The pet business in the US posted sales of close to $100 billion in 2020. The pandemic and the extra downtime lockdown entailed played a role, but pets have always been a passion in America. Pets are king in the house and the park: often dressed in head-to-toe outfits in winter, complete with neoprene booties, no expense is spared and their welfare is paramount.
It is precisely the protection of their welfare that is behind an initiative recently approved by the State of New York that will ban pet stores from selling cats, dogs and rabbits from breeders who are often suspected of dubious breeding conditions.
New York Governor, Kathy Hochul, is behind the new bill limiting breeding in facilities known as “puppy mills,” where the notorious conditions include neglecting the health of the animals and episodes of mistreatment, according to animal rights groups. The law will not come into force, however, until December 2024, with a view to giving businesses time to restructure.
“Dogs, cats and rabbits across New York deserve loving homes and humane treatment,” Hochul said in a statement. “I’m proud to sign this legislation, which will make meaningful steps to cut down on harsh treatment and protect the welfare of animals across the state.” When it comes into effect, commercial pet stores will be able to offer their storefronts to the city’s many animal shelters to display animals for adoption to potential owners. Some, such as the large, publicly traded Petco chain, already do this. Every week, dozens of puppies in meticulously clean cages, with their health records on show, are placed in the chain’s storefronts to encourage adoption, which in the US, as in many other countries, is becoming increasingly popular.
Meanwhile, specially bred animals, some pedigree, are still showcased in stores and will be for the next year. Last week, a store in the Astoria district, for example, was still displaying two rows of poorly lit containers housing 30 specimens, mostly puppies, that dozed on beds of shredded paper. “People want pedigree and above all, breeds that are in fashion. Or they want the animal they had in their childhood,” says one of the store’s employees. “The shelters can’t meet this demand because they only have the animals they have rescued from the street, which are usually mongrels.” How much is a pedigree pet worth? “The Persian kitten is priced at a $1,000, but we can let it go for $800. It is purebred, the grandson of national tournament champions,” he explains, while the beautiful honey-colored kitten rubs its nose and then its back on the glass.
The store only sells animals, animal feed and carriers in which to transport the animal to its future home. It has no accessories or toys, like most pet stores. According to this employee, the extravagant tastes of New Yorkers has facilitated the success of a trade that, from the point of view of animal rights, is questionable. But the new legislation will force the store to close down. “We are not hurting anyone,” says the employee. “There are customers who want exclusive pets and we provide them. That demand will continue to exist, law or no law. We are preparing an alternative plan [to survive],” he adds without offering details.
The sector’s employers estimate that up to 80 stores could close in the state when the law is applied – “a very high price, because the law will not affect out-of-state kennels, which will continue to operate,” says a spokeswoman for People United to Protect Pet Integrity (PUPPI), which brings together business owners in the sector and defends the right to choose between adopting or buying. According to PUPPI, Hochul’s bill is “counterproductive” as there were already measures in place to protect pets without closing stores. The Animal Welfare Act, for example, required such stores to source from breeders licensed by the Department of Agriculture.
Pedigree versus mongrel
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (APSCA), laws similar to New York’s already exist in several states, including California and Maryland, and in more than 300 municipalities and counties across the country. Proponents of the initiative, including the ASPCA, say it will promote more sensible ways of acquiring pets by excluding stores that do business with out-of-state commercial breeders. Many puppies sold in the city come from farms in states such as Missouri, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Most pet stores purchase their animals from out-of-state puppy mills, whose practices we can’t regulate,” said Democrat Linda Rosenthal, who sponsored the bill. “But we do get to decide what we want sold in New York State. We will no longer allow brutally inhumane puppy mills around the country to supply our pet stores and earn a profit off animal cruelty and unsuspecting consumers. There are hundreds of thousands of adoptable cats, dogs and rabbits in shelters.” They are, admittedly mostly mongrels, though no less adorable for that. Meanwhile, for those who balk at the responsibility of owning a pet at all, the parks are filled with dogs who are more than willing to engage in a game of fetch. There are also cat-cafes, where customers pay $10 for 30 minutes with a furry friend.
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