Candace Croney joined the faculty at Purdue University in 2011, thinking her job would focus on the welfare of livestock and poultry in Indiana. With bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in animal sciences, her work until then had centered on sheep, cattle, and pigs. She'd even had the esteemed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin help shape her master's research project.
Croney's research has become the first of its kind in the world—and it's challenging our understanding of how dog breeding is being done.
Then came an email from a new colleague asking Croney to discuss animal welfare with some of Indiana's commercial dog breeders, the kind who produce large quantities of puppies for sale in pet stores.
"I didn't even know the term commercial breeders," Croney says. "I'd heard the term 'puppy millers.' That's pretty much what I knew."
She went to the first few kennels and braced herself for an upsetting experience. She's a dog lover who has fostered shelter mutts and owned one, and she'd seen the stories: large-scale breeders being called cruel and evil, lawmakers trying to ban the sale of commercially bred puppies, and constant encouragement to rescue a dog instead of paying into a greedy, heartless "puppy mill" industry.
But when she got to the kennels, she was surprised. While she encountered a number of things she didn't like about the infrastructure at the older facilities—a lack of ventilation, a lot of noise, bad smells—most of the dogs themselves were clean. The majority didn't have physical problems. No open sores. No battered bodies. Nothing like what she'd seen online.
But still, the way the dogs acted gave her pause.
"Things were, in many regards, better than I thought they would be," Croney says. "Google told me the dogs would be physically a mess, and they weren't, but behaviorally, things were jumping out at me."
While she did note that some of the breeders had play yards for their pups, a number of the dogs feared new people and things like leashes because they hadn't been exposed to enough of them. Some of the dogs also seemed to lack adequate toys, activities, and games to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.
But she was there strictly as a representative of the university to ask questions and offer feedback, no more or less. A few times, she says, she felt like the breeders wanted her to endorse what they were doing, "and I immediately got my back up about that. I did not want my name used to validate things that I could tell I didn't agree with. It was uncomfortable from that perspective."
After sharing the animal-welfare information her colleague had requested, Croney figured that was that. She never expected to be in a commercial kennel again. But six months later, her phone rang. Some of the people she'd met were involved in legislative lobbying, and they were trying to write welfare standards for Indiana's commercial breeders to follow.
In the continuing battle over what is, and is not, a "puppy mill," they wanted somebody with a strong research background to set a baseline standard, somebody who would actually bring objectivity to the breeder-activist conflict without being on one side or the other.
In other words, they wanted Croney's help to figure out not only appropriate enclosure sizes, but also requirements for socialization and enrichment activities—stimulation she knew the dogs desperately needed.
"I thought, crap, how am I not going to help?" she recalls. "And they said, 'Well how long will that take? A couple of weeks? A month?'"
Dr. Croney with Theo, whom she calls "a beloved family member of our research team."
(Photo credit: Purdue University/Vincent Walter)
Six years later, Croney's research remains ongoing. It has become the first of its kind in the world—and it's challenging our understanding of how dog breeding is being done, and how it could and should be done for years to come.
How We Got Here
Americans have been breeding pet dogs in large-scale kennels since World War II. The federal standard that regulates those kennels is the Animal Welfare Act, which President Johnson signed into law in 1966. Back then, people thought it was OK to treat dogs a lot differently than they do today. The law has been updated, but it still allows a dog the size of a Beagle to be kept in a cage the size of a dishwasher all day, every day because for some dogs, when the law was written, having a cage that size meant an improvement in living conditions.
Countless commercial breeders, who are regularly inspected under the Animal Welfare Act, have long believed that as long as they followed the law, they were doing things right. And they've seen sales for their puppies go up and up over the years. About 38 percent of U.S. households now own one or more dogs, the highest rate since the American Veterinary Medical Association began measuring the statistic in 1982.
Consumers now demand eight million dogs per year, which has reinforced breeders' beliefs that despite what activists shout at protests, the breeders are actually running businesses the public supports. As one Ohio commercial breeder—long decried by activists as a "puppy mill" owner—told The Washington Post in 2016, "This is a customer-driven industry. If we weren't satisfying the customer, we'd starve to death. I've never seen prices like the ones we're seeing now, in my whole career."
That breeder, though, is also among leading industry voices who say they understand that public perception of what's acceptable and what's not in a breeding kennel has changed. Regardless of what the laws are, they say, kennels must change along with the public's wishes if the commercial breeding industry is going to survive. The question is how, exactly, to move from the past to the future, at a time when demands for change have reached a fever pitch.
"The Animal Welfare Act, that was gospel. It meant you were taking care of dogs," says Bob Vetere, former head of the American Pet Products Association and now chairman of the Pet Leadership Council. "That was, what, 40 years ago? Things have evolved. People understand much more since then—and back then, there were maybe 20 million dogs in the country. Now, there's 90 million. It's that dramatic. People love their dogs, and everybody is going to get one."
Vetere became an early supporter of Croney's research, which, unbelievably, became the first ever to focus on what it actually means to run a good commercial breeding kennel. At the start of her research, Croney found that the scientific literature underpinning many existing laws and opinions was not just lacking, but outright nonexistent.
"We kept finding it over and over," she says of the literature gaps, citing common but uninformed beliefs about appropriate kennel size as just one example. "I can't find any research about how much space they're supposed to have. People said, 'Yeah, we had a meeting and a bunch of people made some recommendations.'"
She started filling in the research gaps with her team at Purdue, building relationships with dog breeders until she had more than 100 kennels letting her methodically figure out what was actually working for the dogs.
"The measurable successes in animal welfare over the past 50 years began from a foundation in science."
