As we drove towards Ripley, MS, I really didn’t believe the Monday Trade Market could be as it was described by several area shelter directors. They had to be exaggerating.
Nancy and I surveyed the barren landscape of the drive between TN and Ripley, MS and joked on Facebook – “We’re headed to Ripley- believe it or not.”
When we arrived at the market, we missed the first entrance and turned in the next, which happened to be the dealer’s entrance. At the attendant’s booth, we learned that a spot in the dog lot was $5 a day (unless you had a trailer and then it was $8, or if you had merchandise or poultry in addition to your dog then it’s a whopping $10). We explained our mistake, told her we had no dogs to sell, and turned around to go back to the other entrance.
After we parked, we took a moment just to watch the people streaming out of the enormous outdoor market with chickens under their arms and bags of pork rinds. It reminded me of a country fair, minus the rides and the music. We have been toying with creating a podcast, so we recorded a few minutes of our reaction and thoughts and then climbed out of the Jeep and headed into the chaos.
I’d purposely not worn a shirt that said anything about rescue on it and kept my notebook and pen in my bag, not wanting anyone to think I was writing about them, judging them. Nancy hesitated with her camera, taking sly pictures here and there to capture the scene.
But soon enough, we both realized that no one cared if we took their picture, asked pointed questions, or planned to write about them. To their minds, this was just the monthly market, like all the ones before. In fact, this particular market has been around for 125 years.
We walked along the rows of booths, tables, and pick up trucks selling pretty much anything you could ever want and I asked Nancy to snap a picture of the Dewalt tools for sale to send to my husband.
Soon, though, we spotted a young couple with a tiny puppy. The young woman cradled the blue pitbull puppy that couldn’t have been more than four weeks old. Much too young to be away from its mother and siblings. She snuggled it against her side as her boyfriend tried out rifles at a booth, checking their sights. Nancy aimed her camera at them and she repeatedly turned away, probably the only camera-shy person we would meet that day.
Next, we stopped at a booth that was selling Aussie-doodle puppies for $600. They were crowded in a small metal cage and fought with each other likely out of boredom. Two little nondescript puppies in the next cage, ‘Boston Terrier-Chihuahua mix,’ were only $100. Below them in a cage, curled up in the hay, was what looked like an adult King Charles Cavalier. He starred at me blankly when I offered him a treat. Next to him was a grey scruffy dog who barely had enough room to sit upright.
The woman asked if we wanted to hold a puppy and I declined but asked how old the puppies were. Seven weeks.
We walked away and I wondered if they were vaccinated, where their littermates had gone, whether anyone who handled the puppies that day had also handled an unvaccinated dog. I thought of the puppies I fostered at my house. At seven weeks they would only have had one vaccination; I would never let anyone touch them who hadn’t washed their hands. I wouldn’t let one of those puppies leave my house, let alone be plopped down in an enormous market full of grabby strangers and unfamiliar animals.
Next, we met two Rottweiler puppies in the back of a pick-up truck. They were large and curious about us.
One of them had a small bald spot on his head that looked suspiciously like Demodex mange and I wondered what that puppy might look like in a few days after his new owners got him home and he’d been subjected to even more stress. I tried to ask about the puppies—how old they were and the odd spot but the men didn’t speak English and just shrugged at me.
We moved on to a gentleman parked in a folding chair beside a small puppy pen where two tiny shepherd puppies lounged on a filthy piece of foam. One of the puppies had a long scar down one side of his rib cage where the hair parted and red skin flared. The man told me they were seven-week-old purebred German Shepherd puppies.
Now, I’ve never seen a purebred German Shepherd puppy, but I’m pretty certain that at seven weeks, they would weigh much more than seven or eight pounds which would be a generous estimation of these puppies. As if to verify his claim, the man showed me fuzzy pictures of ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ on his cell phone—scrawny dogs cowering behind chainlink fences.
He told me that the boy pup was $175 and the girl was $200. Again, I know nothing about German Shepherds, but I imagine that purebred German Shepherd costs much more than $200. Nancy snapped pictures as we talked. He asked if I’d like to hold one and I declined, not wanting to further stress those puppies or possibly carry any kind of germs from them to the next puppies we saw. A moment later, two little girls approached and asked if they could hold the puppies, the man said, “Nah, you might drop ‘em.”
