A packed public hearing on Wednesday in Fairfield was tense and a police officer stood watch at the back of the room as a series of pet store owners and animal welfare advocates spoke about possible legislation requiring Connecticut pet shops to sell only dogs and cats from shelters, in-state breeders and rescue organizations instead of commercial breeders or puppy mills.
After two school-age girls spoke in favor of the legislation and left the hearing, the air grew more serious. At times the audience erupted in applause or shouts, resulting in task force co-chair State Sen. Bob Duff reprimanding them.
Pet store owners had turns at the microphone, arguing that humane sourcing legislation would put an end to their businesses selling puppies.
Several men who own pet stores said they use good breeders who they visit every three or four years, noting that the breeders are mostly located in the mid west.
More than one pet store owner said it is hard to compete with the big box stores on prices for pet food and supplies.
Steve Primus, operating Statewide Pets since 1972, said he wants shelters to be regulated as his store is, and complained about unregulated online sales of puppies.
Asked by Duff why people buy from his store versus a rescue Primus replied, "It's an easier process. A customer can leave with a dog that day," he said, claiming customers tell him they've been turned down by rescue groups for not having a fenced yard or for living in an apartment.
Primus said there are not enough hobby breeders in Connecticut to meet demand for puppies and that he would be put out of business if he were required to sell rescue dogs.
"The rescues have mostly pit bull mixes and there aren't puppies available," said Primus. "And it's American to let them buy what they want."
Ed Foucault, owner of All Pets Club, in business for 24 years, said, "Let's work together to get substandard breeders out of business and keep the good ones. Why put a good breeder out of business or prevent them from selling to my store?"
Foucault said that he took in 1,660 puppies last year, placing 1,600 of them and that he employs 99 people at his four stores. He reported a return rate of less than 1%, though he said he lost five dogs this year due to Parvo.
Of a possible requirement that he sell rescue dogs, Foucault warned, "It'll drive a regulated and inspected industry underground."
Peter Noel, owner of Gentle Jungle Pets in Meriden, said he sells puppies, kittens and bunnies, and wants the Puppy Lemon Law to apply to breeders, shelters and rescues.
"I'm just Puppy Pete who runs a pet shop in Meriden," Noel said. "I want to work on a solution with everyone. Except the maniacs who have called me a child molester," he added emphatically.
"There are good guys and bad guys," Noel continued, referring to breeders, before singling out one group as a bad example.
"Specifically the Amish Country. They're terrible! They figure they can make even more money raising puppies in chicken coops than chickens. But that doesn't mean we are doing the wrong thing."
"But it's still America! This isn't broken like Obamacare," said Noel, eliciting a few gasps from the audience and flat stares back from Kupchick and Duff.
Noel reported using both breeders and brokers and said he had not visited them in three years. "I can't be in Connecticut and all over the country."
Brian Winslow, the Director of Animal Welfare for pet stores franchiser Petland, said he travels extensively and that breeders in mid western states mostly exceed USDA regulations. He described working against "stereotypes" that are "not fact based," are "emotional" and "ignore reality."
Denise Cassano from DAWS (Danbury Animal Welfare Society) in Bethel spoke after Winslow. She quickly pointed out that Winslow's employer, Petland, has no pet stores in Connecticut.
"Why is he here?" Cassano asked. "Petland is owned by Hunte, a Missouri puppy broker where stacks of wire cages sit blocks long. They export over 90,000 puppies a year in trucks."
Timothy Sheehan of Bridgeport recounted the story of a bloodhound puppy he purchased on Dec. 28, 2012 from All Pets Club in Southington. Sheehan said the first morning he had the puppy he discovered it had multiple health problems including pneumonia and that the vet discovered a wood screw in its stomach.
"All Pets Club has refused to follow the Pet Lemon Law requirements," said Sheehan, who explained that he has over $5,000 in accumulated vet bills.
"To date I have received no compensation from All Pets Club," Sheehan said, adding that he has since learned about the breeder used by the pet store. "They represented (the breeder) to be an individual named Michelle Hawk. I found out that the puppy was from a large scale mill operation called Rockin H Kennel out of Coffeyville, Kansas."
Monty Kaufman, who owns Puppies of Westport in Norwalk with his wife Lauren, placed blame on the USDA, which inspects commercial breeders.
