which includes Carlsbad Councilman Keith Blackburn, Oceanside council members Chuck Lowery and Esther Sanchez, who have carried the mantle of animal welfare into the council chambers.
“Those are the folks who really impress me because this isn’t a hard issue,” Grimes said. “This is one issue where there is a right side of history and a wrong side of history, and we are going to look back and ask what side were you on, the side of basic humane treatment of dogs, or the opposite.
“You have to credit those who are making decisions now despite running into headwinds but still are holding to the principle that they want to be on the right side of history,” Grimes said.