Sunday, November 25, 2007

How much is that doggie in the window? Wrong question.

It's a cute song and all (though music lovers frequently disagree), but Patti Page should probably have been asking "Where'd you get that doggie in the window from, and where's his momma?"

As I mentioned a few weeks back (and sorry for not updating sooner), the ASPCA is starting a new program to crack down on puppy mills. You can find more information here. The Humane Society of the United States went one step better, by setting up a whole website, and today marks the start of Puppy Mill Action Week. Be sure to sign the pledge on the HSUS website to never buy a dog from a pet store, or purchase anything from any store or website that sells dogs.

So this is all well and good, but it doesn't really impact us or our dogs directly, right? Our dogs didn't come from some awful puppy mill. We didn't buy them from a pet store, a website, or the back of a truck. We went to shelters, rescue groups,, DogsInDanger. We found them wandering the streets, or abandoned in a dog run (that's a whole other rant I'll be getting to one of these days), or a neighbor's dog had puppies. We heard from a friend about a dog who desperately needed a new home, or just saw an ad on craigslist. And if we really wanted a purebred puppy of a breed we had carefully researched, we went to a first-rate kennel devoted to that breed, and made a lifetime commitment--not a hasty impulse buy. The variations are endless, but if you're reading this blog, it's unlikely that you walked by a pet store window one day, and there was this adorable puppy you just HAD to have. Most people don't get their dogs that way anymore, or at least that's been my impression from all the many conversations I've had with fellow dog owners over the past year. But then again, the people I talk with tend to be people with friendly, healthy, well-socialized dogs--I might not be meeting the ones with pet store puppies.

Anyway, a few decades ago, going to a pet store for a dog was a perfectly normal thing to do, especially for people in cities. And the dogs in pet stores weren't always so bad, at least as long as the people buying them weren't expecting Rin Tin Tin. When Yolanda was ten years old, her father, after a year of heartfelt pleas from his daughter for a horse (yes, they were living in Washington Heights at the time), quickly gave in to her sudden request for a dog. He took her to a pet store near City College, that had six or seven mixed breed puppies for sale, leaping about in a window. Yolanda wanted a fox terrier or a beagle, but one little puppy (with suspiciously broad paws) caught her attention, because he was quiet "in a kingly sort of way"--turned out he had a particularly bad case of worms.

"Is he a beagle?", Yolanda asked the pet store lady. "Sure honey--he's a beagle" the young woman replied, perfectly aware that he was nothing of the kind, and that her boss was listening in. The beagle was taken home, given the name of Bruce, and grew to be the size of a large bloodhound. He barked lustily at everything and nothing, parked his lengthy form wherever people would have to step over it, consumed a horrifying variety of indigestible items, and fathered a litter of five daughters when Yolanda's father wasn't looking--one of whom was named Brucetta, and ended up coming to live with him for the rest of his life. He was dearly loved, and much mourned when he finally passed on, at nearly 17 years of age. I never met Bruce, but there are still people in the building who remember him fondly. He sold for ten dollars.

So that's a pet store puppy story that turned out reasonably okay. It's rare you hear a story like that today. Today, most pet stores don't carry dogs or cats, even though they sell almost everything else that swims, crawls, or flies, and may even sell parrots that are at least as intelligent as any dog, and live around five times as long (and often go permanently insane from being kept in cages all the time). Petco may do an occasional adoption event with North Shore Animal League or the like--good PR--and please note it's almost always puppies and kittens, and they're STILL going for the impulse buy, even though it's not a for-profit sale anymore. Petco and PetSmart have both sworn off selling dogs and cats, partly because of protests from animal lovers, and even more because the real money is in selling goods and services to those who already have dogs and cats, and want to spoil them rotten.

Yet every now and again, I still pass a store in the outer boroughs which has that stereotypical display window--the puppies inside probably came from a much different kind of place than Bruce did, and sell for a whole lot more. With regards to store puppies, things have improved in some respects (in that far fewer stores sell dogs), but they've gotten much worse in terms of how the puppies some stores still sell are being produced.

A few weeks back, somebody posted at Inwoof that there were puppies being displayed in the window of the new Pet Ark store, on Broadway, near 213th St. The window, as you can see below, is not designed for the display of animals, so they were in crates. These were 'designer dogs', intentional mixes of established breeds, very much in vogue these days. They were about three months old (according to the manager), and selling for 800-1000 dollars each. Yeah. In Northern Manhattan. I guess they thought enough yuppies had moved into the area.

