WAUKESHA – The answer to the question “How much is that doggie in the window?” only results in more questions, including whether that pup should be for sale at all.
That’s a conundrum the city of Waukesha faces as it considers a rule that would formally prohibit the sales of certain domesticated animals at for-profit retail stores, amid rumors that a retailer is now interested in a vacant store along the city’s northern edge.
It’s not the retailers that concern city officials. It’s where the animals come from, and how badly they have been bred and treated in the name of profit, particularly in what are often referred to as “puppy mills” and “kitten mills.”
In addition to dogs, the proposed Humane Pet Store ordinance — which follows a growing movement among municipalities, including Wauwatosa — would also address cats and rabbits, both of which are sometimes bred by commercial breeders whose track records are less than ethical, if not technically illegal.
As the city of Waukesha continues to formulate what has loosely been called a puppy mill ordinance, officials find themselves facing several difficult questions, all arising out of the goal of approving restrictions to prevent animals that have been raised inhumanely nationally from being sold locally.
The questions include whether there should be any exceptions built into the ordinance, such as an accommodation for local breeders. And, if exceptions are allowed, how would the ordinance be enforced without adding to the city’s already limited code enforcement resources?
Inhuman treatment of animals is a problem. But what can Waukesha do about it?
As the debate has unfolded, everyone has acknowledged concerns about the practice of inhumane treatment of animals as part of a retail supply chain. The problem is what the city can do about it.
For City Attorney Brian Running, the issue, as codified in a proposed ordinance, would have to be clear and forthright.
“It just simply says it’s a flat-out prohibition of the sale of puppies, kittens and rabbits,” Running said during the second reading of the rules by the Waukesha Common Council on June 7. “The reason it’s a flat prohibition is just a practical matter relating to enforcement, because when we draft an ordinance we have to think about whether it’s going to be enforceable.”
For instance, if the city approved an ordinance that allowed sales of pets raised by what a retailer claims are ethical breeders, the city would have to be willing to expend a significant effort to verify that claim.
“A flat-out prohibition is simple to administer and would not require any additional city staff,” Running said.
That’s not to say the city couldn’t modify the proposed ordinance in some way, such as limiting sales to a decisively smaller volume or allowing the sales of only adult animals — both measures that could sidetrack puppy mills. But tracking sales numbers from retailers could require formal monitoring, again an enforcement concern.
The drafted rules, sponsored by Ald. Cassie Rodriguez and co-sponsored by Ald. Jack Wells, were largely based on a model ordinance from the Humane Society of the United States. Appleton, Beloit, Fort Atkinson, Wauwatosa and Whitewater have such ordinances in place.
Rodriguez spelled out her concerns about the problems associated with puppy mills, including health and socialization issues, and inadequate regulations and enforcement of rules by the US Department of Agriculture, which is supposed to oversee large-scale animal breeding.
Noting that same department would rather leave such breeder-oriented restrictions up to the Wisconsin Legislature, Rodriguez insisted the decision should be closer to home because of strong local support.
“We just can’t wait for the state to do something,” she said. “This is a local issue.”
The rules would not apply to nonprofit rescue organizations, such as the Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County and the Elmbrook Humane Society.
Running, who also noted no local businesses currently sell the targeted pets, said he considered information provided by Rodriguez and supplemented the model ordinance with ideas from other city attorneys through email connections aided by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
“I learned a little bit about what’s going on in other cities around the state that have already adopted essentially this ordinance based upon that model ordinance,” Running said. “The city attorneys there informed me that they passed with virtually no opposition.”
More than 400 municipalities nationwide, and several states, have done likewise, he added.
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Not every commercial breeder is a puppy mill, opponents say
But from the start, it was clear Waukesha’s ordinance would not enjoy such an easy path to approval.
In May, the city Ordinance and License Committee deadlocked, 2-2, on a draft of the rules, sending it on to the full Common Council to decide its fate.
At the second reading of the ordinance on June 7, some aldermen acknowledged they had strong concerns about the rules, despite an underlying goal that they otherwise supported.
“The problem I have with the ordinance is that it gives no space for anyone to (sell animals) responsibly,” said Ald. Mike Payne.
Payne argued that many commercial breeders do act responsibly, following standards set by Purdue University to ensure healthy, well-bred animals — which find their way into retail stores that are also concerned about such standards.
“It’s easy to say that every commercial breeder that does a lot of volume is a puppy mill,” he said. “But that’s not true. You can do it responsibly.”
Payne suggested rewording the ordinance to require a retailer to be certified for animal sales, perhaps by Purdue University itself.
Ald. Rick Lemke, who more directly opposed the ordinance, focused on how any city ordinance could succeed in meeting an altruistic goal of eliminating puppy mills altogether.
“If it stopped the puppy mills, I would be all in favor of it. But it isn’t going to stop them,” Lemke said.
Even among those speaking during the public forum portion of the meeting weren’t universally supportive of the ordinance draft.
Angela Ng, who owns Paws for a Moment pet spa and boutique in downtown Waukesha, noted that her business, primarily for pet grooming, also breeds Siberian cats that have appeared in high-profile shows. She takes full responsibility for the animals she breeds.
“People keep saying that you cannot sell an animal in a pet store and do it ethically,” Ng said. “I have been doing that for the last several years.”
She favored an ordinance that allows responsible breeders the right to sell locally, though acknowledging the need for rules to set standards to dampen the market for more profit-minded breeders who are more reckless in their practices.
Nationally, such ordinances have also faced a pushback from the industry, especially from the group Pet Advocacy Network.
Many pet stores are successful without selling animals, supports say
However, supporters at the June 7 meeting outnumbered anyone with more reservations.
Several speakers cited figures also included in the draft ordinance, which says an estimated 10,000 puppy mills produce more than 2 million puppies per year in the United States, based on data from the Humane Society of the United States.
Such volume, they say, is part of the problem.
A more detailed response submitted to the city came from Carol Sumbry, a Waukesha resident who works at the Elmbrook Humane Society and is a certified dog behavior consultant and professional dog trainer.
The dogs from a mass-breeding setting often have behavioral issues, as well as health problems that include seizures, knee problems and other genetic shortcomings, she said.
For Sumbry, the bottom line is that pet stores don’t need to sell animals.
“As a progressive community that supports buying local, we have many pet stores that are successful without selling animals!” she said in a long letter, a portion of which was read to aldermen. “Most pet stores in our country operate successful businesses without supporting the puppy mills!”
A final draft of the ordinance will likely be considered at a council meeting in June or July.
Contact Jim Riccioli at (262) 446-6635 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jariccioli.