— Buying an adorable puppy or kitten at your local pet store may become a thing of the past, if more American cities join a small but growing movement to ban retail pet sales.
West Hollywood, Calif., became the latest city to put a leash on pet sales in February, when its city council unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting sales of dogs and cats in retail stores. Albuquerque, N.M., and South Lake Tahoe, Calif., have also banned pet sales. Other cities in Florida, New Mexico, Missouri and elsewhere are considering similar bans on the sale of dogs and cats.
Animal advocates say pet store sales fuel the puppy mill industry, where dogs are bred and raised in cramped, unhealthy and inhumane conditions. They have similar concerns about "kitten factories," which are a smaller but growing problem. Efforts to crack down on animal mills have been hindered by limited enforcement resources, so ban proponents are shifting their focus from the supply side to the demand. Far better, they say, to adopt from a local shelter or buy directly from a reputable breeder.
"People have got to wake up to the fact that [most] dogs coming from pet stores are coming from puppy mills," said Mary Jo Dazey, a stay-at-home mom from St. Louis, Mo., who has been working to shut down puppy mills in her state for several years.
There are no official statistics on how many pet-store dogs come from puppy mills. Between 2 million and 4 million dogs are born in U.S. puppy mills every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and many of those dogs do end up in pet stores — in addition to being sold over the internet, through newspaper classifieds and in other venues.
"Every time we do a pet store investigation [after a complaint], we find that puppy mills are the suppliers," said Stephanie Shain, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States' puppy mills campaign.
Shain said she believes that if animal-lovers became better educated, they wouldn't want to buy from pet stores that may be supplied by puppy mills.
Public sentiment does, in fact, seem to be veering away from pet store animals. A recent poll by the Associated Press-Petside.com found that more than half of those surveyed planned to get their next cat or dog from a shelter, seven times the number who said they’d buy from a pet store. And four in 10 said they thought store pets could have hidden physical or psychological problems due to overbreeding or other issues.
A ‘guilt-free shopping experience’
Of course, in cities with bans in places, even if people want to buy from a pet store, they can't. The West Hollywood pet sale ban got a lot of attention, but it was more symbolic than anything else since no pet stores there were actually selling animals when it went into effect. South Lake Tahoe's ban passed in 2009, but doesn't take effect until 2011.
To see what really happens when a city bans pet sales, you have to go to Albuquerque, N.M. The Southwestern city banned sales of "companion animals," including cats and dogs, in 2006, and has seen a marked, positive effect, said Peggy Weigle, executive director of Animal Humane New Mexico.
Since the ban started, animal adoptions have increased 23 percent and euthanasia at city shelters has decreased by 35 percent.
“By stopping these pet shops,” Weigle said, “what you're really doing is you're reducing the demand for puppy-mill puppies.”
At the same time, Weigle said, her private animal shelter has stepped in to fill the place of pet stores for people who want pets but don't necessarily want to brave the city shelter. In February, Animal Humane New Mexico opened a boutique-style adoption center with just a few hand-picked animals — mostly puppies, many of them pure-bred dogs that were abandoned or rescued by the shelter — so that people could "shop" for shelter dogs in a pleasant, retail-like environment.
Her goal was to adopt out 45 animals in the first month; instead, they placed 118 animals in new homes. Adoptions have been so plentiful, Weigle said, that her organization is preparing to open a second adoption boutique. Weigle said she recently had a young purebred Yorkshire Terrier available for adoption for just $135, the standard adoption fee.
"Many people will say, 'Oh, I just can't go to the shelter, it's just too sad,'" Weigle said. "But if you make a guilt-free shopping experience available, and they don't have to be confronted with 100 homeless pets staring them in the face, the shopping experience is very parallel to a pet store. If you give the public a choice to shop in that kind of an environment, they will."
Focus on breeders instead?
While Albuquerque animal advocates tout their success as a model for other cities, pet store owners argue that it's not fair to take away their livelihood because of a few bad apples. They say puppy-mill and kitten-factory foes should focus instead on cracking down on breeders who are breaking the law.
"The fact of the matter is that puppies sold by pet stores frequently come from highly reputable breeders who provide healthy loving pets to the public," said Michael Maddox, vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, an industry group based in Washington, D.C. "Notwithstanding isolated anecdotal stories that misrepresent pet store puppies, the vast majority of customers who bring home their canine companion from a pet store are supremely satisfied with the experience."
Dana Derraugh, owner of Le Petit Puppy in New York City, says she hates puppy mills as much as any animal lover. She specializes in small breeds suited to city life, and sells about five dogs a week from her upscale shop in Greenwich Village.
"When you go to a shelter, you don't know what you're going to get. A lot of them have emotional baggage. You're taking a risk," Derraugh said. Her clean, homey store, decorated with photos of celebrity clients like Sarah Jessica Parker, sells Pomeranians for $699, Chihuahuas for $799, and something she calls a "Chiweenie" — a Chihuahua-Daschund cross — for $950.
She gives her cell phone number to clients, so they can call anytime with questions or worries about their new puppies. "I feel like my mission is not just to sell the dog, but to hold your hand," Derraugh said.
She said she buys only from reputable breeders, though she declined to name them or say where they are located. Derraugh said eliminating pet store sales would hurt consumers by reducing competition: "The prices will go way up, there will be less puppies."
Laura Ellis, who bred collies on her farm in Vermont for 30 years before moving to New York City, said Derraugh is an example of a dog store owner who gets it right. She bought her Papillion, Penny, from Le Petit Puppy in October after researching every conceivable option.
While she understands why some people might want to rescue a dog from a shelter, that wasn't what she was looking for, and she makes no apologies for it.
"I don't want other people's problems. I just wanted to start fresh," Ellis said.
"The main thing is, [Le Petit’s] puppies are happy. They're high quality, well run, humane. I don't see what there is to complain about," Ellis said. "It's a pretty good life for a puppy."