GORDONVILLE, Pa. - Humane Officer Jen Nields knocks on a door of the suspected puppy mill in Gordonville and steps back. She fidgets with a notebook and peers through a covered glass panel looking for signs of life. Then she waits.
The setting around her is breathtaking: lush Dutch Country farmland at sunset, a sea of gold and green. It is also ground zero for a culture and information war still raging in the mid-state after years of soul-searching and debate.
"A lot of people don't understand when I say, 'We [Lancaster County] are the puppy mill capital of the U.S.,' how heartrending it is to say that," Nields explains.
In recent years, legislative efforts to clampdown on puppy mills have driven scores of large-scale commercial breeders out of business or the area, state officials say. In some cases, those that stayed have slid into unregulated and under-the-radar breeding networks exploiting licensing loopholes and legislative blind spots.
"I think the activity has been pretty steady since I started" in 2013, Nields adds. "If anything, I think they've gotten better at hiding it."
Even amid what has been described as the slow death of licensed commercial dog breeding in Pennsylvania, Lancaster County remains a potent force.
Of the licensed and commercial kennels remaining, the county continues to lead the state in licensing fees, with roughly $50,000 collected here in 2015. The next-highest total is just half of that, with $25,000 collected in Allegheny County. Fee collections totaled about $400,000 this year statewide.
At the Lancaster County SPCA, Nields says breeding remains locally prevalent and, to an extent, the status quo still intact.
Complaints about suspected animal abuse, meanwhile, are far more common now as awareness of puppy mills has grown.
Nields says she's called to suspected mills almost daily, with the activity more than 75 percent of all cruelty calls.
Susan Martin, executive director of the Lancaster County SPCA, says the majority of callers are people who "go to buy a puppy and have concerns."
"They hear a bunch of dogs barking and they say, 'I don't know, but this might be a puppy mill.' Others say they [the breeder] would show me the puppy but not the mom and dad."
It was an anonymous complaint from a similarly concerned customer that led Nields to the Gordonville home, also a state licensed kennel, on a recent Thursday evening.
When her knocking was finally answered, the door opened to reveal a stout Amish woman who, with a male family member, denied Nields entry to the home where she sought to conduct an animal welfare check.
"They said we're not going to let you in, you need a warrant, we're not just gonna walk you through our property," Nields says. "They could just have an expectation of their privacy, or they could be hiding something."
Twice a year
While licensed by the state, the kennel operators are only required to submit to twice-yearly inspections, not random welfare checks by humane agencies or even those originating with complaints.
Showdowns of sensibility between the Amish that dominate the trade and the "English" that regulate it have long been common in mid-state dog law enforcement.
Humane officers in speaking with Pennlive said Amish typically view the dogs as livestock and don't share contemporary American views of the animals as pets, even while many, if not all, are sold for that express purpose.
Nields is clear that this cultural divide does not mean all dogs on Amish farms are treated poorly.
"I've been to Amish farms where they [dogs] were very well taken care of," she said, adding "Everyone is an individual with their own agenda."