Why two pet stores made the change to rescue dogs

Michael Gill of We Love Pets in Media and Springfield, with employee Gina Zwucky, calls the switch from commercially bred dogs to rescue animals "a bumpy ride," but "much more rewarding."
Michael Gill of We Love Pets in Media and Springfield, with employee Gina Zwucky, calls the switch from commercially bred dogs to rescue animals "a bumpy ride," but "much more rewarding." (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 27, 2014

On Christmas, while his 3-year-old daughter opened her presents, pet-shop owner Michael Gill was in his bathroom cradling an English bulldog mix puppy suffering from a lethal canine virus.

The dog had contracted parvo, a deadly and highly contagious intestinal disease. Six puppies in his store that died, along with seven that became sick, were delivered by a Missouri-based dog distributor, he said.

"It was the single worst experience I've had with animals in 20 years," said Gill, owner of We Love Pets in Media.

In February, Gill decided to stop buying dogs from commercial breeders and opted for rescue dogs from shelters, a trend the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said was catching on.

The Missouri distributor says industry critics are uninformed.

Commercial pet stores often buy puppies from dog brokers or distributors, the middlemen between breeders and the retailers. Animal advocates say some of those breeders are puppy mills that raise the dogs in poor conditions.

The ASPCA estimates that there are about 10,000 puppy mills in the country. Of those, 20 percent to 30 percent are U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed breeders licensed to sell to stores.

Missouri is a national leader in puppy mills, along with Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. More than two million dogs from puppy mills are sold each year, according to the humane society.

"It's been a bumpy ride," said Gill of the change in his business model, which also has required renovations at his Media and Springfield stores to accommodate the more mature and larger rescue dogs. "It's much more rewarding. We don't feel comfortable selling [brokered] puppies."

Gill's two locations are not the only area pet stores to make the change.

The owners of the 10 area PetsPlus stores, Mark Arcadia and Bruce Smith, made a similar decision. Two of their locations - in Jenkintown and on Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia - are adopting rescue dogs. The other eight expect to convert by the end of the year.

"It is definitely a trend," said Kathleen Summers, the humane society's director of outreach and research.

Saving animals

Two factors driving the change are consumer concerns over puppy mills and complaints about sick dogs purchased from pet stores, Summers said.

New local regulations are also pushing the conversion.

Citing concerns about puppy mills, governments in more than 50 places across the county have passed ordinances that ban the sale of commercially raised puppies in pet stores, Summers said.

The list includes Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Chicago; El Paso, Texas; Toledo, Ohio; San Diego; Los Angeles; and the state of Florida. In New Jersey, Brick, Manasquan, Point Pleasant, Point Pleasant Beach, and North Brunswick have banned sale of commercially raised puppies.

Michael Stokley, director of corporate sales for Hunte Corp. in Goodman, Mo., one of the largest distributors of commercial puppies in North America, said lawmakers were uninformed on the issue. He said allegations against commercial distribution of puppies were driven by activists with an agenda.

"We have a totally regulated industry top to bottom," he said. "Yet arbitrarily, people are shutting down taxpaying, regulated businesses within their community."

We Love Pets and PetsPlus alleged that they purchased sick puppies from Hunte.

Stokley said that he was familiar with Gill's complaints, but that the store's "records did not support his allegations." The company meets all federal, state, and local regulations, he said.

The USDA inspection reports from 2011 to January 2014 showed Hunte to be in compliance.

Smith said PetsPlus did business with Hunte for 10 years but dropped it a year ago. He said Hunte had delivered puppies with colds and pneumonia.

Smith said the two PetsPlus stores now draw puppies from a shelter in Bowling Green, Ky., and were contacting with local shelters for adoptions.

"We like saving lives," he said.

PetsPlus still is listed in Hunte's database, although Stokley said he did not know when Hunte had last shipped puppies to the stores.

"If that is the decision they made, that is a business decision," he said.

Gill now works with one of the activists who picketed his store almost every weekend for 21/2 years.

Patricia Biswanger, now board president of the Chester County SPCA, said she did not hesitate when Gill offered the SPCA space for shelter dogs and other animals.

"It is all about saving animals," she said. "I'm delighted to be working with him."


mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaefer

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