A new report from the Humane Society of the United States found that two of the country’s worst puppy mills are located in Illinois. In effort to help all local pet stores end their relationships with puppy mills, Cari Meyer, founder of Chicago’s The Puppy Mill Project, is fighting back.
“A puppy mill is a commercial breeding facility,” Meyer said. “There’s no vet care, there’s no socialization. These are dogs who literally live in a cage all their life.”
While the worst of Illinois’ puppy mills are located in the suburbs, Meyer recently celebrated the grand reopening of Old Town’s Collar and Leash, 1435 N. Wells St. after they decided to “go humane,” no longer selling puppy mill-bred dogs.
“I want every puppy mill in this country [to be closed] because of the abuse, the large scale cruelty that goes on,” Meyer said. “It’s systematic so they know what they’re doing, it’s not accidental.”
The Puppy Mill Project’s work with Collar and Leash, in business since 1965, to change their puppy sale policy was settled on a verbal handshake, Meyer said.
“I said to her that you’re the oldest pet store in Chicago, you’ll be the first pet store in Chicago to go humane.”
Sonja Raymond, co-owner of Collar and Leash with her husband, Dan, said their store is catered to Old Town’s pet owners and their cats, dogs and small animals. She said that while they bred their own pets when they first opened, they had to find other resources once demand became greater.
“We had to outsource,” Raymond said. “And in outsourcing, we had to rely on breeders other than ourselves to get quality puppies and kittens.”
She said their need became so large that their puppies that they thought were coming from breeders were then being sourced from distributors, also known as puppy brokers.
“Since we’ve had more puppies come up with hereditary or congenital defects it became an issue and we just decided it wasn’t worth it to put these people through the heartache,” Raymond said of her customers. “These are our children that we’re passing along and it was just too much for us to bear.”
Raymond said that they began to reach out to their breeders for information after more and more customers would return saying their newly purchased puppy was now sick.
“We found out that, some of these people— even though they have an FDA license— doesn’t mean that they’re quality breeders,” Raymond said.
To figure out who was reputable and who to cut ties with, Collar and Leash then gave breeders a year to come up with information on where these puppies were coming from. Raymond asked for any documentation that would show where these puppies were bred and how they live from day to day.
Not one of the five to six breeders she worked with responded to her request.
Collar and Leash then finally decided to end their relationships with their breeders altogether.
“We just decided we can’t do this anymore,” Raymond said. “If we can’t see where these puppies are coming from, there’s no way I’m going to put them in the hands of the public.”
Ida McCarthy, Chicago’s campaign coordinator for the Companion Animal Protection Society, or CAPS, said it is important that the public know of these facilities in order to put them out of business.
“That’s the only way to get these places to stop what they’re doing,” McCarthy said.
If the Illinois Department of Agriculture had more inspectors to visit the multiple puppy mills and puppy mill-supplied pet stores, it is possible more of them would be shut down, according to Meyer.
“I think we have four, and they don’t just inspect puppy mills,” Meyer said. “It’s anything that has to do with agriculture.”
Meyer said one the Puppy Mill Project’s goals is to take companion animals, dogs and cats in this case, out of the hands of the Department of Agriculture.
“They’re not agriculture, these are our family members; they sleep in our beds, they play with our kids.”
As the first pet store to take steps against animal cruelty, Raymond said it has been very difficult for them financially.
“It’s going to take some time, you know, when you’re not selling $900-$1,000 dogs, you have to make it up,” Meyer said.
The Puppy Mill Project is not focused on shutting stores like Collar and Leash down, but to help them once they rework their relationships with suppliers.
“We’re going to set them up to succeed and not to fail.”
While Collar and Leash may no longer have puppies to come in and pet in the store, the store now hosts adoption events every Saturday. Since the reopening, they’ve welcomed different rescue organizations from all over the state, including the Northern Illinois Pug Rescue and the Illinois Doberman Rescue Plus.
“With all the shelter animals coming in and the rescues, it’s like we have a whole new world of babies to care for and make sure that they get good homes,” Raymond said.
The overall response has not been completely satisfactory, though. Raymond said they still have people come in asking for purebred puppies and when they will get them back.
“There’s pros and cons,” Raymond said. “Some people are upset that we stopped selling puppies and kittens but I’ll be perfectly honest, those people are the people who were just coming in here for the petting zoo.”
But right now, Meyer said it is up to the community to support Raymond and Collar and Leash for setting the right example for Illinois pet shop owners.
“Cari and I decided to come together and do things for the greater good,” Raymond said. “What’s good for Chicago is not putting those dogs back out there.”