NYT/ July 24, 2022
Hundreds of postcards, with visceral images of underfed golden retriever puppies living in filthy conditions, are flooding the governor’s office in New York. A huge email campaign has been launched by national animal rights groups.
The pet store industry and its lobbyists, however, have also mobilized. Zoom meetings have been held with the governor’s staff; a pet store employee has created an independent campaign of videos featuring well-treated puppies that have gone viral on TikTok.
Out of the hundreds of bills that Gov. Kathy Hochul must decide whether to sign before the end of the year, few appear to carry more emotional weight than the one affecting the welfare of a constituency that cannot even vote: puppies.
After years of debate, New York State lawmakers passed a bill in June 2022 with rare bipartisan support that would ban the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in New York’s pet stores, leading to a fractious clash between animal welfare groups and the pet store industry.
Over the past few weeks, they have redirected their efforts toward lobbying Ms. Hochul, meeting with her office to plead their case as she decides whether to sign or veto the bill, with both sides trading accusations of lying and spreading misinformation.
If Ms. Hochul signs the bill, New York would follow the lead of California, Maryland, Illinois and other states that have passed similar bans meant to curb commercial breeders, sometimes called puppy mills or kitten factories.
The breeding facilities have for years been the source of intense controversy because, according to animal rights advocates, they operate with little oversight and raise dogs in cruel and inhumane conditions, often leading to the sale of sick puppies to consumers.
The bill seeks to close that pipeline by prohibiting the sale of the animals in New York’s 80 or so pet stores — known for their ubiquitous window displays of puppies that can go for thousands of dollars — and encouraging New Yorkers to adopt pets from shelters instead. People would still be permitted to buy the animals directly from breeders, an attempt to allow prospective pet owners to visit and buy from responsible breeders.
“We know what it looks like when animals don’t get that care and certainly, from photos and documentation of what these facilities look like, that is not happening,” said Jennie Lintz, the puppy mill initiative director at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “New York remains one of the largest markets for these commercial facilities, so the bill could have not just an impact here, but across the country.”
Pet stores have fiercely pushed back against the legislation, arguing that the bill would put them out of business, lead to the unemployment of hundreds of workers, make it harder for people to obtain a pet in the state and potentially lead to an underground market of pet sales — arguments that supporters of the bill have dismissed as overblown.
One of the industry’s largest grievances is its contention that animal activists have demonized most of the breeding industry as abusive. It argues that the unsanitary puppy mills that have been the target of damning investigations are not representative of the entire industry.
“Let’s not pretend that there aren’t people out there who are doing this the wrong way, but they are few and far between,” said Mike Bober, the president and chief executive of the Pet Advocacy Network, a national pet trade association. “We’re deeply offended and frustrated by the fact that people willingly and intentionally misrepresent the state of breeding in the country.”
Ms. Hochul, a Democrat running for a full term in November, has not publicly shared her thoughts on the bill and her office said it was still reviewing the legislation.
The more than 2,000 dog breeders in the country are largely regulated and licensed by the federal government, but animal rights supporters argue that the minimum standards of care they’re supposed to provide are antiquated, insufficient and rarely enforced.
In New York, the state attorney general’s office has filed lawsuits in recent years against a handful of pet stores, including those in Albany and New York City, accusing them of misleading consumers and selling puppies that were ill or abused and came from unauthorized breeders.
In 2021, Attorney General Letitia James sued Shake a Paw, which operates two stores on Long Island, for doctoring health certificates, saddling customers with unforeseen veterinary costs and selling at least nine dogs that died from serious diseases soon after they were sold. The store owners have vociferously denied the allegations.
The lawsuits have helped fuel support for a ban, despite the industry’s belief that prohibiting the retail sale of puppies will lead to a cascade of unintended consequences, including more online scams and fewer legal protections for consumers who adopt sick puppies.
While New York is home to about 40 commercial breeders, according to the A.S.P.C.A., the majority of the puppies sold at pet stores in the state are imported from breeders elsewhere, mostly the Midwest.
Emilio Ortiz, a manager at Citipups, a pet store with two locations in Manhattan, said the company carefully sourced the hundreds of puppies it sells each year from about 30 different breeders across the country that he said exceeded federally mandated standards and provided “a great living situation for their dogs.”
Mr. Ortiz, who has met with state lawmakers and the governor’s office to lobby against the bill, argued that the largest obstacle for the industry is a “distorted view and public narrative” that all breeders and pet stores are bad actors. In response, he began creating videos that seek to show a behind-the-scenes look at how the stores treat the pets they sell. Mr. Ortiz has amassed over 300,000 followers on TikTok and his videos have garnered millions of views.
“It’s an uphill battle,” he said. “We’re just small businesses versus some of these big national organizations that raise millions of dollars and have this marketing machine behind them. Usually people hear only of these horror stories, so I wanted to show people like what actually goes on.”
He added: “We’d completely go out of business” if Ms. Hochul signed the bill, noting that about 90 percent of the store’s sales came from selling puppies.
The bill’s supporters have argued that stores that sell animals could adapt by shifting to selling pet supplies, though the industry contends that it would require stores to invest significantly to reconfigure floor plans originally designed to house live animals.
Pet stores would be allowed to collaborate with shelters and rescue organizations to host adoption events, though they would not receive any of the fees associated with the adoptions. Mr. Bober said that all but two of the 28 pet stores that sold puppies in California went out of business two years after the ban went into effect in 2019, according to data compiled by his trade association.
State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat and self-described animal lover who introduced the bill in New York, brushed aside the industry’s business concerns, saying the ban had a more fundamental objective: to stop treating animals as commodities, or as “an item on a supermarket shelf.”
“I don’t think we should sanction the torturing of animals as a means to keep people in business,” said Mr. Gianaris, the deputy majority leader and owner of a rescue cat, Alley, and a Cavapoo mixed-breed puppy, Fred, that he said he purchased from a reputable breeder. “I hope it doesn’t take the governor as long as it took the entire Legislature to figure out the right thing to do.”
Though many Republican lawmakers voted for the bill, it didn’t gain serious traction in Albany until Democrats seized full control of the State Capitol four years ago. The legislation passed the State Senate in 2020 but stalled in the Assembly.
Some moderate Democrats in the Assembly opposed the bill and proposed more targeted alternatives to regulate the pet trade, while some animal activists loudly accused Carl Heastie, the chamber’s speaker, of holding up the legislation.
That changed on the last day of the legislative session this year, when the 150-seat Assembly passed the bill, which was introduced in the lower chamber by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat from Manhattan, with only 15 votes against.
“The last bastion of nonpartisanship is puppies and kittens,” said Libby Post, the executive director of the New York State Animal Protection Federation, an organization representing animal shelters and rescue organizations, which support the bill.
The pet store industry has accused shelters and rescue organizations of hypocrisy, arguing that they operate with few regulations in New York, though a second bill on Ms. Hochul’s desk would aim to change that by implementing uniform standards for the veterinary care and housing of rescue animals.
Ms. Post said that banning the retail sale of the animals would ease the strain on New York’s more than 100 shelters and 400 rescue organizations, many of which she said are overflowing with dogs, including those that people obtained during the pandemic but may have abandoned after they were called back to their workplaces.
“What goes on in a puppy mill is absolutely inhumane,” Ms. Post said. “And New York is complicit in animal abuse as long as we allow the sale of milled animals.”