This morning, MSNBC has an interesting article about the movement around the country to outlaw the sale of companion pets at pet stores. The article was sparked by the decision of West Hollywood, CA's city council's unanimous decision to pass the ban on pet retails stores.
The response among many animal welfare folks on facebook and twitter today has been largely one of excitement about the idea/opportunity to ban pet stores in their community. Many (somewhat rightfully) pet stores as the funding mechanism/distribution center for 'puppy mill' dogs that are often poorly bred and mistreated. And after failed attempts to close down 'puppy mills' through other legislation, they see this as another opportunity close off the supply of commercially bred dogs and send more people to adoption agencies.
And I can't help but think this line of thinking completely ignores where the rescue community has largely failed -- and without fixing these failings, we will continue to not make a dent in the demand for commercially bred dogs.
First off, let me say that I understand where people are coming from with their disgust of 'puppy mills'. It seems that a week doesn't go by without some new word of another bust of a commercial breeder where animals were kept in horrible conditions. The images of the dirty, mangy dogs that are kept in tiny, feces-filled kennels fill our minds.
News of the recent USDA report admitting that they have failed in doing their jobs of investigating, fining and shutting down poorly run operartions only adds to the feeling that stopping the demand for the dogs from these large-scale breeders will be impossible without such a bold move.
Trust me. I get that.
But aside from my political concern about government shutting down businesses that are selling legal 'products' (which falls under my political notion of be careful what you wish for) there is a reason people are turning to pet stores over adopting from shelters -- and in most cases it has very little to do with the cute puppy in the window. And unless the animal welfare/shelter community fixes this, many will continue to buy the same 'puppy mill' puppies, but do so via the internet. And you can't close down the internet.
So why is it that people would choose to buy a $600 puppy vs adopting one from the shelter?
For the most part, I think it comes very much down to the retail concept I talked about last week.
Many shelters are in distant, out-of-the way locations. They have short hours (open 11-5 Mon-Sat) when most people are at work. The conditions in the shelter aren't terribly inviting, and people adopt with the guilt of knowing that the puppy they didn't choose may end up getting killed at the end of the week.
Meanwhile, pet stores are fun! The animals seem well-cared for. They're in high-traffic areas where someone who is just shopping for something else may say "let's go look at the kittens" and just go take a quick look, fall in love, and buy one even if they weren't really in the market for one. They get to pay their money, no questions asked, and get the animal. No contracts. No home checks. No feeling that they aren't good enough to take home that pet.
And at the end of the day, the act of getting a new pet was a great experience. They take the pet home, fall in love, and most have few problems with their pets and no regrets.
The pet stores have picked the better retail location, provided the better customer experience, and thus, have been able to 'outsell" the shelters even though they have more expensive 'products'.
And in places where this dynamic has changed, shelters are winning.
Last month, the Fort Worth Animal Care and Control division began a partnership with the PetSmart store in their area where they began adopting out pets from the PetSmart store location. In the first 12 days of being open, the off-site, retailer-based adoption facility adopted out over 100 dogs and cats -- a volume that would have taken at least a month in their traditional shelter facility. The shelter went from being a high-kill facility to having its first two no-kill weeks overnight - and in fact, started pulling animals from other shelters because they weren't able to keep up with the demand.
Last December, Merriam, KS based Animal Haven opened up a storefront in Oak Park Mall (probably the premier mall in the Kansas City metro) and adopted out 159 pets from this storefront in just over a month during December of last year.
Across the country, even shelters that aren't opening up off-site retail locations are finding success by making their current locations more inviting to potential adopters by offering more convenient hours, play rooms where people can take pets to spend time playing with them outside of the kennel environment. They're keeping their facilities cleaner, making them brighter and more consumer-friendly, and even selling pet supplies there like they are a pet store. They are making the requirements for adopting less like an interrogation, and more as an opportunity to teach pet owners how to be good pet owners.
And they are seeing success. They are seeing that if they make the "retail experience" pleasant, they can win over the traditional pet store locations, and increase their adoptions.
And if the shelter/rescue community can not make the adoption experience fun and pleasant, they will continue to lose adoption opportunities to those who do...whether they be pet stores, or online purchases.
I think the MSNBC article had a really interesting case study. In 2006, Albuquerque, NM banned the sale of pets in pet stores. Since the ban has taken affect, animal adoptions in the city have increased 23% and shelter killing has decreased by 35%.
But the results may not have been entirely due to the closing of pet stores.
At the same time, Animal Humane New Mexico - a private shelter in Albuquerque -- stepped in to fill the demand for pets. The organization opend a boutique-style adoption center so people could "shop" for shelter dogs in a retail-like environment. While their goal was to adopt out 45 animals in the first month, they instead, places 118 animals in new homes. The retail-style outlet has been so successful that they are considering opening up a second location later this year.
Says executive director Peggy Weigle:
"Many people will say, 'Oh, I just can't go to the shelter, it's just too sad,'" Weigle said. "But if you make a guilt-free shopping experience available, and they don't have to be confronted with 100 homeless pets staring them in the face, the shopping experience is very parallel to a pet store. If you give the public a choice to shop in that kind of an environment, they will"
And that's exactly the point. If you make the adoption experience a good one, people will be happy to adopt. In fact, more than half of the people in the US already say they will get their next pet from a shelter. If we make sure they have a good experience, if we make sure that they aren't unnecessarily denied the opportunity to adopt, and we make sure it is a guilt-free 'shopping' experience, the sheltering community will win.
If we don't, we'll lose regardless of whether we shut down pet stores or not.