Collective double take

The animal welfare community did a collective double take at the recent announcement that Ed Sayres, retired CEO of the ASPCA, lifelong animal welfare advocate and professional, was named as the new president and CEO of a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). PIJAC may not be a familiar name to you, but here at Best Friends Animal Society we know them all too well. PIJAC routinely opposes every humane regulation related to pet stores and puppy mills as part of their efforts to make animal sales more profitable.

I have known Ed since his days as the head of the American Humane Association’s animal protection division in the late 1990s and then over the intervening years when he headed up PetSmart Charities®, served as president of the San Francisco SPCA (1998-2004) and, most recently, had a nearly 10-year tenure at the ASPCA, based in New York City.

To say that I am surprised by his move to PIJAC is an understatement. Ed has devoted much of his working life to saving animals, so I am trying to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he truly believes he can change the pet trade business model. It’s either that, or it’s the equivalent of the U.S. Surgeon General leaving his position to work for the Philip Morris tobacco company.

My first encounter with PIJAC was 20 years ago when some colleagues and I attended a pet trade conference in Las Vegas. We sat in on a session led by the then-PIJAC chief, Marshall Meyers. Speaking to a crowd of pet retailers, Meyers reassured them that PIJAC had their back when it came to fighting regulations like minimum cage sizes for birds and all the spiffy new pocket pets who were headed their way. We quickly realized that these folks were not potential partners for Best Friends.

While most members of PIJAC are pet product manufacturers and retailers that have nothing to do with the sale of live animals, the organization’s board includes representatives from two big players in the pet trade — the Hunte Corporation, which is the largest distributor of puppies from mills to pet stores, and Petland, Inc., the largest retailer of mill-bred pets.

The influence from these two giants is apparent. PIJAC has fought every effort to introduce humane standards of care to commercial pet breeding at every level of government. Currently, according to the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that oversees puppy mills, a dog the size of a beagle can spend his entire life, 24/7, inside a cage no larger than your average kitchen dishwasher.

In an open letter to PIJAC members, Ed states:

“I have the skills necessary to reduce the polarized dynamics between animal welfare organizations and the industry. I know, after 40 years in animal welfare, that regulations that are well thought out protect animals and facilitate commerce … I am especially interested in the challenge of breeding pure-bred dogs on a large scale with humane care standards that prioritize the care and conditions that matter most to the well being and lifetime care of the dog. I may be the only person in the animal welfare field who believes this is feasible. After spending two days visiting the Hunte Corporation, I now know it is possible.”

I am inclined to agree that he may be the only person in animal welfare who feels that way, but then again, he is no longer in animal welfare.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. The economic realities of large-scale commercial breeding of pets are in direct conflict with the early-life physical, mental and emotional needs of an animal intended to become a member of someone’s family, not to mention the lifelong breeding servitude to which these animals’ parents are chained.

Imagine a puppy mill with 50 breeding females and a few stud dogs. They are living in cages or small runs, depending on the size of the breed. It is unlikely that each breeding pair will have been through the expensive screening for heritable diseases, to which virtually all breeds of dogs are subject. It is also unlikely — and I would actually say impossible — for these dogs to receive the human attention, exercise and enrichment that dogs need.

The same goes for their puppies. They are considered “livestock” by the USDA and again, the economics of the trade dictate how much can be spent on health care, feeding, kennel staff, food quality and housing for a puppy who will be sold to a distributer for a couple of hundred dollars at most. In most cases, the wholesale price to the distributor (the Hunte Corporations of the world) doesn’t justify the veterinary costs to look after a sick puppy. The distributor in turn sells to the pet store for $500 or less per pup and the retailer, who has the overhead of rent and staff, jacks the price to as much as $2,000 or more.

Good luck to Ed if he thinks he can work the economics of the pet trade in favor of the animals. He’ll need it.

Best Friends is staunchly opposed to commercial breeding operations for any species as they currently exist, or are likely to exist in any imaginable permutation of the pet trade. Puppies are not toasters. They are not “products” to be commoditized. Neither are kittens, bunnies, birds, rodents or reptiles. Best Friends’ director of well-being studies, Dr. Frank McMillan, has published two important peer-reviewed studies on the detrimental effects on puppy mill dogs, both breeders and pups. His sobering findings can be read here.

The mission of Best Friends Animal Society is to bring about a time of No More Homeless Pets. That translates into ending the killing of shelter pets in the U.S. As long as dogs and cats are dying in our nation’s shelters, there is no reason to buy one from a breeder. We look forward to the day when buying a puppy, kitten, bunny or bird from a breeder will be an ethical choice because it will mean that together we will have ended shelter killing. Until that time, please adopt your next pet from an animal shelter or rescue organization.

Together, we can Save Them All.

Gregory Castle