Louise Epstein cuddles with Toby while keeping an eye on Joy (left) and Mr. Nickers. Credit: Korey HowellToby is a seven-year-old West Highland White Terrier (also known as a “westie”) living a charmed life in the hills of northwest Austin. He’s got two westie playmates, a Tempur-Pedic dog bed, a wild backyard covered in doggy-sized walking trails and owners whom the word “doting” does not even come close to describing.
And yet just one year ago, Toby was days from death, suffering from a severe mouth infection that had rotted 20 of his teeth. His new owner, Louise Epstein, wasn’t sure if he would survive the surgery to pull the infected teeth, but she hoped the medicine might provide a few moments of pain-free existence if he succumbed.
Epstein, MBA ’85 and the 2010-11 McCombs entrepreneur-in-residence, adopted Toby from a Williamson County rescue group that had taken him in from a nearby shelter. The shelter had received Toby along with several dozen other dogs from a puppy mill in Brownwood, Texas, whose owner dumps dogs at the shelter annually after they become too sick to breed. At the puppy mill, Toby had spent his life in a wire cage too small for him to stand up in, stacked in a tower exposed to other dogs’ waste and disease, and never going outside or receiving veterinary care.
Epstein is now working with the Texas Humane Legislation Network to pass the Large Scale Commercial Breeder Bill in the 2011 Texas legislative session. The bill, which aims to regulate commercial breeding (defined as an operation with 11 or more breeding females that sells offspring), was defeated in the 2009 session. But Epstein has personally met with every lawmaker who voted against it, sharing Toby’s story and the details of the bill. She has convinced all but one to vote yes this time around.
“I’m a doer, and when I saw this injustice, I was compelled to do something about it,” Epstein says. “I didn’t have a choice. My heart was broken and I would not have been able to sleep if I didn’t do everything I could possibly do to increase awareness and end the suffering. At one mill, there were 1,000 dogs living in squalor. Living painful, miserable existences. It’s the worst of humanity that creates these conditions.”
The bill was originally defeated by a lobbying group that deemed it anti-business, so Epstein pitched the bill as a money-maker to legislators.
“This is a revenue-positive bill, because currently the puppy mills are operating in the shadows, not paying sales tax,” explains Epstein. “The bill requires them to register with the state, pay a licensing fee, and to pay sales tax, like everyone else.”
The bill also provides for the size of the kennel where a dog can stand up normally and turn around and have a solid floor, instead of wire caging. It stipulates that dogs are seen by a vet, that they get nutritious food and that they’re let out of their cages once a day.
Some friends and colleagues have been surprised by Epstein’s crusade, but she says it’s just a part of who she is and not unrelated to her roots in business.
“These are absolutely the same skills I have used as an entrepreneur,” Epstein says. “The being a doer, seeing clearly what the problems are, what the obstacles are, what the solution is and then going out and doing it—it’s the same model.”
When Epstein first brought Toby home, one eye was swollen shut and his white fur was severely discolored with rust and urine stains. He was afraid of everything, even treats, and he didn’t have the muscle development to do simple tasks like climb stairs or lay down comfortably. But now, most signs of his prior life are gone, save the brownish color of his fur, a literal mark of how far he’s come.
“There are people who accept things the way they are, and there are people who it never occurred to them to accept things the way they are,” Epstein says. “I saw this situation, and it was like, ‘No, this is wrong, I need to change this.’ Everything is possible. Especially in America, when you’re on the side of justice.”
How to Avoid Buying from a Puppy Mill
Whether you’re looking for a mutt or pure-breed, lap-dog or jock, here are Epstein’s tips to make sure you’re getting your new playmate from a reputable source.
- Don’t buy over the internet or classified ads unless you visit the site and see the breeding stock. A quality breeder will be proud to show off his facilities.
- Reputable breeders guarantee the health of a dog and will buy back a dog that a vet determines is sick.
- Consider adopting from a shelter or rescue group. The fees are usually much lower, and you can even browse online by breed, age and other characteristics. “There are almost 200,000 dogs in rescue on Petfinder.com,” says Epstein of the website where she found Toby. “No matter what kind of dog you want—even pure breeds—you can find it in rescue.”
Visit UT’s KNOW to watch a video of Epstein discussing both her roles as entrepreneur-in-residence and an animal welfare activist.
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