When Bill Smith puts up a billboard, people notice.
His biting ads lambasting the puppy mills of Lancaster County - one features a beagle in a dishwasher to show how small the legal cage size is - have been fixtures on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for three years.
Frustrated that conditions for thousands of breeding dogs in the state's commercial kennels had not improved despite Gov. Rendell's 2006 pledge to clean up substandard kennels, Smith, the Chester Springs animal welfare advocate, brought his campaign to Chicago, to the doorstep of Oprah Winfrey.
"I thought, 'Who could reach more people than any other person on the planet?' " said Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue. His shelter takes in about 500 puppy-mill castoffs a year: the breeding dogs, often riddled with health and behavioral problems, and the puppies that are too old or too sick to sell.
In February the billboard, with a plaintive puppy face and a polite request to Winfrey to do a show on puppy mills, was posted on bustling Kennedy Boulevard, four blocks from Winfrey's Harpo Studios. Main Line board member Marsha Perelman donated $10,000 to rent the billboard space for a month.
They didn't need a month to convince the nation's number-one talk show host and a dog lover herself. A week later, Smith said, producers called and told him they were planning to devote a show to abuses in puppy mills.
"I was grateful," said Smith after receiving the call. "I knew if she did a show on this it would help a lot of animals."
The show, which airs tomorrow (4 p.m., 6ABC), includes graphic undercover footage of Lancaster County kennels, along with related segments on dog auctions and the high rates of euthanasia in shelters. Smith is the featured guest.
Smith spent two days last month with
correspondent Lisa Ling traveling to kennels and pet shops in Southeastern Pennsylvania to show the relationship between the puppies sold in pet stores and, as Ling said, "the horrific conditions" in many large kennels.
"People will see the connection between pet stores and they will meet the puppies' mothers in their rabbit hutches," said Smith. "It's really upsetting."
They toured a number of mills and saw cages stacked to the ceiling in sheds. They saw 15 or 20 small dogs stuffed in rabbit hutches. They watched kennel operators dragging dogs by their front legs. They left with 19 dogs, suffering from severe dental disease, and a very sick puppy, which later died in a veterinary hospital.
Rendell, who has adopted puppy-mill dogs, beefed up inspections in the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement and hired additional dog wardens, but his effort to toughen regulations stalled last year over opposition from breeders, farmers and sportsmen.
Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said the governor would introduce a revamped legislative package in the next few weeks. "The governor's affection toward dogs is well-known," said Ardo. "He will be visible in promoting this legislation."
Smith said the show has the potential to have greater impact than any legislative or regulatory changes.
"It still comes down to consumers buying puppies from pet stores," he said.
Meanwhile, Smith already has one new convert.
"I would never, ever adopt another pet now without going to a shelter to do it," Winfrey said in a statement released yesterday. "I am a changed woman after seeing this show."
She is dedicating the show to her cocker spaniel Sophie, who died last month.