A Phoenix ordinance against puppy-mill pet stores upheld in U.S. District Court this week punishes the wrong people, critics declare.
While the court ruled that the city of Phoenix can keep its ordinance — which the Humane Society of the United States celebrated as a landmark victory for the animal rights world and a blow to the pet industry — others say the decision came at the cost of meaningful change.
"Rather than improving breeding conditions and decreasing shelter overpopulation, the ‘burden of this ordinance will fall hard’ on a responsible pet store and the reputable breeders who raise their puppies," Mike Bober, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said in a statement released today. And "the overarching question remains – is singling out and banning an exemplary local business smart public policy or the best way to achieve the goal we all share? The facts say no."
Like dozens of cities across the country, Phoenix passed an anti-puppy-mill ordinance in December 2013 so that pet stores and dealers could sell dogs and cats obtained only from “an animal shelter, nonprofit humane society, or nonprofit animal-rescue organization.” The purpose of the law was two-fold: crack down on inhumane breeding practices and reduce the euthanasia rate for homeless animals by steering people toward shelters and rescues when they want to get an animal.
Phoenix wasn't alone in doing this. In the past few years, dozens of cities and municipalities have passed similar ordinances, often with the support or direct help of the national Humane Society. These laws were widely applauded by animal rights organizations across the country and went unchallenged in the courts until the pet store chain Puppies ‘N Love, which has a store in Paradise Valley Mall, sued the city over it.
As soon as the lawsuit was filed, all eyes were on Phoenix. Because this was the first place where the ordinance was challenged, the outcome, many assumed, would be precedent-setting. In fact, the stakes were high enough that four major companies within the pet industry threw their weight into the game and contributed $125,000 in legal fees to Puppies ‘N Love, and the HSUS filed to join the lawsuit.
Puppies ‘N Love owners Frank and Vickie Mineo stated in a press release last year that they "appreciate the support of the industry in [their] efforts to overturn this unjust law, [and that they] hope this will set a precedent across the country and serve to protect small, genuine companies like ours everywhere.” (The Mineos could not be reached for comment.)
While no one argues that puppy mills are a good thing, critics of the ordinances says they threaten to put mom-and-pop pet stores out of business. "[The judge] went out of his way to describe Puppies N’ Love as ‘an exemplary pet store’ that ‘avoids buying from puppy mills and works hard to ensure that its puppies have been raised in a humane and caring environment,’” Bober says, but this ordinance "won’t shut down a single puppy mill, though it will likely hurt several federally licensed and regulated responsible breeders. It will definitely harm Puppies N' Love, owned for 40 years by people who care for pets and treat them lovingly."
Other critics of these ordinances argue that people shouldn’t be limited to a selection of abandoned shelter animals when they want to buy a pet. “Bans of this nature often punish stores and breeders who sell quality pets and breeds that are unavailable in shelters, and these restrictions threaten our industry,” stated American Pet Products Association president and CEO Bob Vetere in a joint-industry press release last year.
The plaintiffs in Puppies ‘N Love v. City of Phoenix argued that the ordinance violated three laws: the equal commerce clause, the equal protection clause, and Arizona’s Constitutional Prohibition on special laws. But the main point of their argument was that the ordinance unfairly favors local dog breeders at the expense of out-of-state breeders because people like to interact with a puppy before buying it, and if pet stores cannot sell dogs bred out of state, then people will go to local breeders.
“Although Plaintiffs argument has logical appeal,” writes the court in its decision, “the court ultimately concludes that Plaintiffs have failed to present evidence with which they would carry the burden of proof at trial.”
Puppies ‘N Love “asserted several claims” and essentially “threw every [argument] they could think of to see what stuck,” says Melanie Kahn, senior director of the HSUS' Puppy Mill Campaign. “But nothing did.” She says she also worked closely with the city of Phoenix on this lawsuit and explains that the stakes were higher because both the pet industry and HSUS were involved.
Though a number of other similar ordinances have been challenged since Puppies ‘N Love first announced the lawsuit, none has been successful. At this point, it’s unclear whether the plaintiffs will appeal the decision, but Bober said in today's statement that instead of fighting over an ordinance, "the far better course is to enforce rigorous breeding standards and to arm consumers with information so they are empowered to make sure their dog comes from a reputable breeder."
But the animal-rights world, particularly the HSUS, isn't buying the argument, and says it will continue to help other cities enact similar ordinances.
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“We sincerely hope that this decision sends a strong message to the pet industry that we do not want puppy mill dogs. The pet industry needs to stop fighting these ordinances and change the way they do business,” Kahn says, adding that she “fully expects to see Tempe and Tucson move forward with similar ordinances” sometime in the next year.
“Both cities have approached the Humane Society to assist them [in drafting legislation,] and everyone’s been waiting to see what happened in Phoenix.”