Inside The “Rescue Revolution”

pet store protestVictory for Dogs as Pet Stores go "Humane" 

by Carole Raphaelle Davis, as printed in American Dog Magazine (reprinted with permission)

SADLY, THERE ARE MILLIONS OF DOGS SUFFERING in shelters and puppy mills. This year, a record number of dogs are being dumped and euthanized at shelters because of financial hardship. Commercial breeders and pet stores are also feeling the pinch. "People just aren’t buying puppies right now," says pet store manager Justin Vanert. Growing numbers of commercial dog breeders in the Midwest are selling their homes for a pittance-advertising them as "turnkey investments," which often include kennels with hundreds of breeding dogs "free with the property." As bleak as it all sounds, this recession just might have a silver lining for the dogs who are wasting away in puppy mills and shelters.

Perhaps this economic downturn might be a dog’s chance to get out alive. The dog trade is showing signs of weakness. Successful business is all about supply and demand and right now the demand side is shrinking as buyers of puppy mill dogs snap their wallets shut. But the reasons aren’t just the economy-it’s a combination of decreased spending, public awareness of inhumane breeding practices, legislation that limits and criminalizes dog factory cruelty and effective campaigns led by animal rights activists.

This spring, a group of Los Angeles activists celebrated yet another victory. After five weeks of protests, the owner of Elaine’s Pet Depot signed an agreement to hand over all of her puppy mill dogs to Good Dog Animal Rescue for adoption. The agreement with the lynchpin store of a national chain of pet stores included a statement that reflected the store’s commitment to working with rescue organizations. The store agreed to hold adoptions and end its sale of puppy mill dogs.

Reliable sources from within the franchise claimed that the entire Pet Depot chain was considering conversion to a humane business model within a few months. If the large chain stops buying from brokers and mass volume breeders, the strategy to cripple the puppy mill industry by hitting them where it hurts, in the wallet, is working.

The "go humane or go out of business" campaign has been able to gain momentum by combining its ability to exploit the current economic downtown and its skilled use of visual evidence from undercover investigations. The stores that were protested saw as much as 70 percent of their weekend business deterred by activists brandishing signs depicting graphic photos of dogs suffering in mills. An increasing number of stores in the heart of Los Angeles have been closed down or converted-more than a dozen so far in a little over a year.

protestAs I write this, Pets of Wilshire, a store that was targeted, but hadn’t yet been picketed, just announced to me that they will no longer be selling puppy mill dogs and will be holding adoptions of shelter dogs. Asked if the protest movement had anything to do with the turn around, manager Justin Vanert said, "Everybody’s worried about the puppy mill deal. We didn’t want any bad publicity, so we made the decision before it ever came here."

The fact that the pet store protests and the conversions to a humane business model have been concentrated in L.A. is an important element of the national strategy, say architects of the movement. National welfare organizations are watching Los Angeles because although New York is the largest market for puppy mill dogs, Los Angeles is the most important. The celebrity culture here in L.A. dictates international consumer trends. What’s hot here is copied everywhere. In L.A., blingbling is passe. The ultra-hip are solar-powered and driving their hybrid pound dogs to vegan cafes and hybrid cars. Shelter dogs are the latest in recycled chic for the socially conscious.

Known for being too conservative by some militants in the animal rights world, the Humane Society of the United States is getting more "street cred" now that it has embraced the formula for protesting pet stores. After their investigation revealed that the giant Petland chain sells puppies from inhumane dog factories, HSUS launched a protest campaign that propelled its more active members from their armchairs and onto the streets.

This direct action tactic is great news to grassroots activists in Los Angeles. For the combatants, it’s like waging a guerrilla war against a powerful enemy and suddenly, you get a back up surge of a million soldiers. "The rallies are going very well," says Stephanie Shain, Senior Director of HSUS’ puppy mill campaign. "We’ve been so moved by the incredible response from people. We remind people of how horrid life is for dogs who live in puppy mills for years on end."

Jennifer Fearing, chief economist for the HSUS, has been watching the L.A. movement develop. "What you all are doing is an essential component of a national effort to rid the market of puppy mills," she said. "We have to pull on both the supply and the demand levers … Everything from passing legislation to improving standards of care to foreclosing retail channels.