"The budget of the USDA has been decreased every year for the last 6 years. If we're not going to care about what's happening with our animals and we're going to allow our Congressmen to lower the budget of the single group that protects our food and our animals, and let them keep tearing away at that budget, then we ought to be doing some work," said Kaufman.
"People are entitled to buy the puppy of their choice – a right cherished by all in a free society," Kaufman shouted.
Kaufman began to suggest alternatives to the possible legislation favored by the animal welfare activists. "Limit stores in the state to buying from breeders with no direct violations for the last two years. I pick two years because I think it's possible to have redemption. At least the HSUS thinks so, because two years after Michael Vick was totally, totally denigrated for what he did, he was hugged and embraced by the president of the HSUS as someone who was totally reformed and ready to have a dog after he contributed $50,000 to that organization."
Kaufman went on listing suggestions, pounding his fist on the table for emphasis.
"We should add more state animal control officers. There should be more unannounced inspections. We should limit dog trafficking from other states and countries. ...There should be more public education about internet puppies. That's a horror," he said before listing more suggestions.
"We should be lobbying Congress for more USDA funding and enforcement," said Kaufman, adding that he wants vets to be required to report every case of Parvo, whether it's from a breeder, shelter or a pet store. "That's not being done, and I can guarantee you that there are far more cases of Parvo coming out of shelters in this state than there are coming out of pet stores."
Surmising the outcome of the possible law requiring pet stores to sell rescue dogs, Kaufman said, "Make no mistake, all or most of the existing puppy stores would close, doing little more than thrill animal rights groups who have a hidden agenda."
"A half million dollars in sales tax would be lost by the state, and I think that money should go to Ray Connors (Dept. of Agriculture) to hire 7 or 8 more animal control officers..." Kaufman shouted, as he jumped up to toss what looked like a stack of pretend money in front of Connors.
When audience members shouted at Kaufman that his three minutes were up, Duff asked him to wrap it up. "Too bad, I'm sorry," shouted Kaufman. "We're talking about my livelihood here and I don't think I deserve to be attacked the way I have been."
"Closing puppy stores is not the answer," Kaufman concluded. "It might be acceptable in China, but it doesn't belong in Connecticut."
Following Kaufman, was his wife Lauren who said she is tired of being called "Cruella" or "Natasha and Boris."
"They have hurt us," Lauren Kaufman said. "We have been unfairly vilified...What the activists won't tell you is the (shelter) dogs are terrier, pit bull types, too old, too sad or aggressive. The ultimate goal of the activists is to prevent people from owning dogs."
Following a string of pet store owners, Karen Rasmussen of Wilton said she had spent seven years researching the link between puppy stores and breeders before presenting the task force with her report. The report includes photos of violations taken by USDA inspectors, thousands of which she has acquired through the Freedom of Information Act requests.
"All stores in Connecticut selling puppies from out-of-state sources obtain a majority of them from breeding facilities with violations of the Animal Welfare Act," Rasmussen said flatly, directing her ire toward PIJAC (Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council) representative Charles Sewell.
Rasmussen said PIJAC boasts a zero tolerance for bad breeders, "Yet PIJAC's Board Member Ryan Boyle is VP of Sales sand Marketing for Hunte Corporation. Hunte is the largest puppy broker in the country...with violations so severe they defy belief. The puppies from these breeders are trucked directly to our stores."
"Anyone who condones this type of treatment towards dogs should be ashamed," said Rasmussen, advocating a boycott and a requirement that pet stores provide rescued animals only."
Rescue advocate Kerri Ann Hofer of Greenwich described the USDA photos as compelling.
"I hope that by now you've all seen the photos of dogs whose feet are deformed from standing on wire flooring their entire lives, dogs who are living with painful matted coats, dogs who have not received proper medical care, not to mention photos of endless piles of feces," Hofer said.
Concluding with a question, Hofer asked, "If these photos were attached to the cages of the puppies for sale, how many people would support this industry?"
A second hearing will be hosted by the Task Force Concerning the Sale of Cats and Dogs at CT Pet Shops from Inhumane Origins in the Legislative Office Building room 1D in Hartford at 1:00pm on Nov. 13th.