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Missouri bill pits pet store chain against animal welfare advocates

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Posted at 4:12 PM, Mar 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-02 17:12:56-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Missouri House committee on Wednesday heard lengthy testimony about a bill, that if signed into law, would prohibit cities from banning the sale of puppies and other animals at pet stores.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on a bill that pits retail giant Petland against animal welfare advocates concerned about those dogs and the vagueness of the bill.

A spokeswoman said Petland generates more than 70% of its revenue from the sales of puppies.

The legislative dogfight comes onthe heels of laws passed in six states — Illinois, California, Maryland, Maine, Washington and New York — and hundreds of cities nationwide that ban pet stores from selling commercially bred puppies, kittens and other animals.

Pet Stores in Jeopardy of Closing? 

On Wednesday, Rep. Ben Baker (R) called his bill a “pre-emptive measure to make sure that we allow law-abiding businesses to operate in our communities.”

The Neosho lawmaker is concerned Missouri could follow the other states and cities with laws on the books that only allow pet stores to adopt shelter animals.

“That effectively bans the sale of pets, which drives them (pet stores) out of business and that’s what’s happening,” Baker said. “There are several of these reputable businesses in my district that are involved in this industry and could be in jeopardy of shutting down completely if these local ordinances are passed.”

Baker also said that if state-licensed and inspected pet stores close, consumers will be forced to shop online from unlicensed breeders.

“That could drive this (industry) into a black market situation, which would be much worse,” he said. “So this bill will protect the safe business of providing healthy pets to families in Missouri and help prevent people from turning to that illegal black markets to buy pets.”

The four proponents of HB 995 at Wednesday’s echoed Baker’s sentiments.

Elizabeth Kunzelman, Petland’s vice-president of legislative and public affairs, claimed the six independently owned Petland stores in Missouri get all their puppies from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) licensed breeders who have clean inspections for the past two years.

“Because of our business involves animals, our small business owners are always under attack by large national animal rights organizations,” she said. “The truth is, they don’t want pet stores to exist and it has nothing to do with where we’re getting our animals. Activists promote and push retail pet sales bans to eliminate puppy mills.

Kunzelman continued, “However, not a single puppy mill has been closed due to the passage of any pet store sales ban."

Who Pays For Sick Puppies Sold At Pet Stores? 

Samantha Boyle, who owns the Joplin Petland store, addressed the committee’s questions about the sale of sick puppies.

“We have up to five years' worth of health guarantees,” Boyle said. “We pay for the first vet visit after the pet leaves our stores to the vet of their own choosing because we want them to feel good about their purchase and we think it’s responsible pet ownership.”

Asked if her store would pay a veterinarian bill that was higher than the purchase price of a puppy or other animal, Boyle said: “I’ll take care of that.”

Animal Welfare Advocates Refute Petland’s Claims 

Three people spoke against the bill, including representatives with the Humane Society of the United States and the Missouri Alliance For Animal Legislation.

They refuted Petland’s claims and the accusations that animal welfare advocates want to put pet stores out of business.

“You’ve heard a lot of claims that Petland responsibly sources their dogs,” said Cody Atkinson, Missouri’s director for the Humane Society of the United States. “But that’s not always the case.”

Armed with a stack of documents, Atkinson added: “Here we have public records showing Petland purchased animals from a facility in which 120 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations were found so shocking, that it was the first federal indictment of a commercial breeder for AWA violations and led to the relinquishment of 500 dogs.”

Atkinson also told the committee:

  • Petland was fined $200,000 in Florida, and is permanently banned from selling sick puppies and misrepresenting a puppy’s health or purebred status in that state; 
  • The Humane Society of the United States received 1,500 complaints about Petland in 2022; 
  • Petland typically sells puppies that cost a few thousand dollars. Consumers can finance those puppies, he said, and the company Petland uses charges interest rates that can run more than 180%. 
  • A Georgia veterinarian, who worked for Petland for 10 years, signed an affidavit in which he said: “there was no way for me to save all the animals from death and prolonged illness because they were already incredibly sick when they arrived at the store.” 

“Just example, after example, after example of Petland not living up to its own standards,” Atkinson said. “It goes to show you that what we're seeing here out of Petland is that they are not telling the truth about where they are getting all of these animals.”

Atkinson said Petland often uses a middleman to get its puppies.

“They buy from a broker as a middleman,” he said. “So they get a broker with a clean license, but then that breeder that the broker is purchasing from is the one with the various violations. And so they're just putting a gap between them and the puppy.”

Aislinn McCarthy-Sinclair, with the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, raised concerns about the bill’s vagueness and its impact on local control.

“This bill is just too broad,” she said of the proposed measure that is two-sentences long. “And I’m a fan of local control. If a municipality has an issue, let them address it.”

McCarthy-Sinclair also told the committee that her organization does not want to shut down pet stores.

“We love Petco and Petsmart,” she said. “We don’t want to put them out of business. What we’d love to see are animals in need of homes coming from a shelter or a local breeder. And good breeders do not sell to pet stores.”

The House committee did not vote on Baker’s bill.

Justin Brown (R) of Rolla has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

When the KSHB 41 asked why he took that action, Brown wrote in a statement: “To protect high-quality and highly-regulated and state-licensed pet stores, Senate Bill 530 preempts municipalities from banning the sale of dogs and other pets by licensed pet stores to effectively and unfairly close a local pet store. So long as that pet store operates by the breeding standards set by federal, state, and local laws, pet stores should not be banned from doing business simply due to the misinformation that these licensed businesses pedal pets from those types of puppy mills.”

Brown’s bill had not had a hearing.

Both measures come within months of Petland hiring a lobbying company called Gamble & Schlemeir to represent them in the Missouri Capitol.

The company hired the lobbying firm on January 9 – five days after the 2023 legislative session started in Jefferson City.