"PetSmart and PETCO have already shown that this business model works. They are lucrative."

pet store protestSome pet boutiques in L.A. closed down rather than negotiate with animal welfare advocates they viewed as extremists. The stores didn’t want to have "rescue crazies" take over their businesses and to split puny adoption fees after years of benefiting from the high profit margins from puppy mill dogs (dogs were typically bought by retailers for less than $300 and sold for up to $3,500). To make matters even more complicated for the stores, rescue organizations want all dogs to be spayed or neutered before they leave the store and some insist on "home checks" to make sure the pet will be going to a responsible home. Owners agree that the idea of humane conversion is a better choice than a ‘For Lease’ sign in their window. "People can’t afford a $3,000 dog right now, so adopting one for $300 not only makes sense financially, but they can feel good about themselves for saving a life," says Elle Wittelsback of Strangest Angels Rescue.

"Plus, they come back to buy the supplies for the life of that dog. These stores are giving back to the community." Converted stores are getting a lot of publicity. They’re not only keeping their clientele, but they’re also enjoying an influx of new customers who prefer to "shop humane."

The business model that seems to be emerging is a full service operation, which includes trainers, groomers, day care and a large selection of supplies. These services ferment a community atmosphere and a milieu of hope. Full of rescued dogs, the stores become a site of burgeoning camaraderie between former adversaries. The thinking among converts is, if your ship was sinking anyway, you may as well look like a good guy by saving some shelter dogs and cats.

Humane stores provide a convenient alternative to shelters for those who want a fun shopping experience and are intimidated by a trip to the pound.

"Inviting puppy store owners to become part of the solution is a creative, practical and people smart strategy," said Dawn Armstrong, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society. "Out of the cage’ thinking is the beginning of the end of puppy mills. The public is ready."

Recently, I assisted a rescue of 62 abused Miniature Pinschers from a puppy mill in Riverside, Calif. It was gratifying to see these dogs recovering after only a few weeks of rehab in foster care, ready to be adopted out of stores we once protested.

Bill Smith, president of Mainline Rescue in Pennsylvania, is waging a war against puppy mills. Thanks to his appearances on Oprah, 40 million people, mostly middle-aged women, are educated on the horrors of puppy mills. When I told him of the Min Pins we rescued who are now in the converted stores, he told me, "These places have been selling puppy mill dogs for ages and now it’s ending with the adoption of the mothers themselves. It’s ironic. These people have benefited off these dogs for years and you basically forced them into a redemption process. For years they’ve been abusing the mothers and now they have to find them homes, accepting an adoption fee."

pet store protestLewis Turner, owner of the Petcare Company in Hermosa Beach, Calif., was dissatisfied doing business with America’s largest brokers of puppy mill dogs Lambriar and Hunte. He told me that four out of 10 dogs that were trucked in were ill.

"They had green liquid coming from their eyes or nose," he said. "They’d have to be sent back because they were sick."

After six months researching how to make a humane store profitable, Turner is putting together a business plan to share with other retailers around the country.

"What’s in it for a retailer? They get the recognition from the community," Turner said. "Customers are going to feel more comfortable supporting a store that rescues. It’s the same mentality as going green. It’s win-win for the retailer, the shelters, for the rescues and for the orphans. No one loses." Asked why he went humane, he said, "It was the right thing to do."

Bark N’ Bitches, a retail pet boutique in the Fairfax district of L.A. has never sold live animals and is thriving despite the shrinking economy. "My business has never been better," says Shannon von Roemer, the owner. "This business is recessionproof because people aren’t spending on luxury cars but they are spending on a feel-good item for their furry best friend."

Roemer has rescued over eight hundred dogs in three years. "Retail and rescue works very well for me," says Roemer.

Whether or not this business model is actually "recessionproof," the success of Bark N’ Bitches is something to bark about.

Carole Raphaelle Davis is an animal welfare advocate and author of the Diary of Jinky, Dog of a Hollywood Wife. Visit her Web site at: