By JOHN T. WARD
“I must ask how much of our taxpayer money are you willing to spend on this unconstitutional ordinance?” Bark Avenue Puppies owner Gary Hager asked the council at its semimonthly meeting. “I’m willing to spend a lot, because I have right on my side.”
Karen Fasano Thomsen, an attorney on the Red Bank Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, distributed stacks of correspondence in support of the puppy mill law to council members. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
As in January, when the ordinance was first introduced, the issue drew a large turnout, both of animal activists and defenders of Bark Avenue, which specializes in French bulldogs, toy breeds and “designer mixes.”
Hager, who bought the West Front Street shop three years ago, contends he only acquires puppies from reputable breeders who adhere to the highest standards of care.
“Just by bringing up this ordinance, my reputation in this town has been injured,” Hager told the council.
He maintains that forcing him to source his animals from non-breeders will effectively kill his business, and put seven employees out of work, because no animal shelter or rescue operation will supply retailers.
The ordinance was barely changed from the version floated in January, only adding a “sunrise” provision that would defer the start of enforcement until May 1, 2019. The earlier version had been slated for a vote on February 28 — six weeks after introduction, rather than the usual two — but that date came and went without any action.
Hagar said that in the four months since then, he had been visited in his shop by Mayor Pasquale Menna and Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, who’s the council liaison to the animal committee, and that they “had reconfirmed a desire to not institute an ordinance which would close my business. They were after puppy mills: understood.”
But no one from the town’s Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, the driving force behind the bill, had reached out to him, he said.
“Everybody should know this, I don’t care whether you’re activist or not activist. There was a commitment made by the council to sit down and talk with the stakeholders, not once, but three times,” Hager said. “But to this date there has been no meeting, no contact, not one phone call returned.”
“Whoever’s thinking about opening a business in Red Bank, you’d better rethink it, because they could be coming for you next,” Hager said.
Janice Fisher, of Friends of Animals United of New Jersey, disputed Hager’s claims as to the sources of his animals, citing United State Department of Agriculture records from 2015 and 2016.
“This guy has imported puppies from breeders with USDA violations, yes” Fisher, of Manasquan, told redbankgreen. She said Hager has been quoted in the news media as saying “his breeders need to have a 100-percent flawless USDA record. They do not.”
She said she would send proof to redbankgreen.
Brian Hackett, New Jersey director of the Humane Society of the United States, told the council that New Jersey once had 45 stores selling live cats and dogs, but the number has been cut in half, not by legislation, but by health problems or “because it’s really a dying business model, to sell cats and dogs for profit.”
“People learn about the source of these animals,” he said. “People don’t want to be a part of it.” Some 120 New Jersey municipalities have adopted bans similar to the one proposed for Red Bank, and Maryland last week became the second state, after California, to do the same, he said.
Here’s the proposed ordinance, which is slate for an adoption vote May 30: RB 2018-16
Councilman Mark Taylor, a lame-duck Republican who in January said the bill would “unfairly punish” proprietors who “are doing the right thing,” reiterated those comments Wednesday.
“I’m actually disappoint in the council,” he said. The animal welfare committee “didn’t meet with the stakeholders as promised. We’re not letting the process play out as it should. It seems like a fait accompli.”
Karen Fasano Thomsen, a lawyer who heads the legislative subcommittee of the animal committee, told redbankgreen that she had offered to meet with Hager’ attorney, and Horgan had met with Hager as the committee liaison.
“But just to be clear, there’s no mandate” that the committee meet with animal store owners, she said.
Has the committee concluded that Hager is selling animals from puppy mills? redbankgreen asked.
“That’s not the committee’s job,” Fasano Thomsen said. “It’s an animal welfare issue, not a business issue.”
She said the sunrise provision would give Hager a year to change his business model, under which Bark Avenue could become a retailer of pet supplies rather than live animals.
Referring to his threat of litigation, Hager told the council, “guaranteed, it will be done. While the activists’ friends will tell you that it has withstood legal challenges in other jurisdictions, it has not truly been challenged in the state of New Jersey.”