RED BANK: ‘PUPPY MILL’ BILL DEBATED

Bark Avenue owner Gary Hager cuddles Winston, a puppy brought to the council meeting by one of Hager’s customers. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

HOT-TOPIC_03An effort to limit the sale of dogs sourced from so-called puppy mills sparked extended debate at the Red Bank council’s first regular meeting of 2018 Wednesday night.

For nearly 90 minutes, supporters of the town’s only puppy retailer, Bark Avenue Puppies, argued that the proposed ordinance would kill the shop and reduce consumer choice while having no impact on the underside of the industry.

Proponents of the bill, however, said such concerns were overstated.

Hager listens from the front row as Vyolet Savage speaks in favor of a proposed puppy mill ordinance Wednesday night. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

Aimed solely at retailers, the proposed law would “regulate or essentially prohibit the type of commercial sales of kittens or puppies that are generated from non-501(c)3 establishments,” said Mayor Pasquale Menna, using the Internal Revenue Service terminology for charitable organizations.

It would, according to the version discussed, allow the retail sale of puppies and kittens only if the stores acquire them shelters or rescue organizations. Such a requirement, the draft ordinance said, “is likely to decrease the demand for puppies and kittens bred in puppy and kitten mills, and is likely to increase demand for animals from animal shelters and rescue organizations.”

Those are unrealistic expectations, said Gary Hager, a financial consultant who bought the East Front Street based Bark Avenue Puppies three years ago. His shop, which specializes in French bulldogs, toy breeds and “designer mixes,” only obtains puppies from “the best-of-breed breeders.”

He said he had reached out to rescue organizations asking for information about dogs that he would be willing to post in his shop, at the risk of losing a sale, so that customers would see other options.

“What do the rescues say? ‘We’re not interested,'” Hager said. “‘You’re bad. You can’t sell puppies.'”

“There is no pet store that is going to be able to go to a shelter and say, ‘give me your rescues and I’ll resell them,'” as the borough law would require, Hager said. “That’s not a law. You really might just dumb it down to a couple of lines and say, ‘no pet stores.'”

Joseph Fretta, a physician and West Front Street resident, blasted the council for “condemning” Hager.

“Bark Avenue is not a puppy mill. It’s a pet shop,” Fretta said. “Here’s a man who’s got a great business, who’s very good to the people. And I’m listening to some of you condemning what he’s doing. Is this the United States, or is this the old Soviet Union?”

Referring to her dogs as her “babies,” of Debbie Grimaldi of Drs. James Parker Boulevard said she found it “appalling” that the council appeared ready to “tell me where I’m going to get my next baby from.”

Another of Hager’s customers, Elizabeth Spurrier of West Long Branch, stepped up to the microphone holding a puppy named Winston, which she handed over to Hager as she praised of Bark Avenue for refusing to release the dog to her before Christmas Eve, when a minor health issue was resolved.

Several other store owners from around New Jersey, and a lawyer for a pet store trade association,  argued that the New Jersey Pet Purchase Protection Act that went into effect last year is the most stringent in the nation, offering safeguards that the borough law wouldn’t further without imperiling shops.

For example, retailers are now on the hook for veterinary cost reimbursements for sick puppies, up to twice the amount paid for the dog. Shelters and rescue operations are not, they said.

Other opponents of the bill said it would do nothing to curb the activities of unscrupulous breeders, who are unregulated.

But the proposed ordinance had supporters, including two members of the four-month-old Red Bank Animal Welfare Advisory Committee— chairperson Vyolet Savage and Karen Fasano Thomsen. Savage said the committee endorsed the ban.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which is charged with inspecting breeding operations that register, is understaffed and ineffective at keeping mill puppies out of the market, Savage said.

“I will say that there are also reputable breeders that are out there, but none of them sell their animals to stores,” she said. She urged to council to look closely at the issue, “not to put someone out of business, but to really look at how animals are treated, how the community is protected without supporting puppy mills.”

Fasano Thomsen, an attorney who heads the committee’s legislative subcommittee, disputed an earlier comment that Red Bank did not have the authority to pass an ordinance that might supercede state law on the issue.

“This is not an assault on any local business owner,” she said. “This is an ordinance that pertains to a moral obligation and also to a public policy directive that our state, our nation, our community has embraced for decades.”

The debate was bookended before and after the public comments by a disagreement on the council about whether the proposed ordinance should even be introduced.

“I don’t think it’s in the right form to introduce,” Councilman Mike Whelan. Noting that he, too, didn’t want to see the sale of animals from puppy mills, he said that “to just say we are not allowed to sell any puppies [other than those from shelters and rescue organizations] is not the right move.”

Whelan got support from his lone fellow Republican, Councilman Mark Taylor, who the proposal “fatally flawed” as written, and would “unfairly punish” proprietors who “are doing the right thing.

“I think we want to send a message that Red Bank’s not about puppy mills,” Taylor said. “But I think we want to do it in the right way.”

Whelan and Taylor contended the council should hear public input and then do further research before introducing a bill. The motion to introduce, however, passed by a 4-2 vote along party lines.

A second hearing, and possible final adoption, was scheduled for February 28, rather than the customary two weeks after introduction.

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