Creating Standards from Scratch
Other industry players soon took notice. One was Ed Sayres, who had served as CEO of the ASPCA for nearly a decade before turning his attention to lobbying efforts regarding the "puppy mill" issue. He recognized that what Croney was doing for commercial breeding mirrored the early work researchers started a half-century ago in the effort that led to better shelters all across America today.
"The measurable successes in animal welfare over the past 50 years began from a foundation in science," Sayres says. "Whether it was the transition to more humane euthanasia methods or how to manage dog and cat overpopulation, we found success from rigorous examination of facts and emerging science."
Sayres, Vetere, and others began pushing for the industry to support Croney's work, moving the goalposts beyond Indiana to the entire United States.
"If you don't have commercial breeding, you have people importing dogs from overseas with no restrictions, or farming in their backyards to make money," Vetere says. "You need commercial breeders with standards—and that's what Candace is trying to create, those standards."
Croney ended up with a $900,000 grant from three industry organizations: the World Pet Association, Pet Food Institute, and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. With their support, she created a nationwide program called Canine Care Certified, like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for a kennel. The program focuses on outcome-based standards, meaning she looks at what the dogs tell her about how well they are doing through their health and behavior. For the most part, beyond baseline requirements, the program lets a breeder achieve those goals in whatever ways work for the dogs.
The approach is different from many legislative efforts, with laws stating a cage must be made three feet larger to be considered humane. Instead, Croney walks through kennels with breeders and points out, for instance, which puppies in a litter seem to be shy or fearful, and then teaches the breeders how to give those puppies better socialization. She helps the breeders find ways to introduce dogs to strangers and objects like umbrellas that may not be part of regular kennel life, but will need to become familiar when the breeding dog retires and gets adopted into a home as a pet. She helps breeders understand that dogs need mental as well as physical stimulation, whether it comes from playing with balls and toys or running up and down slides.
The breeders can't learn fast enough, Croney says, and she remains stunned at how they constantly ask for more information—an attitude that made her stop using the term "puppy mill" to describe them at all.
"Now, full disclosure: Given that all of these kennels had volunteered, the odds were that we were seeing a skewed population, and that it skewed positive," she says. "But if you read what was in the media at the time, we shouldn't have been able to find any. We're told that all these kennels are terrible. Clearly, it was possible to get a positive outcome."
To Buy or Not to Buy?
Today, she says, she's shocked at how quickly some of the kennels have improved. Facilities that appalled her at first sight now have dogs greeting people with wagging tails.
"Not only would I get a dog from them, but would I put my dog there in that kennel temporarily? Yeah, I would."
"The most horrifying thing I learned was that some of these people weren't doing what I'd like to see, not because they didn't care or only wanted money, but because nobody had ever told them," she says. "As it turned out, they didn't know any different, and no one would help them."
For Americans who want to know whether it's OK to get a commercially bred puppy, Croney says she thinks about her own dogs. When she started working with the breeders, there were plenty of kennels that, she says, she would not have wanted to patronize. But now she's changing her mind about more and more of them.
"I'm just speaking as somebody who loves dogs and wants to make sure I'm not subsidizing anything inhumane or cruel," she says. "Not only would I get a dog from them, but would I put my dog there in that kennel temporarily? Yeah, I would."
She says the most important thing is for consumers to find out how a pup was raised, and how the pup's parents were raised. As with most industries, commercial breeders run the gamut, from barely legal to above and beyond.
Not everyone agrees with Croney's take on the situation, or with her approach to improving commercial breeding kennels. In its publication "Puppy Mills and the Animal Welfare Act," the Humane Society of the United States writes that while Croney's Canine Care Certified program supports "common areas of agreement" with animal-welfare lobbyists, her work has been funded by the pet industry—suggesting that it's impure—and a voluntary program is not enough to incentivize breeders to improve.
New laws, the Humane Society states, must be enacted to impose change: "Many commercial dog breeding operators will not raise their standards voluntarily, and even if they were to agree to do so it is not clear whether there would be any independent mechanism for enforcement or transparency for the public's sake. ... The logical conclusion is that improved standards must be codified."
Croney says that type of attitude has long created resentment between breeders and animal-welfare activists, as opposed to actual kennel improvements. Both sides have a point; for years, there have been examples of bottom-of-the-barrel kennels that changed their ways or shut down only after regulators smacked them with violations, or after lawmakers raised operating standards in ways that required improvements for the kennels to remain legally in business.
At the same time, though, powerful organizations including the Humane Society—which had revenue of more than $165 million in 2018 alone—have routinely pushed for bans on stores that sell commercially bred puppies, and have decried "puppy mills" in marketing and fund-raising literature, without offering financial grants or educational programs to kennels that are willing to improve.
Croney believes that the reflexive demonization of all commercial breeders is a mistake. Change is more effective, she says, when breeders "want to do better, want to learn, want to grow, and you treat them as advocates and allies in doing something good for animal welfare, as opposed to treating them like they're your enemies."
"If you're watching undercover videos about people treating animals in bad ways, I'm telling you, change is happening."
She adds that anyone who says all commercial breeders are "puppy mills" needs to take a look at the kennels she's seen and the changes her work has brought—and is continuing to bring.
"The ones we work with are working really, really hard to improve and open their doors so that if somebody wants to get a dog from them, they can be assured that those dogs were treated with a level of care and compassion that wasn't there five or 10 years ago, but that is there now and will be better in a year and will be much better in five years," she says. "If you're watching undercover videos about people treating animals in bad ways, I'm telling you, change is happening. It is so much better than people realize, and it continues to get even better yet."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."