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Bill to ban sale of some animals at pet stores gains momentum

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris , sponsor of the bill to ban some pet store sales, at news conference with rescue dogs Kerouac and Watson
Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris , sponsor of the bill to ban some pet store sales, at news conference with rescue dogs Kerouac and Watson

A bill in the state Legislature to ban the sale of some animals, including puppies and kittens, at pet stores is gaining support.

Backers say it’s a way to put the notorious puppy mills out of business. But some independent pet store owners say they are being unfairly punished for the unethical practices of others.

The bill, which was approved in the state Senate’s Domestic Animal Welfare Committee, would end selling dogs, cats and rabbits at pet stores. Sen. Michael Gianaris, who is the bill’s sponsor, said it’s necessary because too many of New York’s pet stores rely on animals from poorly regulated, out-of-state puppy mills.

He said animals there are mistreated, kept in windowless cages and are often sick.

“The unsanitary conditions and ways in which these animals are kept is cruel and inhumane,” said Gianaris.

He said breeding mother dogs are sometimes subjected to “summary executions” -- in some cases, shot in the head -- when they are no longer useful to the breeders at the mills.

Assembly sponsor Linda Rosenthal said the bill is also gaining momentum in her house of the Legislature. She said the dogs, cats and rabbits in the pet stores “live terrible lives.”

And she said there’s no shortage of animals to adopt from shelters and pet rescue efforts instead.

“There are so many adoptable animals in New York state right now,” said Rosenthal, adding that they cost far less money.

“People will be able to see animals that are loving, deserve a home, and all you have to pay is an adoption fee,” she said.

Libby Post with the New York State Animal Protection Federation, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s animal shelters, brought two rescue dogs, Kerouac and Watson, with her to the news conference. She said the shelters are happy to work with pet shop owners to arrange adoption clinics at their stores.

“The way to do this is to rebrand pet stores as humane businesses that work locally with their animal shelters to find forever homes for these animals,” Post said.

People would also still be able to buy a pet directly from a breeder.

Supporters say it won’t hurt pet shops because animal purchases make up just 2 to 4% of their sales; the rest is food and paraphernalia, including toys and even outfits. 

But some independent pet store owners who oppose the bill say they don’t buy from puppy mills, and treat their animals well.

David Jacobi employs 25 people in his two shops and a doggy day care center in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. He said he knows the breeders he buys from and can vouch for their high standards.

And he disputed the claim that just a small percent of sales come from the selling of animals.

“Wrong, it’s 80%,” Jacobi said. “We would be out of business in a week.”

And he said many more owners now buy pet food and other supplies directly online.

“My food business has dropped,” said Jacobi, who blames Amazon and other online services. “Nobody goes into a store unless it’s a last-minute thing. The only time people buy something is when they purchase the animal.”

The lobby group for chain pet stores, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said in a statement that the bill is well-intentioned but misguided, and it risks “punishing responsible breeders and putting locally owned pet stores out of business and putting at risk legal protections for both animals and consumers that are currently in place.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked about the measure at an unrelated event on Sunday.

“I’ve heard nothing about it, but you’re right, it does sound a little silly,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s office later clarified that the governor was trying to be lighthearted in response to a reporter’s question and did not know the details of the bill.

Spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement that “of course” Cuomo -- a dog owner who often posts photos of his dog, Captain -- is interested in “any proposal that would better protect pets.”

“We’ll review this legislation in consultation with the state’s top kibble and chew toy advocate, Captain,” Azzopardi said.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.