updated 05/24/2013 AT 10:00 AM ET
•originally published 05/30/2013 AT 12:25 PM ET
Deborah Howard was on her way into an Atlanta mall in November 1989 when she passed by a pet shop displaying adorable puppies in the window.
After stepping inside for a closer look, she realized what she was seeing wasn’t so adorable after all.
“There were sick puppies, dirty cages and one Labrador retriever had this cut on his leg that he was pressing against the wire of the cage,” says Howard, 53, who now lives in Cohasset, Mass.
“I knew something had to be done,” she says.
So, one year later she founded the Companion Animal Protection Society, which focuses on investigation of abuse and has helped rescue about one hundred dogs from inhumane puppy mills, breeders and pet shops all over the nation.
She admits it’s tough to see all these abused animals.
“When I started doing this, I used to cry,” she says, “but I’ve learned to become a little detached. If not, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”
She started out small, first enlisting the help of a kennel worker to go undercover at a Docktor Pet Center store in Atlanta.
“He’d get there at six in the morning and find puppies dead in the freezer,” she says.
Once they gathered the gruesome footage, Howard contacted producers at 20/20, and in 1990 an investigative report aired, exposing the horrors of animal cruelty.
“Docktor Pet Centers went bankrupt in February of 1993,” she says, “due to our protesting and all of the publicity.”
Howard’s group also partners with rescue groups and humane societies to help find homes for the neglected dogs.
Clare Smith, 71, adopted Marina, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, from the Paws and Claws Humane Society in Rochester, Minn., in 1999 after Howard’s group rescued her from a local pet store.
Her “knees and shallow hip sockets were causing her walking problems,” Smith says. “She was confined to a cage and reportedly could only walk on three legs.”
Two knee surgeries and 14 years later, Marina is still alive – and flourishing.
“We are blessed to have Marina,” says Smith, of Rochester, Minn. “We need many Deborahs to stop these money-mongers who abuse these innocent ones.”
Howard knows this joy firsthand.
Among her own five rescue pets is Beatrice, a 10-year-old basset hound who had pneumonia and glaucoma and was rescued from a South Dakota pet store in 2003.
“She looked so pathetic,” says Howard, who once owned her own public relations agency but now works with CAPS full time. “She just nudged a place in my heart,” says Howard.
“Most are coming from puppy mills,” says Howard.
For model and rescue dog owner Kiley Wirtz Jennings, it’s a message she’s happy to spread.
“Deborah’s work has informed me,” she says, “and I just wanted to help shed light in some way.”
Though the job can be emotionally draining at times, Howard says it’s all worth it.
“You can just see the absolute joy that the dogs feel when they’ve been liberated,” she says. “The know they’ve been rescued.”
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