New Podcast Series Explores Iowa’s Puppy Mill Problem

Sony Music Entertainment and Neon Hum

An Iowa businesswoman is considered a ringleader in a nationwide scheme to sell dogs bred at puppy mills to pet stores across the country, even in cities and states with puppy mill bans in place.

A new podcast details how she did it.

A seven-episode podcast series called “Smoke Screen: Puppy Kingpin” was released Thursday. It details the scheme concocted by Jolyn Noethe, co-owner of JAKS puppies in Britt, Iowa, to hide puppies’ puppy mill origins in order to sell them in places with bans on those sales. The “puppy laundering” practice can also obscure whether a puppy came from a breeder with animal welfare violations.

“We luckily had the Iowa AG’s case to start with, so we were able to largely build our investigation off of evidence in the Iowa attorney general’s case,” said Alex Schuman, host, reporter, and writer of the series, who grew up in Fort Dodge and now lives in New York City.

He said the team was helped by other lawsuits filed against the business, and the series tries to follow a linear timeline while also covering the lawsuits.

“Sometimes the timelines overlap a little and we give those dates, but we do try,” he said. “One of the other key things is the second episode that largely focuses on puppy mills. It’s all about giving people that background in order for you to understand the rest of it.”

The owners of JAKS puppies are accused of creating fake nonprofit animal rescues—Hobo K9 and Rescue Pets Iowa—to obscure the fact that puppies came from puppy mills.

Both rescues were voluntarily dissolved because of an investigation and lawsuit brought by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller over the fraudulent sale of puppies out of state, which violates Iowa consumer protection laws.

Schuman said the scheme is mostly about paperwork and how dogs are labeled. It’s important to remember Hobo K9 and Rescue Pets Iowa aren’t the only fake rescues out there.

“The thing that’s new is puppy laundering, and that’s a new kind of fraud,” he said. “And that’s only new because there’s been so many ordinances, both state and local laws, that are banning the sale of those types of puppies.”

In 2017 and 2018, California and Maryland became the first states to ban retail pet sales. New York and Illinois recently did the same, and close to 300 cities and counties nationwide have bans in place.

This is mostly because consumers increasingly care about whether their pets come from places where they or other animals are abused.

“It’s really shifting all over the place,” Schuman said. “And it’s just because people don’t want to support puppy mills, people don’t want their dogs to come from somewhere where the animal or any animal had to be mistreated so that they can have a puppy.”

It also has to do with more scrutiny being placed on the US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for investigating animal welfare in places such as dog breeding facilities.

Schuman said they did interview commercial breeders for the series, and discovered openness is one of the best signs that a breeder is legitimate. The series covers some of the solutions to puppy laundering, including Goldie’s Act, sponsored by Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) and introduced to Congress in December.

The act would require the USDA to do more frequent inspections and require inspectors to report all violations, confiscate suffering animals, impose penalties, and share information with law enforcement in a timely manner.

Schuman said exposing this practice is his main goal for the series because it makes finding out where your dog came from very difficult.

“There was so much more misdirection and deception than I expected, that a dog consumer has to go through,” he said. “And just to figure out, like where a healthy puppy came from. I was honestly taken aback a little bit by just how much secrecy there is.”

“You can spend your whole life being a dog person and you still don’t even know how intricate and industrialized the system is that brings puppies into homes all over America,” Schuman said.

“Smoke Screen: Puppy Kingpin” is a Neon Hum and Sony Music Entertainment podcast available on all podcast platforms. Subscribers to Sony’s “The Binge” can listen to all the episodes at once, otherwise, it will be released weekly for free.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misgendered Jolyn Noethe. We regret the error.

Nikoel Hytrek

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2 Comments on "New Podcast Series Explores Iowa’s Puppy Mill Problem"

  • Thank you, Iowa Starting Line, for this post.

    A few days ago, I heard an Iowa vet-clinic staffer asserting that some Iowa puppy mills are owned and operated by Amish people. She then asserted that it made a difference because when puppy mill owners/operators are members of Amish communities, they get partial or complete exemption from certain animal laws, regulations, and inspections.

    I realize that it would be grossly unfair, as well as inaccurate, to blame Amish communities for a problem that presumably doesn’t involve the vast majority of Amish people. But I’ve heard this kind of assertion before, and would really appreciate knowing what the realities are. The rumors about Amish puppy mills are already circulating, so explaining the truth would be a public service.

    I wish some enterprising journalist who cares about animal welfare would report on this topic and tell the actual story.

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