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Activists go after stores selling dogs from puppy mills

Movement to stamp out large commercial breeders gains traction

July 27, 2009
By Timothy Kirn

For more than six months, a group known as Last Chance for Animals picketed and protested a pet store in an upscale part of Hollywood, Calif. That was the first effort of what became a concerted campaign by the group to disrupt business at pet stores that sell puppies from the factory-type farms commonly known as puppy mills.

Then an unusual and unprecedented thing happened. The store, which was called “The Puppy Store,” got a new owner, who decided to stop selling commercially-acquired puppies. Instead, he agreed to sell rescued dogs and dogs from Los Angeles animal shelters.

The activists claim the store, now called OrangeBone, was the first in the country to sell shelter and rescue dogs exclusively. The owner, Clark DuVal, has said he hopes to sell 1,000 dogs a year. 

With OrangeBone, there now are a number of pet stores in Los Angeles that sell dogs from rescue groups or shelters. Some have responded to pressure by activists, but others, such as PetEx, in Tarzana, appear to have made the change voluntarily. The exact number of stores is unclear, but there are at least five that have switched after picketing, said Kim Sill, of Last Chance for Animals, one of two groups leading the efforts to picket stores selling commercially bred puppies in the Los Angeles area. The other group is the Best Friends Animal Society.

The protesters take no prisoners. Sill said the goal is not to put the stores out of business, but to combat puppy mills. She is aware that many people depend on the stores for their livelihood. But her group and others are not averse to campaigning against a store if it sells puppy-mill dogs and will not change its ways.

So far, eight stores have been put out of business, according to Sill. One of those stores, Pet Love, had been in operation for 15 years in the Beverly Center, an upscale mall on the edge of Beverly Hills. Sill said the activists initially targeted fancy and prominent stores for their publicity value, though they have since broadened their efforts. Protests went on for six months before Pet Love closed its doors.

The Los Angeles activists want to see their tactics modeled nationwide, which could lead to many more stores adopting “humane” business practices by selling shelter animals. And there is some evidence that the public is becoming more concerned about large-scale breeding operations. During the past year, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as well as National Geographic Channel’s "Dogtown" and "Dog Whisperer" each aired programs focusing on the dirty, crowded and neglectful conditions of puppy mills. Oprah’s program, in particular, brought a lot of awareness to the general public, the activists contend.

Factions of Best Friends Animal Society in Las Vegas and New York City recently adopted the techniques of their Los Angeles counterpart and have begun picketing pet stores. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has organized demonstrations in front of Petland Inc. stores. According to HSUS, the chain acquires its dogs from “massive commercial breeders” in Missouri and other Midwestern states.

Missouri is a well-known home for large puppy-mill-type operations, as are Kansas, South Dakota and Amish regions of Pennsylvania.

Sill said that Last Chance got interested in doing something about puppy mills after members found that large-scale breeders were setting up operations in remote areas of Los Angeles County. Last Chance investigated one of those breeders, World Kennels, in Lancaster, the eighth largest city in Los Angeles County. World Kennels had 402 dogs kept in cages, where Los Angeles County allows only 100 dogs per breeder.

Almost all puppies sold in retail establishments come from puppy-mill-type breeders, Sill and other activists maintain. It is estimated that puppy mills produce 4 million to 5 million dogs for sale each year, which is about the same number euthanized in shelters annually, according to Elizabeth Oreck, the Los Angeles programs manager for the Best Friends Animal Society.

Dogs in puppy mills usually are kept in cages, which often are stacked one on top of another and are overcrowded. The dogs are rarely, if ever, let out. The bitches are bred many times, and there is little or no veterinary care, critics contend.

What's more, the mills contribute significantly to pet overpopulation in the United States, critics add.

Entering a puppy mill can be a “surreal” experience, Sill said. One expects to be greeted with a chorus of barking. But instead, it is often eerily silent.

The dogs “just look at you with these dead eyes,” she said. “They don’t move or react because they have never been let out of their cages. They don’t know how to bark, or play, or anything. They don’t know how to chase a ball. They don’t know anything.”

Sill said the activists support the stores that stop selling puppy mill dogs and begin to sell shelter animals, and that is a time-consuming task. The activists visit the shelters, keep in touch with rescue groups and pick out the dogs. Then they get them vaccinated and neutered, and bring them to the stores.

“We have to make it easy for them to get their shelter dogs — as easy as the puppy mill (makes it),” she said.

The stores generally charge about what it costs them to acquire the dogs and to pay for their vaccines and altering — usually about $300. The stores mostly offer puppies and younger, appealing dogs, but they do take some older dogs, too.

And that does not necessarily limit the activists in any significant way, because there are many desirable dogs in shelters. In fact, some estimates suggest that about 25 percent of the dogs in local animal shelters are purebreds.

Profits often are not what many stores are used to making by selling the miniature dogs that have become so popular in Los Angeles, or expensive breeds like the Bulldog. But they do get a clean conscience and a public relations boost by doing the right thing, activists contend. 

To date, it appears that demand for the shelter dogs at the converted stores is pretty good, at least for now. Sill said she manages area store deliveries, which amounts to about 30 dogs a day. PetEx has sold more than 60 dogs and a clerk at Woof Worx — where they prefer the word “adoption” over the word “sale” — characterized the adoptions as “extremely popular.”

Kim Cogburn, manager of Pets Delight, in Covina, one of the stores that has gone to selling rescues, said that the store has sold 200 dogs and cats in the four months since it converted.

“It is fulfilling to know these little guys are getting wonderful families,” she said. “It’s definitely not anything we regret doing.”

So far, public relations also has been good. Celebrities like television-star Katherine Heigl attended the opening of OrangeBone. Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas and the former general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, Ed Boks, have both spoken favorably about ridding the city of puppy-mill sales. Cesar Millan of TV's "Dog Whisper" attended the re-opening of one of the stores as it converted to selling shelter animals, and his presence brought news cameras and reporters from media outlets throughout the Los Angeles region.

At the same time, none of the stores being picketed have spoken with the media.

Best Friends’s Oreck said she thinks the attention is good. People in Los Angeles and probably around the country now are aware of puppy mills and do not want to support them.

“The Oprah show turned everything around,” she said. “It’s just night and day. The show really was the best thing to happen in the animal welfare world in a long time. 

“This effort really is just taking off,” she added.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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