SCARBOROUGH – Just three weeks after buying a pet store on the Payne Road in Scarborough, Barbara Cross has found herself singled out as the first target in a statewide drive to restrict the retail sale of puppies and kittens.
At the June 26 meeting of the Scarborough’s ordinance committee, Gorham resident Lynne Farcassi submitted model ordinances aimed at ending the influence in Maine of so-called “puppy mills.” Five supporters, including local Planning Board member Kerry Corthell, joined her, and most told tearful tales of sick and emotionally scarred animals purchased at Cross’ store, Pawsitively Pets, under its previous owner.
Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Carol Rancourt said her group will consider Farcassi’s proposal at its next meeting July 31. Although Rancourt assured Cross that Scarborough “would never” adopt an ordinance targeting a single business, the fact remains, Cross owns the only pet store in town.
“This is all so sudden I haven’t actually had a chance to think about what would happen, or what we would do,” said Cross, at her store on Friday. “But I have to think that if they stop us from selling puppies, it would essentially put us out of business.”
Following the June 26 ordinance meeting, Cross and her boyfiend/business partner Jamie Nonni met for nearly two hours outside the town office with Farcassi and other members the year-old group she founded, Maine Citizens Against Puppy Mills.
“They’re a nice couple and they want to do the right thing,” Farcassi said following the meeting. “Unfortunately, they were unaware of the magnitude of the neglect and abuse in puppy mills, as well as the cat overpopulation crisis. We hope to mentor them and see a positive outcome for their business and for animals in need.”
That said, Farcassi added that if Cross does not change her business model “within a month or two” by selling dogs and cats on loan from local shelters and rescue groups instead of puppies imported from Midwest breeders, her group would resume picketing the store, as it did in April.
Farcassi said her group also intends to target Paws and Claws in North Windham and Tropic Pets in Waterboro, as well as pet stores in Auburn, Lewiston, Bangor, Skowhegan and Oxford. In each case, the strategy will be to induce local legislative bodies to adopt an ordinance banning the sale of puppies and kittens at pet stores within its jurisdiction. The group also will approach selectmen in Arundel and West Paris, each home to a large-scale breeding facility, in hopes of limiting breeding stocks to a maximum of 25 dogs.
“If you buy a puppy from a pet store in Maine, any pet store, it is in fact a puppy-mill puppy that’s come from parents that have been damned to a life of living hell,” said Farcassi.
A former breeder, groomer and shelter worker who logged five years as an animal control officer for nine Lakes Region towns, Farcassi said she learned firsthand about puppy mills while managing the Pet Menagerie, a now-closed pet store in the Maine Mall, from 1997 to 1999.
“Why would good breeders send puppies to pet stores with liver shunts, intestinal parasites, hypoglycemia, parvovirus, hip dysplasia, mega-esophagus and deafness?” she asked. “I inventoried the puppies. This is what I saw. It was a weekly event.”
That experience launched 15 years of research into so-called puppy mills, where dogs are alleged to be kept in inhumane conditions with the sole purpose of churning out pups for sale, to their lifelong detriment.
“The critical period for a dog is the first 14 weeks,” said Judy Moore, owner of Canine Behavior Counseling in Cumberland. “That’s the timeframe in which the dog establishes its coping skills to external factors. Puppies that are raised in a box usually grow up anti-social, fearful and defensive.
“There’s a huge difference between a pet store puppy and one obtained from a responsible breeder,” said Moore. “Even if the pet store dog goes to a good home, they are not going to be the dog they could have been.”
Most puppy mills, including many that have supplied Pawsitively Pets in the past, are in Midwestern states that do not require breeders to be licensed, Farcassi said, listing Kansas, Okalahoma and Missouri as the prime culprits.
“Missouri is called ‘Misery’ by people in the animal welfare world,” said Carol Reynolds, Farcassi’s main partner in her advocacy group.
A Naples resident who owns Bridgton-based pet grooming business Wizard of Paws, Reynolds detailed puppy mill conditions for the ordinance committee, saying taxpayers bear the cost in “overflowing shelters.”
“State and federal laws still lag behind public consensus,” she said. “We will continue to spread awareness of our cause until Maine can proudly claim to be a leader in animal welfare. We hope this committee will take this opportunity to be part of an enlightened movement by boycotting an outdated, inhumane and deceitful industry.”
But Cross said she’s far from deceitful. A former postal employee from Moultonborough, N.H., she moved to Maine one year ago and bought the pet store with Nonni specifically because of her love of dogs, she said.
In the first week after taking the keys to the store, before she had any idea of the forces lining up against her, Cross “blacklisted” one breeder because of a problem with its pups. Since then, she’s crossed more off her list of suppliers in an attempt to winnow it down to only the most responsible breeders and brokers.
Her puppies are given fresh water every hour and plenty of human interaction, she said. Their kennels are individually vented and lined with “horse bedding.” Future plans, said Cross, include discontinuing her store’s line of bird and lizard supplies in order to clear space for a larger play area for the dogs.
“I’m proud of the way we take care of our puppies,” said Cross. “I invite [Farcassi’s group] or anyone else to stop in and judge for themselves.”
Cross said her contact with breeders has led to her believe that operating size alone is not an indication of bad practices. She’d “love to” buy from small, Maine breeders, and is looking into how she can broker shelter and rescue dogs, Cross said, but she’ll still use the AKC registered breeders she’s come to trust.
“I understand a lot of things that I didn’t know I didn’t know before I got into the business,” said Cross, referring to her talks with the advocacy group. “After talking with them, and looking at the photos they showed us, we definitely want to make sure that we don’t support anything like that. We will make extra certain that none of our pups are coming from breeders who are set up in that way.”
Even so, Farcassi claims American Kennel Club accreditation is “a big money game” that’s no better guarantee of humane breeding conditions than bi-annual walk-throughs by overworked USDA inspectors. She and Reynolds said they will not stop their campaign until enough Maine towns ban pet store sales to spur legislative action. The reason for starting on the municipal level, said Farcassi, is that her group does not have the time and money to lobby in Augusta. Their hope is that they can sway a seven-member town council to their cause easier than the entire state Legislature, and start their ball rolling that way.
Although Cross fears for the future of her fledgling business enterprise, Farcassi and Reynolds insist she can still make a living dealing in shelter dogs.
“That’s a national trend that’s taking off at pet stores across the country,” said Farcassi. “But they can’t think they can just switch to local breeders. No legitimate breeder in Maine will ever sell to a pet store.”
Patsy Murphy, executive director of the Animal Refuge League in Westbrook, said her shelter often showcases the cats it has up for adoption in retail locations, like Pet Quarters. However, the store does not get a cut on the sale.
“They’re just helping us out,” said Murphy. “Beyond that, we have what we would consider to be our own storefront. It doesn’t make any sense that we would take our dogs out to be adopted, but it’s certainly worth a conversation. It all depends on what’s in the best interests of the animals.”