How Exploited Is That Doggy In The Window 

PETA and other animal rights groups have accused pet stores of crimes against animals--but is it cruelty or "responsible realism"?

When I was nine, my parents bought a kitten at a pet store. My brother named the cat Putter, but it soon became clear the kitten was seriously ill. Friendly and purring, he dragged his haunches along the ground as he moved toward us. Putter would stop and squat every few feet as if trying to pass a bowel movement--but nothing ever came out. Days later, we decided the little guy was suffering from severe constipation and carted him off to the vet for a laxative. But upon examination, the vet informed us that Putter's condition was not going to be cured by Ex-Lax--or anything else. Putter had a severe intestinal blockage so deeply imbedded there would be no way to remove it. 20 minutes later Putter lay dead, euthanized.

I recently revisited a pet store for the first time since the Putter incident (15 years ago). On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I went to the Lloyd Center branch of Scamps, a Northwest chain, to buy a scratching post for my cat. The place was a madhouse.

Watching the sad-looking pups absorb the chaos around them, I wondered if any were hiding some festering disease that would eventually rip up their insides--just like Putter. In this mall-centered pet store, under the buzzing fluorescent lights, the possibility seemed practically inevitable. The animals were being sold amidst cell phone outlets, after all, and music stores, and teeny bopper tube top shops and pretzel vendors. Puppies were just another commodity in this place, and--as evidenced by the messiness all around--surely treated as such.

Caught in the swirl of noise and visual stimulus of the Lloyd Center, I assumed the animals must be sharing my feeling of misery. I never bought my scratching post (the employees never arrived to ring me up), but I left Scamps wanting to learn more about how animals are treated in pet stores. And as it turned out, while I proceeded to learn next to nothing about this controversial issue, I learned plenty about the people who want me to learn about it.

THE EXTREMISTS

The national animal rights groups People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and In Defense of Animals want me to learn about the condition of animals in pet stores. And if this topic were a sledgehammer, they would've gladly beaten me over the head with it.

PETA's official website (www.peta.com) currently features, amongst other things, a passionate rant on the way KFC treats its chickens from esteemed celebrity spokesperson Pamela Anderson. It also contains a 30-second, swirling, sexy commercial of TV star Persia White plopping a skinned animal corpse on the ground. "HERE'S THE REST OF YOUR FUR COAT," concludes the ad. For PETA, subtlety is not an option.

"We're buried in complaints from people who have bought sick puppies from pet stores," says PETA spokesperson Daphna Nachminovitch. "Pet stores charge hundreds of dollars for usually sick animals... Most of the animals are coming from [puppy and kitten] mills; they're not in good health, they're not in good mental shape.

"The saddest complaints are from employees: 'I've been told to put animals in the freezer as a method of killing...,' 'I've been told to just leave animals to die in the back room...,' 'I've never received any training... '"

Matt Rossell, of the local chapter of In Defense of Animals (IDA)--which in 2001 actually staged a protest in front of the Lloyd Center Scamps--also addressed pet store workers.

"I've had two different Scamps employees come to me," he said. "One was a summer employee at a Portland store who left in disgust after seeing things like puppies in the main office dropping like flies because there was no air conditioning. [The other] said she saw a puppy die from being strangled to death by its own collar. This is the level of neglect going on in these places."

For all their passion, neither Rossell nor Nachminovitch had any hardcore facts to support their claims beyond anecdotal evidence from strangers. Rossell knew of "this one investigation" done by "a local humane society" regarding some puppies at one of the Scamps outlets that were kept under hot lights with no water. In addition to the "many complaints," she had received, Nachminovitch also knew of "someone in Colorado" who bought a dollar mouse from PetCo, only to have it euthanized because it was so sick. She also told me flat out, "I have little statistical information for you, unfortunately."

I will never doubt the claims from groups like PETA and IDA that animal cruelty exists in the pet trade industry. But at this point in my travails, their unmitigated, yet relatively unsubstantiated hatred of all things pet store suddenly seemed as stifling as the pet stores themselves.

A PHILOSOPHICAL WAR

My second visit to Scamps, the following Saturday, was a different, much less chaotic experience from the first one. A few smiling couples observed the puppies, while a well-behaved child showed her mother the lizards. There were more than enough employees to go around, and everything seemed clean. I took the time to read some of the posted signs. One advertised a 14-day sick puppy warranty; take home a sick puppy, and bring it back for a full refund with a veterinarian's authorization.

"Our health tech staff spends time every day exercising and interacting one-on-one with each puppy," read another label. I asked the nice girl at the register how such a feat was accomplished in the middle of a shopping mall, and she told me the employees run the pups around the store before opening, as well as take them on walks up and down the concourse.

Inside, I balked at the idea of a dog's active life being limited to short walks through a mall--but the girl's affection for animals seemed sincere. She assured me that whenever things get slow in the store, the employees are in the back, playing with puppies. She made it abundantly clear that all the store's employees love animals, and have a difficult time not buying every puppy that comes through. She also mentioned that in all her months working at Scamps, she had never seen an animal killed as a result of not being purchased. I tried to imagine her sticking a creature in the freezer to die, and couldn't.

Later on, I spoke with one of PETA and the IDA's arch-enemies: Michael Twain, owner of Scamps. A well-spoken, kind-sounding man with an easy laugh, Twain didn't have any more real information to defend himself than the animal rights folks had to attack him. But he didn't lecture me and didn't lose control of his diatribe--which at the very least, kept me listening.

"The nature of living things is an imprecise one, but a really important, important responsibility," said Twain. "In terms of physical ailments, maladies, those sort of things--a kennel's a kennel, and it doesn't really matter if it's in a pet store, or a shelter, a private breeder, or whatever. Everyone faces the exact same issues in terms of health and genetics."

