There are as many as four million animals put down in shelters every year in this country, according to estimates by the Humane Society of the United States. The problem is particularly bad in South Florida, where the recession has left many families unable to take care of the family pets. One shelter alone reportedly put down as many as 50 dogs and cats per day.
Despite this, there are more pet stores selling commercially-bred puppies in South Florida than ever before. There are two in Hallandale Beach, where Michele Lazarow plans to ask the city to pass an ordinance banning "retail sales of companion animals," such as dogs and cats.
Lazarow, an animal activist who earned headlines last month by protesting Michael Vick's appearance at a Gulfstream nightclub, owns a women's boutique in Hallandale and has lived in the city for more than 30 years. She says she's working on a presentation for the city commission and has already notified the Mayor of her proposed ordinance. (The timing is muddled by the recent city government instability, she says.)
The problem isn't just overpopulation, Lazarow says. "These places sell sick dogs," she says. "It's as simple as that. To them, the animals are just property. The pain and suffering they cause greatly outweigh the minimal profits they make."
She says activists have gone after puppy mills -- often located in Missouri and Pennsylvania -- but legislators don't seem interested in shutting the business down from the top, so she's hoping she'll have more success on a local level, where cities can see how many dogs are being killed at the same time new dogs are being imported.
Some of the stores import animals from South America for as little as $10 per dog, then sell them weeks later for thousands of dollars.
If Lazarow succeeds, Hallandale Beach will
be the first city in Florida to (See Update below) pass such an ordinance (a similar law is under consideration in West Palm Beach), but not the first in the country. Earlier this year West Hollywood, California passed an ordinance banning the sale of cats and dogs at pet stores. It stated unequivocally that "responsible dog and cat breeders do not sell their animals to pet stores." Not long after, South Lake Tahoe, California passed a similar ordinance. Austin, Texas is considering something similar.
Lazarow's proposed law would ban stores from bring in dogs from other parts of the country, but not local breeders from selling puppies. Local breeders, she says, want the puppy stores gone as much as anyone, and at this point she needs all the support she can get. "Obviously we'd rather see someone adopt a dog through a shelter than a breeder, but at least we could eliminate this retail puppy stores from the equation."
In the long run, she says, these businesses often cost the city more than they bring in from tax revenues. Between the cost of police manpower to watch over the frequent protests these stores get and to write reports for every incident involving the stores, the cost of Puppy Lemon Law civil suits, and the cost to house and eventually euthanize the animals that escape or are let go, these stores can amount to much more trouble than a doggy in a window.
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In a place where so many animals die every day, activists like Lazarow hope it will become less fashionable to spent ridiculous amounts of money on a dog that might get sick and die in a short time. "Even if you want a pure bred dog, you can get anything you want in shelters now." She points to sites like petfinder.com, which match breed-specific rescue groups (Shih Tzu Rescue or greyhound rescue, for example).
"Until 2005, this city never had a pet store," she says. "At least not as long as I lived here."
UPDATE: Nick Atwood, the Campaigns Coordinator for Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, just weighed in via email to clarify a few things:
"We hope that efforts to ban pet stores in Hallandale Beach will be successful, but there are already cities in Florida with ordinances that prohibit pet stores.
A few cities in Florida-- including Coral Gables, Lauderdale Lakes, Flagler Beach, North Bay Village and Opa-Locka-- prohibit keeping dogs "for commercial purposes." These are not new ordinances, and they may not have been enacted for animal welfare reasons. As far as we know, there are no pet stores in these cities."