We spoke briefly with a colorful woman selling pot-belly pigs who told us she hoped to sell enough of them to pay for one of the beautiful blue mastiffs for sale up the row, a “Harry Potter dog,” she called it.
We went in search of the mastiffs and found them romping around in the back of a pickup. The couple selling them said they were Italian mastiffs and were eleven weeks old. They looked much healthier than the other puppies we saw, although later as Nancy studied the pictures she noted their runny eyes.
Beside the mastiff puppies, were three English Bulldog puppies for sale — $1500 each. They were adorable with their smooshed faces and fat bellies.
Beside them were two white German Shepherd puppies.
All of the puppies were eleven weeks old and when I commented on how much work that must be to care for so many large puppies in one house, they informed me that they had three more litters at home.
I wasn’t sure what to think of the whole scene—puppies being sold side by side with Chinese copy sunglasses, tube-socks, baseball hats, and funnel cake, but what truly broke my heart was the last booth we stopped to visit.
A skinny, older man with a wind-burned face had four dogs tied up on chains or ropes. Three were unrelated older puppies – all ‘purebreds’ that looked nothing like any particular breed he mentioned. The other was the mother of one of the dogs. They were each $50, except the ‘Great Pyrenees’ which was $100.
I asked where the dogs came from and he told me he’d bought them off a friend on Friday night, but assured me they were all real nice dogs. He picked up the ‘border collie’ and held it out to me to pet. The puppy had dull eyes and didn’t react when I fingered his ear.
I asked if they’d been vaccinated and he said, “Oh, yeah, they had a puppy pack from Tractor Supply.” When I asked if any of the animals had been spayed or neutered, he laughed and said, “They’re all-natural dogs.”
We talked for a few minutes; he had lived in the county where I currently reside in Pennsylvania and we traded a few notes. Then he said he was packing up soon.
I asked what would happen to these dogs if no one bought them and he shook his head and muttered, “Something will happen to them.”
When he registered my reaction, he laughed again and said, “I’m not no puppy-killer. Somebody will come get ‘em. People know I got puppies.”
“Will you bring them back again next month?” I asked.
He mumbled something and shook his head, and then pointed out the horse he was also selling. It stood beside the makeshift pen that corralled the mama and puppy who were chained up. The horse was saddled in case someone wanted to give it a try or maybe to hide the swayed back and prominent ribs. The horse’s hip bones stuck out sharply above his sunken flank. He hadn’t moved an inch in the time we were standing there nor reached to eat anything from the small pile of bleached hay in front of him.
This whole scene—the desperate man who obviously felt no remorse about the condition of his animals or their futures, only seeing them for the few bucks he could make; the sad dogs who never uttered a peep (the ‘great Pyrenees’ never even opened his eyes while we stood there); and that horse so obviously on his last legs—it felt like it was out of a movie. It didn’t seem real. When would the hero ride in and save these animals?
I don’t know which is more upsetting about all of it- the fact that nothing we saw was illegal in the state of Mississippi or that the people selling these animals and the people strolling the lanes thought there was nothing wrong with any of it.
It feels surreal and this is only the start of our week. We have more than a dozen more visits to make. This market was really just a curiosity stop. I heard about it and had to see it for myself. There was nothing we could do here; no way to help any of these animals. And maybe that was the most disturbing part. Even if our Powerball ticket had hit the night before and we could have bought every animal, what would that do? It would just reward these people who see an animal as no different than a rifle or an ‘I’m a Mississippi Girl’ t-shirt—a way to make a buck.
I don’t have an answer. These images will follow me around all week as we talk to shelter directors and rescue workers and listen to their stories, maybe helping us understand what they are up against in this southern culture.
I want to believe that we are better than this. That the people buying and selling dogs at the market in Ripley are simply ignorant. That if they knew better they would do better.
Until every cage is empty,
Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is an initiative of Operation Paws for Homes. If you’d like to contribute to our work, we encourage you to click on the how to help link above and give directly to a shelter. You can also donate to our work via OPH’s donation page by designating Who Will Let the Dogs Out in your comments.
My upcoming book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, July 7, 2020) tells the story of not only our foster experience but how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. A portion of proceeds of every book sold will go to help unwanted animals in the south. It is available for preorder now.