ALBANY — Pet shop owner Sondra Whalen didn't wait for state legislation to decide it was time to stop selling dogs and cats.
The owner of Sondra's City Zoo said she had been selling pets from her store in Elmira, since she opened the store seven years ago. But her concern over the conditions endured by animals in "puppy mills" — along with getting convinced by an animal rights activist — prompted her decision to stop selling dogs and cats.
Scores of other pet shops across New York would be directed to stop selling dogs, cats and rabbits to customers under a measure advancing in both houses of the state Legislature.
The legislation has won the enthusiastic support of both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, though it is being vigorously opposed by the American Kennel Club. The latter group argues the legislation would wipe out consumer choice in how pets are acquired.
But Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, D- Queens, sponsor of the legislation, said dogs and cats should be shielded from abysmal conditions in puppy mills. He contended allowing pet stores to sell them has facilitated the abuse.
"Animals are living beings," Gianaris said. "They love and they want to be loved. We shouldn't treat them like commodities — products that are manufactured for sale."
Pet stores, under the legislation also sponsored by Asssemblyman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, could continue to sell products and services and offer space to shelters and rescue organizations to showcase animals available for adoption.
Commercial dog breeders, out to supply a high volume of dogs for retailers, have been poorly regulated by the federal government, contended Bill Ketzer, the ASPCA's senior director of state legislation for the Northeast region.
"Pet stores do everything in their power to sell these dogs, conveniently excluding well-documented health and behavioral risks in their pitch to buyers who believe they are going home with a healthy, well-bred puppy," Ketzer said.
A very different picture of the breeding industry is painted by Sheila Goffe, the AKC's vice president of government relations. She branded the New York legislation "outdated," maintaining it lumps "high quality" breeders together with "substandard" puppy mills.
"We believe there’s a need for more — not less — support for responsible breeders whose carefully-bred and raised pets bring joy to those lucky enough to obtain one," Goffe said. "In fact, many historic breeds of dogs — from Otterhounds, to Foxhounds to Sussex Spaniels — are growing increasingly rare."
Whalen, contacted at her shop, said she began considering the arguments of animal rights activists after a disagreement broke out on her shop's Facebook page.
She said she decided to visit an animal care sanctuary in Pennsylvania, where puppies from a breeding mill were being evaluated.
"Before," she said, "I had thought the cruelty was the exception, not the rule. But then I realized I needed to do something different."
She said she expects her store and its customers will adjust to the change, noting she plans to stay in close contact with shelters in her region.
Libby Post, director of the New York State Animal Federation, said if New York embraces the proposed ban, it would become the third state to do so, following the lead of California and Maryland. Scores of municipalities have also enacted similar measures.
Post said the New York legislation differs from the law in California, where pet stores are allowed to sell pets provided by shelters.
"We're gearing up to do all the advocacy and grassroots organizing that needs to be done to get this moving," Post said. "The fact that it has sponsors with Rosenthal and Gianaris sends a clear message that both houses would like to see this happen."
Meanwhile, both the Assembly and Senate have passed budget resolutions calling for $5 million to help shelters across the state with capital improvements. The spending plan remains under negotiations between Gov. Andrew Cuomo's staff and lawmakers.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com .