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You may notice something different about many neighborhood pet stores these days. While most offer a variety of products and services, fewer are offering animals for sale. Many neighborhood pet boutiques now work with local shelters and rescues hosting adoption events or even fostering pets in the store. And some pet stores that used to sell animals have now gone humane and switched to adoption models only.

The changes are largely a result of consumer groups and animal advocates shining the spotlight on the connection between puppy mills and pet stores. Businesses have been subject to protests, consumer fraud complaints, and lawsuits—as well as new laws forcing them to change the way they do business or be held responsible when they sell sick pets to consumers.

Currently, 37 cities in the United States have passed laws prohibiting the sale of cats, dogs, and/or rabbits in pet stores In the Chicago area, four stores have made the switch.

“Every year, 4 to 6 million cats and dogs die in shelters simply because they don’t have a home,” says Cari Meyers, founder of The Puppy Mill Project. Her group has worked with three of the stores that switched to a humane model. “In the meantime, millions of puppies are born in commercial breeding operations better known as puppy mills. These dogs are bred over and over in inhumane conditions with little regard for the health or socialization of the breeding parents or puppies.”

The Puppy Mill Project and other local organizations have been hitting the pavement over the past several years to educate people on the pet store/puppy mill connection through protests and other non-violent methods. Naperville, home to many animal-selling stores, has been ground zero for their efforts.

In 2011, the group honed in on Dog Patch Pet & Feed, Naperville’s oldest pet store. After a heated phone exchange between Meyers and Dog Patch’s owner Greg Gordon, the two parties realized they were actually on the same page. Gordon had already started to adopt out dogs and cats, but his efforts stalled when rescues refused to work with him while he still sold animals. After that conversation, Meyers connected him with a rescue partner.

“When we made the commitment to change to all rescue, things began to change,” Gordon says. “This is not an easy road to go. There are pitfalls all along the way. We started off losing a fair amount of money on each animal, but the learning curve was a short one and we got our feet under us pretty quickly.”

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 2.09.49 PMWhile many stores focus on weekend adoption events or have outside groups run their rescue programs, Gordon and his staff were eager to take the lead. Passionate about matching pets with families and building longer-term relationships for the store, Gordon expanded their efforts and created an official adoption program himself.

For the past year, his rescue partner has been Bernie Berlin of A Place to Bark. She pulls pets from high-kill shelters in Tennessee and transports them to areas with more potential adopters.

“In 2012, we sent home 190 dogs and puppies. In 2013, we fell just short of 400 dogs and puppies for the year,” Gordon says. “Cats are moving well also––we sent home over 100 for the year. I am very proud of this work, [and] working with Bernie Berlin has been the best. We have hit a groove and just keep improving our consistency and our numbers. My goal is to adopt out over 500 dogs and puppies next year. I think it can be done.”

Gordon and Berlin have been spreading the word by teaming up to speak about their experiences at national trade shows. Both also make themselves available to work with any store that is interested in moving away from dealing with the puppy mills and brokers and into a humane model.

“I get calls all the time from rescues that want to set up a retail store and are asking for advice or from stores that are interested in the humane pet store model,” Gordon adds. “It seems to me that there is a bunch of interest but not much in the way of action. Many store owners would rather get out of handling animals altogether than fight with rescues or find a rescue to work with. It’s frustrating for me [to see] because I know it can work.”

While Dog Patch has garnered positive national attention, the remaining Chicago-area stores that choose to stick with selling live animals from commercial breeders continue to be the focus of bad publicity and much more. Happiness Is Pets was targeted in a consumer fraud suit after selling puppies sick with distemper two years ago. Since then, several people who also purchased puppies with health issues have joined the suit. The Companion Animal Protection Society has been protesting daily outside of The Puppy Parlor in Lisle–a pet store that, according to the Humane Society of the United States, allegedly runs a makeshift puppy breeding operation in their back room.

A two-year investigation by The Puppy Mill Project culminated in a consumer fraud lawsuit filed against Furry Babies in Naperville this past June. The store is accused of wrongfully claiming its puppies come from reputable breeders when in fact they were from puppy mills. Petland has also received negative publicity about the quality of the puppies they sell and how they are cared for in the store.

Rescuer Bernie Berlin pulls animals from high-risk shelters and brings them to places like Dog Patch for adoption.

Rescuer Bernie Berlin pulls animals from high-risk shelters and brings them to places like Dog Patch for adoption.

As of January 1, 2014, all pet stores in Illinois that sell puppies and kittens are being held more accountable for their animals. The Puppy Lemon Law allows pet parents to get a full refund or replacement from the store if they buy an animal who dies within 21 days. They can also get a new pet or be reimbursed for the cost of veterinary care if they keep the animal and a veterinarian determines he/she was sick at the time of purchase.

“Last year we sent a letter to every pet store in the state selling dogs and cats and volunteered to help them go humane by connecting them to the rescues in their area. We got no responses,” Meyers says. “They clearly are not interested in going humane, so we’ll be reviving the protests this spring.”

“Good or bad, store owners are fighting for their survival,” Gordon says. “I understand both sides here––change comes when people are ready and you can’t force it. Dialogue will make the difference, not threats. I tell stores all the time that it can work, but you can’t do both [sell and adopt]––you won’t get support of the rescues and community until you move past pet sales and go full force with adoption.”

Gordon says Dog Patch breaks even on adoptions, but he sleeps much better at night knowing the number of dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens whose lives have been saved. In addition, the store gained new customers from adopters and rescue groups who would not shop in his store when he sold puppies. There is also the benefit of increased sales from adopters who need supplies such as leashes, food, and bowls for their newest four-legged family member.

“Pet stores make a lot of money from puppies they purchase from brokers and puppy mills,” Meyers says. “It’s scary, especially in our current economy, to lose that amount of revenue. We get that. Our goal is not to put them out of business. But, the breeders that are producing these puppies are so inhumane. It’s cruelty at its worse and it needs to stop. There are so many pets who just need a second chance.”

In the meantime, puppy mills continue to operate legally in this country. While efforts are underway to change laws and shut them down, it’s not easy. There’s a strong agricultural lobby, and USDA inspectors have little power to actually close down breeders, even those who are operating under deplorable conditions.

However, there are many municipalities that have successfully outlawed the sale of companion animals. Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the first to put this law into action. Since Albuquerque’s ban on the sale of pets in pet stores went into effect in August 2007, there has been a 35 percent decrease in shelter euthanasia and a 23 percent increase in adoptions, according to Best Friends Animal Society. Although other factors may impact those numbers as well, it’s a huge swing in the right direction.

Los Angeles and San Diego are the largest cities to implement the ban, Phoenix the most recent. Hopefully, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs will soon follow suit.

Kathy Mordini is an animal lover who has counted rescue pets as a member of her family since she was a child. As a writer, she is passionate about advocating for homeless pets and the rescues that give these pets a second chance. She also volunteers for The Puppy Mill Project. She also blogs about pet rescue and trends for ChicagoNow.

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