Thirty-seven of the 40 Chicago aldermen who comprise the City Council have signed on as co-sponsors of the Companion Animal & Consumer Protection Ordinance that would ban the sale of mill-bred dogs and cats in Chicago pet stores. If passed, which seems likely, Chicago would follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, Toronto, and about 40 other U.S. and Canadian municipalities.
Headlines like this one from the Chicago Sun-Times make my heart sing: “Ban ‘puppy mill’ dogs from pet stores, city clerk urges.” I believe Best Friends was instrumental in redefining the battle ground with puppy mills from isolated farms in rural America to point-of-sale disruption of the pet trade with concerted, sustained, store-front action – in the nicest possible way, of course!
In 2007, when I was the newly installed head of Best Friends Community Programs and Services Division, I pulled together my staff to identify how we would use our finite resources to make the most impact on the issue of homeless pets. There was a lot of brainstorming and many gallons of coffee. We identified what we felt were the four streams of animals entering shelters at a disproportionately high rate and set about designing initiatives that would have an impact on each. One of those was puppy mills. About 25 percent of dogs in America’s shelters are purebred, and most are sourced from puppy mills.
For decades, the focus of animal welfare was on the cruelty of puppy mills. Periodic undercover investigations by one or another national agency would be picked up by a major news outlet, and a shocking exposé would follow, but little was ever done to shut the mills down. Those few consumers who took note would dutifully ask the sales person if their puppies were from a puppy mill, and they would invariably be told, “Oh no, they’re from a USDA-licensed breeder.” Reassured, the buyer would take home a puppy mill dog, because any but the most rancid puppy mill operations can operate within the regulations established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as can most factory farms.
Puppies, in the world of the USDA and most state ag departments, are just another agricultural product. Chickens, cows, corn, soybeans, pigs, puppies, kittens – they’re all viewed as the same. No disrespect to chickens, cows and pigs – factory farming is a blight in all its forms, but we saw a chance to make progress for two species based on the public’s affection for their pets and a consumer’s reasonable expectation that a dog or cat who was an intended member of their family that they were paying top dollar for would not be bred, born, whelped and weaned in a hell hole.
Per USDA regulations, a dog the size of a beagle can spend its entire life in a cage the size of dishwasher without ever putting its feet on the ground. They are bred until they die or become barren, and then they are killed, dumped in a shelter, or in some cases tossed into fields as fertilizer for other farm crops.
It is precisely this unbelievable, behind-the-scenes cruelty that has focused animal welfare’s attention on the mills, but it was apparent that this strategy was a loser. Ag-friendly legislators were never going to open the door for activists to make inroads into factory farming, even at the puppy mill level. The best that could be accomplished was incremental improvements in the regulations, which were ultimately only as effective as shrinking state and federal budgets could enforce.
We weren’t really interested in incremental change; we wanted the entire despicable business to be gone, and we knew that the only way to do that was to eliminate demand – the good old marketplace at work.
Our strategy has involved three integrated components: organizing information-based pet store protests that let the buyer know where the puppy in the window came from, helping animal-loving pet store owners make the transition to an adoption-based humane pet store model, and working with city councils to draft municipal ordinances that ban the sale of mill-bred dogs, cats, and, in some cases, rabbits – the third highest killed shelter species.
Best Friends puppy mill initiatives national manager, Elizabeth Oreck, has been a contributor to the majority of the over 40 municipal ordinances banning the sale of mill-bred pets, either as a contributing author or as a consultant. Elizabeth is a behind-the-scenes gal, and doesn’t like accolades or the spotlight, but for puppy mill animals, she is a rock star.
For Chicago to ban puppy mill sales is a big deal, and kudos should go to the puppy mill project – Chicago, Chicago city clerk Susana Mendoza, and the Chicago City Council.
Chief Marketing and Communications Officer
Best Friends Animal Society