Store owners, animal rights advocates clash over sick pets bill

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BOSTON — As pet store owners and employees warned lawmakers Thursday that proposed legislation affecting sick puppies and kittens could drive them out of business, animal rights advocates and rescue organization representatives cheered the bill as necessary regulation.

"An act relative to protecting puppies and kittens," the bill filed by Sen. Karen Spilka and Rep. Garrett Bradley, bans the sale of dogs and cats under eight weeks old, requires rules and regulations for certain breeders, and prohibits pet shops from selling puppies and kittens acquired from breeders with a significant direct violation or three indirect violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Robert Mellace, who owns the four-location retailer Pet Express with his two siblings, told the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government during a hearing on Thursday that there are 10,000 commercial breeders in the country but only 1,700 are licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture and therefore subject to violations under the welfare act.

"We're attacking the people who are willing to have their lives legislated, licensed, inspected, and yet the other 8,300 commercial breeders, which are quote-unquote puppy mills, are not being regulated," Mellace said. "This legislation does not protect any animal coming into Massachusetts from the Internet, garage sales, parking lots, retail rescues, humane societies, individual breeders."

Mellace said that if protection is the goal, the bill should focus more broadly than pet stores. He told reporters that the legislation would hurt business and drive breeders underground.

"They're fearful of their lives now because of animal activists," he said.

Cynthia Sweet, the founder and director of Sweet Paws Rescue, told reporters after Mellace's testimony that she disagreed with his characterization of the bill.

"I'm for this bill, but I'm against the pet store coming in and saying it's an attack on pet stores," said Sweet, whose organization rescues and rehomes dogs from Mississippi, Alabama and Massachusetts.

"You guys can be regulated," Sweet said. "We're regulated to high hell. It should be regulated all around."

The bill also updates what's known as the "pet lemon law," which provides remedies to people who have unknowingly purchased diseased pets.

Spilka and Bradley's bill would allow purchasers of a dog or cat declared "unfit for purchase" by a veterinarian to recoup veterinary fees from the pet store — up to 150 percent of the original purchase price if they keep the animal, or fees up to the purchase price if they return or exchange the pet. Pets could be considered "unfit for purchase" if they have a congenital or hereditary defect adversely affecting its health or "any disease, deformity, injury, physical condition, or any illness which has a significant adverse effect on the health of the animal" that could have been diagnosed before the sale.

Mellace cautioned that vet bills are often not itemized, and consumers could seek reimbursement for unrelated services like a vaccine or nail clippings, posing an unfair burden to the seller.

Julie Parsons, manager of the Puppy Place in West Springfield, told the committee that she and her staff "are concerned about losing our jobs if this bill does pass as written."

"We like taking care of puppies," Parsons said. "I enjoy my puppies."

Kara Holmquist, advocacy director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, described the bill as "designed to get to the worst of the worst." She questioned why pet stores would oppose it if they were already following humane practices and providing remedies to customers in the case of sick pets.

"If they are doing what they say they are doing, then why not?" Holmquist said. "Why not have this pass?"

Acknowledging the day's passionate testimony, Rep. Kevin Kuros said that legislators are tasked with striking a balance in developing a law that will punish offenders but will still be fair "to those who are doing things the right way."

"I jokingly said to some friends that today is our annual animal bill hearing, and it's always the most crowded hearing we have all year, because people like animals more than they like other people in most cases," said Kuros, R-Uxbridge.


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