Our conversation prompted a memory. I used to volunteer at an animal shelter in Seattle, run by a local organization with an outlook similar to PETA's. The shelter had fanatical love and good intentions to spare, but the building itself was cold and clammy, poorly lit, and encased in cement. Most of the dogs were full-grown, yet confined to spaces hardly larger than the puppy cages at Scamps. The cages for cats were even smaller. Sometimes I would pick one of the dozens of dogs at random, and let it run around a cement enclosure at the back of the building. On certain days, volunteers would take all the dogs on 20-minute walks up and down nearby paths. Were these conditions that far removed from running a puppy around a shopping mall for exercise?

It may be true that Twain and Scamps are not doing their best to care for their animals--but perhaps they are. Both sides--Twain and the animal rights groups--swear they're right; yet neither side has any compelling proof. Regardless, Twain's point is valid: whether you're a pet store, a shelter, a breeder, or a pet owner living in New York City--you're dealing with animals. Most of you are going to do it correctly; some of you won't. But in the end, a Lloyd Mall pet store is always going to receive more flack and scrutiny from animal lovers than the cold, clammy, under-funded local shelter. This is due entirely to their differences in agenda.

"Pet stores place a lot of pets, and shelters place a lot of pets," said Twain. "We both do it to slightly different demographics, in an almost identical manner. You can call one thing an adoption and the other thing a sale, but guess what? You can't succeed in either [institution] if you don't place healthy animals the overwhelming preponderance of the time."

Scamps is, above all else, a successful business; and businesses don't succeed without distributing a quality product. If Scamps fails to keep the majority of their animals healthy, their customers will not be satisfied, and will not come back. Both Nachminovitch and Rossell referred to Scamps and pet stores in general as "exploiters," spitting the word with disdain, as if this is the worst thing that could ever be done to an animal. But "exploit," according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means, "to make use of selfishly or unethically." Exploitation can be selfish, OR it can be unethical; it is not necessarily both. The most humane pet store in the world is exploiting animals as long as it continues to make a profit. On the flipside, the most deranged, rundown shelter in the world can never be accused of exploitation, because it's not using its animals for a profitable end.

The real war that animals rights groups like PETA and IDA are waging is not against Scamps, or even the pet industry in general. Their war is against an entire philosophy: The notion that selling living creatures is okay. It is a war they will never win. The pet trade industry is complex and far-reaching. In the fields, the backyard kennels, and even in peoples' basements, an enormous network of animal breeding flourishes. Puppies, kittens, ferrets, rats, turtles, birds, and just about any other kind of creature you coveted as a small child can be found under its umbrella. It spends and earns billions of dollars every year. If there's anything we've learned about America, it's that if it involves billions of dollars, it's here to stay.

CRUELTY, OR REALISM?

For a balanced view of the pet trade industry, I spoke with Patti Strand of the National Animal Interest Alliance. In Defense of Animals' Matt Rossell had previously described the NAIA to me as "a group of industry people that profit from exploiting animals, which include fur farmers, puppy mill owners, and Michael Twain." But again, the word "exploitation" is a nebulous one. It's true the NAIA is not opposed to the breeding and selling of animals--so it could be said that the NAIA supports animal exploitation. But they support exploiting them humanely. They have accepted our society as one where animal commerce is a standard (and in an economic sense, arguably a necessity), and so work to make sure it's done with care. To them, that's not cruelty, it's "realism."

"We don't live in a perfect world, so in the world we live in we work for improvements," said Strand. "[The NAIA] tries to educate people to breed pets more responsibly, how to be better consumers, and how to regulate the problem areas so things continue to get better. We believe that people need to buy animals--wherever they get them--with care. If they buy from a pet store, they probably need to ask some questions about where the animal came from. They need to make sure they have the veterinary certificates that go with it, and so on."

This is the best we can hope for from the rampant animal commodities movement: care. And believe it or not, care can usually be expected in most situations. Humans, whether animal buyers or animal rescuers, are largely decent folk, and finding egregious examples of animal abuse (at least in pet trade) takes more effort than we are often led to believe.

Still, when we walk into an area with animals behind bars, it disturbs us. The humanitarians in us want to see animals roaming free. Scamps makes us feel that way, and so do shelters, but because Scamps does it in the name of profit, it somehow makes the feeling worse.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Despite my skepticism of the militant animal rights community, we can at least agree on one thing: I'll never support Scamps. Not because there's concrete proof they mistreat their animals (there isn't), and not because the idea of animal commerce (exploitation) in itself is intrinsically cruel (it's not). Scamps is to be shunned because of the impulse-buy nature of their animal commerce. With window decorations and locations in shopping centers and malls, tucked in between clothing and video games, Scamps encourages consumers to make rash purchases on the fly--like one would with a new CD or shirt. Despite the love its staff and customers may genuinely feel for all creatures great and small, Scamps' objectifying of animals and lack of a rigid consumer screening process is a system ripe for irresponsible pet ownership.

Both PETA and the IDA are waging war against the pet trade industry itself, but how does one end something that people want? Cigarettes kill hundreds of thousands of people annually, and yet the tobacco industry flourishes because despite the dangers, people want cigarettes. Likewise, animals are mistreated, abused, and even killed within the pet industry (though the statistics are as variable as the tides), and yet it continues to thrive, because people want pets.

However, no sane person has visions of ending the tobacco industry entirely; instead we focus on educating people about its dangers, and hope they choose wisely from there.

The same goes for the pet industry; education and careful thought will always prevail over an all-out assault. PETA and IDA present one form of all-out assault; Scamps' careless materialism presents another. An assault that's no different than the advertisements and blinking signs screaming at you from every corner of Lloyd Center Mall. And no different from a supermodel shoving a corpse in your face in the name of animal rights.

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