Local pet advocacy group strives to rid Central Coast of retail pet shops

View a slideshow of animals available for adoption at the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society.

Cristine Collier, founder of a new Central Coast-based pet advocacy group, has one primary goal: Ban local pet stores from selling commercially bred animals.

Her reason: Most commercial breeders—and many smaller backyard breeders—fit the bill for puppy mills, where dogs are treated as commodities rather than companion animals.

click to enlarge Local pet advocacy group strives to rid Central Coast of retail pet shops
ADOPT OR BUY?: The Santa Maria Valley Humane Society has dozens of dogs up for adoption. No More Pet Store Puppies 805 aims to encourage pet owners to adopt from the Humane Society and other rescues rather than buy from pet shops.

Collier and her group, No More Pet Store Puppies 805, have held protests at Animal Kingdom pet stores and also spoken at Santa Maria City Council meetings, pushing to add a proposed ban on the retail sale of commercially bred animals to the council agenda.

“It’s kind of like factory farming, but for dogs,” Collier said of puppy mills. “Their main goal is to make money, so they produce as many litters as they can.”

Commercial breeders are required to obtain licenses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), unless they’re “hobby breeders” with gross sales under $500 per year and three or fewer female breeding dogs. But Collier told the Sun that a USDA license doesn’t mean much when it comes to standards of animal care.

Even under USDA regulation, breeders can have hundreds of dogs, breed them every heat cycle, and keep them in cages at all times.

“The regulations are so woefully inadequate,” Collier said. “It’s just really sad looking at it. Dogs aren’t meant to be confined 24/7 in a small cage in groups of two or three, constantly breeding. Dogs are companion animals. They’re meant to be in a home, meant to be played with.”

Collier and her colleagues want to solve the puppy mill problem from the top down by cutting off a major source of breeders’ income: pet stores. This would also encourage pet owners to adopt from rescue organizations instead of purchasing from retail stores.

No More Pet Store Puppies 805 has partnered with the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), a nonprofit investigative organization that aims to protect companion animals from cruelty in puppy and kitten mills, to fight pet stores on the Central Coast. Most of those shops are Animal Kingdom franchises, and CAPS investigated the chain’s Santa Maria location in 2015.

CAPS President Deborah Howard told the Sun that CAPS’s investigators found state violations at Animal Kingdom, including the store’s failure to disclose breeders’ full names on its pet dealer disclosure forms.

“That’s a blatant violation of the California lemon law,” Howard said, referring to state laws designed to protect pet purchasers.

Adam Tipton, co-owner of Animal Kingdom, defended the store’s practice of including only first names on its pet dealer disclosure forms, saying it’s to protect the breeders.

“Unfortunately, there’s a bunch of wackos out there that want to harass people,” Tipton told the Sun.

He added that since the disclosure form includes breeders’ addresses, concerned consumers could send letters if they wanted to. But Howard said that in her investigation, some of the addresses provided by Animal Kingdom failed to check out.

For example, a pet dealer disclosure form provided to the Sun listed a breeder as “Ralph,” located on Shields Street in Santa Maria—but Santa Maria doesn’t have a Shields Street.

“That’s why we have a state law: to protect consumers,” Howard said. She added that though people shouldn’t be buying at pet shops anyway, they “have a right to know where their dogs are being bred.”

Many of Animal Kingdom’s disclosure forms also lacked USDA licensing numbers, but Tipton said that’s because the breeders are small enough to be exempt from USDA oversight.

CAPS’s investigation also revealed that Animal Kingdom had sourced pets from breeders in the Midwest who had received USDA violations. But Tipton claims the store’s current stock of animals is entirely sourced from within California.

He said that when he scours listing resources, such as Craigslist, for potential breeders, Animal Kingdom representatives will sometimes visit the breeder locations in person to make sure they’re up to snuff.

“The main concern is health,” Tipton said, adding that Animal Kingdom turns down more breeder offers than it accepts. “It’s one of those situations that you can’t hide whether or not the dogs have been taken care of. It’s one of those situations where we can walk away at any point. We don’t have to buy pets.”

When asked what Animal Kingdom does to ensure its puppies go to good homes, Tipton said he asks potential purchasers questions about their living situations and sometimes turns down the customers if they don’t seem like a good fit. He also said the chain never runs into an “unsellable puppy” situation—most of the stores’ puppies are sold after only a few days.

Collier pointed out that asking consumers a few questions doesn’t compare with in-person home checks, which many animal shelters conduct for prospective adopters.

“If you get a dog from a shelter or rescue, typically they have you fill out an application to see where the dog’s going to be living,” Collier said. “Pet stores do none of this. It’s just all about making money.”

As an example, Collier described an acquaintance who said she bought a puppy from Animal Kingdom, and the dog turned out to be sick. When she tried to return the puppy, she was charged a $200 restocking fee.

“It’s like if you brought back a couch and don’t like it,” Collier said.

But Tipton said Animal Kingdom only charges that fee for dogs that can’t be proven ill, to compensate for their potential exposure to outside viruses.

“We do additional precautions,” Tipton said. “It’s not just for profit, like the wonderful people at No More Pet Store [Puppies 805] think.”

While animal advocates argue that pet stores take attention away from adoptable rescue animals, Tipton said those animals are “not a huge epidemic.”

As of press time, Santa Maria’s animal shelter had 41 dogs and 22 cats listed online for adoption, and the humane society listed 26 dogs and 14 cats.

“There are some cities out there that will get hundreds in a day, and that’s not this area,” Tipton said, adding that it’s still something the community should be concerned about. “But it’s not something that is of epidemic numbers like the No More Pet Store [Puppies 805] people would like to indicate.”

But Collier said she and her group members would keep pressing the issue, both through protests and City Council meetings, even though she acknowledged that Santa Maria is pretty “conservative” and “pro-business.”

“I really don’t know how [the ban] will do, but in my heart I just feel I have to try, because I’ve seen what these puppy mills look like,” Collier said. “Animal ownership, getting an animal, should not be a for-profit business. And that’s the problem with these commercial breeding facilities. It’s all for profit.”

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at [email protected].

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