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Pet Shops: Merchants of Misery

Published 10/02/05

What's a better purchase than an adorable new friend from a pet store? Just about anything! In many people's minds, pet shops are fun places, full of adorable animals romping and playing while patiently awaiting their "forever home."

But the reality of life in a pet shop is far different. That "doggie in the window" likely came from a puppy mill, where dogs are often bred repeatedly; kept in small, barren cages; and treated solely as merchandise, not as feeling beings. Life for dogs — and other animals — in pet shops is no better. Serious welfare problems abound when animals are kept in retail environments.

Instances of sick and neglected animals, animals in psychological distress, unsuitable and unsanitary conditions, and ill-informed store employees, are not isolated incidents in pet shops. Across the nation, animals sold in pet shops suffer from inadequate care and housing and poor handling by employees.

In a retail environment, animals must be treated like commodities in order for the store to realize economic gain. Providing toys and adequate cage space cuts into profits, if only marginally, and the cost of veterinary care for sick and injured animals can easily exceed the animals' commercial value.

Pet shop owners or managers have the often conflicting responsibilities of making a store profitable and caring for animals. The fact is, when retailers are faced with a choice between endangering revenues and endangering animals, the bottom line usually wins.

For some animals, suffering and risk do not end at the point of sale. Individuals who purchase animals in pet stores often do so out of impulse, without fully understanding the commitment required to provide lifelong care for the animal. This means that thousands of reptiles, exotic birds, and other animals are sold to people who will be unable to provide lifetime care and meet the unique needs of these animals.

To make matters worse, most animals housed in retail pet facilities are not afforded protection by the federal Animal Welfare Act. In the absence of federal regulation, each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia has enacted its own anti-cruelty statutes with variable degrees of protection offered to animals. The quality and the scope of these laws vary from state to state, as does enforcement.

Many of the laws that do exist do not go far enough in defining "cruelty." Animal welfare organizations frequently receive reports of incidents involving substandard care of animals in pet shops. Unfortunately, too often conditions that seem cruel and inappropriate do not actually violate any laws of the state in which the store is located.

Moreover, many complaints come from employees or other individuals who "don't want to get too involved"; yet without their direct testimony or evidence in the form of photographs, videotape, or other witnesses, such situations will likely go unnoticed by the appropriate enforcement agencies. Sadly, even if violations are reported to law enforcement agencies, too few are adequately investigated or result in charges being filed.

Given the serious problem of companion animal population and the cruelty inherent in treating living beings as merchandise, there is simply no excuse for pet shops to continue to sell live animals.

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