Don’t buy that puppy in the window

There was considerable confusion in Bellevue Council chambers Tuesday night as it came time to vote on four ordinances designed to protect animals. I can’t really blame them, as it almost appeared that the ordinances were more of a PR stunt than a serious effort at ensuring the welfare of animals.

For many years now, I have served as a regional coordinator for the Humane PA PAC, which works at the state level to get laws protecting animals through the state house and senate and onto the governor’s desk for signature. While the PAC, blessed with some state legislators who truly care about animals, has had some remarkable successes in recent years, each of them has been the hard-fought result of years of work to make sure legislators understand the laws and why they are so important.

That is why we welcomed the creation of Humane Action Pittsburgh (HAP), which attempts to do the same thing at the local government level. While we are tangled in the red tape of Harrisburg, they can get the same laws passed one by one at the local level. The City of Pittsburgh has some of the most progressive animal welfare laws in the state, if not the country, because HAP has worked with city officials to enact those laws.

Now the time has come to reach out to the smaller surrounding communities in an effort to create an entire region of humane awareness.

Mayor Emily Marburger invited HAP to Bellevue and introduced ordinances pretty much identical to those enacted in the City of Pittsburgh. It was so clear, however, that those ordinances never underwent discussion and scrutiny at the committee level. When they came up for a vote, they still contained references to Pittsburgh and its system of animal law enforcement. If officials never addressed the blatant problems with the ordinance, how could they possibly have grasped the underlying reasoning?

So I can’t really blame anyone on council for thinking that it might be all right to amend the one ordinance to allow the sale of some commercially bred puppies, kittens and bunnies in pet stores, as long as they don’t come from puppy, kitten, bunny mills. They had no real education on the world of puppy mills, USDA certifications, “reputable breeders” and pet stores.

There are more than a few people in the animal welfare community who believe that everyone should adopt their pets from shelters and never buy from a breeder because of how many animals are killed in shelters every year when there is no more room. I used to feel this way myself, which is why my life-long dream of having a Great Dane took so long to come true. I finally discovered that there was a Great Dane Rescue not far from here, and that was where – after much investigation, including references and a home visit – I was finally able to adopt Arthur.

Arthur is the one who changed my thinking on purebred animals. Danes have a very short lifespan, and getting Arthur when he was 5 years old left me only three years with this incredible companion. I also saw that there are characteristics of purebred animals that are almost magical and should not be lost to the world.

So shortly after Arthur died, I looked for a “reputable” Great Dane breeder. I got a major education on breeders, that’s for sure. And I found out exactly what is meant by “reputable” breeder.

In my research, I came across a breeder in Ohio. She had maybe a half dozen dogs, not the dozens that you will find in commercial breeding operations. Each dog was bred with an eye to the dog’s health and temperament.

And I couldn’t just walk in off the street and buy a dog. Oh, no. After lengthy conversations with the breeder, I was allowed to get on a waiting list for a puppy that had not yet been conceived. It would be a good eight months before I ever held that puppy in my arms. During that time I remained in constant contact with the breeder. I received photos of the puppies in utero. I received frequent updates while Deacon’s mom was in labor. Once born, I received photos at least once a week, including those that showed my boy playing with his siblings and the breeder’s human family. I was welcome to visit the breeder’s farm at any time and have full access to all the dogs and their environments.

While waiting for Deacon to be old enough to leave his dog mom, I sent him a small blanket that I had slept with for several nights so it would hold my scent. That blanket would come home with him carrying the scent of his mom and siblings so that Deacon could make an easier adjustment to his new home.

When I finally made the two-and-a-half hour drive to pick him up, I was presented with a wealth of information about the care and raising of Great Dane puppies. It was then I was admitted to a private Facebook group made up only of people who had gotten dogs from this breeder. We shared photos and advice, asked questions, and enjoyed complete transparency about all the puppies. I’ve made some great friends from that group, and discovered that Deacon’s brother/ littermate was living right over in Westmoreland County. They celebrated their first birthdays together.

I can guarantee you that no one who has purchased a puppy from a pet store has had this experience. I can guarantee you that no “reputable breeder” would even consider turning over a puppy to a pet store for resale to a stranger.

Pet store buyers will never visit the place where their puppies were born, or be able to monitor their lives before showing up in a window at a pet store. And the USDA certification that comes along with that pet store puppy isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, because the USDA has failed miserably to protect animals, with limited inspections, no license revocations for violations, and now the USDA is even redacting the breeders’ names and addresses from violation reports available to the public.

This is what the members of Bellevue Council needed to understand. This is what I told them, point blank. And this is why that ordinance is going back to committee to be amended. And just to be on the safe side, I suggested that the mayor veto this ordinance.

This ordinance is far too important to be lost in the confusion of local government. As advocates for animals, it is our job to do what needs to be done, say what needs to be said, over and over again until the message is received.