I'd never been to that store, but it was still a shock to hear about it, because I buy nearly all of Max's food and supplies from a different Pet Ark (with the same owner), near 142nd & Broadway. Neither store had ever sold animals of any kind before--not even goldfish. What the hell was going on here? There were conflicting stories online--I went personally to the store to ask.

Trying to figure out how they could possibly have squeezed several crates full of three month old puppies in there? Join the club.

I bought a pair of guillotine nail-clippers, and started asking questions. As it turned out, the manager of the Inwood store had been approached by someone from a business in The Bronx known as Pet Universe Inc.

(Do peruse their website for a moment. It's rather classic, in its own disturbing way.)

The deal struck was that the store manager would be compensated for feeding and caring for the pups, while all proceeds from any sales would go to Pet Universe. And cute furballs in the window would be sure to attract the attention of potential customers.

And that they most definitely did. Inwood has a very dedicated cadre of dog freaks (I employ the term in the most complimentary fashion, as well I might), who communicate online, as well as at the local dog runs and parks and street corners and cafes and etc.

The dog freaks--well--freaked. The store started getting phone calls. A lot of phone calls. Very agitated phone calls. The manager (and, I'd guess, the owner) began to think this wasn't the kind of attention they were looking for. The puppies had disappeared from the store before I ever got there, sent back to Pet Universe, where they presumably weren't any worse off than they were at Pet Ark--though sadly, probably not any better off either. Sorry puppies--them's the breaks sometimes.

Given that Pet Universe tries to live up to its name by selling just about every breed of dog that the average person has ever heard of (including the 'Doberman Pincher'--ouch), they are probably a 'broker', buying puppies from commercial breeders, backyard breeders, and quite possibly puppy mills--I can't find out anything more about them, and you may note their website's customer review section is 'under construction' at the present time. You can review the relevant industrial terminology here.

It's worth mentioning that while a lot of people were upset by this incident, not all of them were upset at Pet Ark. The moderators of Inwoof's yahoogroup got quite a few angry emails from people accusing them of being 'anti-community' and allowing attacks on local merchants. And it is true that some posters got overexcited, and jumped to conclusions ("maybe they've got puppies hidden in their basement!"), but for the most part people were just trying to ascertain what was going on, and where these dogs came from, and why Pet Ark would do something like this. All that could be said for sure was that no responsible breeder would have ever dealt with Pet Universe, or agreed to having their puppies displayed in a pet store window. But even some of the people who agreed Pet Universe was bad news thought people were being unfair to Pet Ark. And I still can't figure out where those people were coming from.

Having dealt with the Harlem Pet Ark (which never had any puppies) for close to a year now, I can only say the workers there always struck me as nice, reasonably knowledgeable people who liked animals, and would give Max the occasional treat when I brought him in. The quality of the merchandise was never a problem. On the basis of a mistake that lasted just a few days, made by the manager of a different store, I am not going to say I'm done with Pet Ark.

But I have to be honest, and say that it lowered my opinion of them as a business, and I'm starting to look around for other options in the neighborhood. I don't want to buy from pet stores. I try to buy from pet SUPPLY stores. I could get better prices from Petco or Petsmart, but I always tried to give Pet Ark my business whenever possible, because they didn't sell animals of any kind, and because they were a local family owned franchise. I hope Pet Ark recovers from this, and that they've learned their lesson. But that's up to them.

What's up to us is to get the word out. To tell anyone we meet who even hints they are thinking of getting a dog that pet shops and online ordering are NEVER the way to go when you're getting a dog, and that if they are buying a puppy from a breeder, they need to do their homework carefully, and make sure they know what they're getting into--and most importantly, who they're buying from.

Most of us don't need or even want a Westminster champion, but we do want a longlived companion, sound in mind and body--and we don't want to contribute to an industry that undermines the health of the overall canine population, and floods the market with badly socialized pooches that end up in shelters awaiting the needle or the gas chamber. An industry that abuses the animals we love, in its endless pursuit of our spare cash.

It won't go away tomorrow, or next year, or maybe even next decade. But over time, we can stamp these practices out, by using our social networks and purchasing power to make this an unprofitable business to be in. And when there's no real money in it anymore, the only people doing it will be those who care about the dogs more than the money.

There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to make money, of course. We're Americans. None of us, even the raving lefties, really think there's anything wrong with it.

But there is that quote at the beginning of "Lady and the Tramp"--

"In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy... to wit - the wag of a dog's tail." Josh Billings

The dog you can buy--not the wag. That you have to earn.

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