Area animals-rights advocates are pushing for a county ordinance that would prohibit the import and sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits in Sarasota County — a move they claim will prevent area pet retailers from buying pets from out-of-state breeders who they say maintain unacceptable standards of care for the animals.
The move has sparked pushback from pet-store advocates and some area business owners, who claim the proposed ordinance demonizes an entire industry without adequately distinguishing regulated, legitimate pet stores from the few “bad apple” retailers.
Animal-rights advocacy group Sarasota in Defense of Animals is leading the push for the ordinance. The issue was first brought before the County Commission in November 2012 when Siesta Key business owner Russell Matthes, speaking on behalf of SDA, testified in a public hearing as to the necessity of the measure.
Commissioners subsequently ordered a review of a possible ordinance, but the issue floundered for nearly a year until it made its way back before commissioners Aug. 28. Despite impassioned public comments from concerned citizens, commissioners moved to delay a decision on the proposed ordinance, citing the need for clarity on ways to target offending retailers without affecting the bottom line of legitimate breeders.
The work of Matthes and SDA has focused on two area businesses — Puppy Town on South Tamiami Trail and Petland, located on Fruitville Road.
Matthes said the proposed ordinance would prohibit pet retailers from importing pets from out-of-state breeders who often subject animals to cruel living conditions. Matthes also called for greater scrutiny and oversight regarding what retailers, such as Puppy Town and Petland, do with animals that are not sold while they are still puppies, or with animals that become sick and can’t be sold.
“Animal services takes on a huge burden for the unwanted pets,” Matthes said.
Although Matthes advocated adopting pets from shelters as the best option for prospective pet owners, he insisted that he is not uniformly against all instances of selling pets for profit.
“I'm not a huge fan of local breeders, but at least you know the origin of the animals,” Matthes said. “The origin of out-of-state animals is unknown. We have enough animals in the state — why bring more in?”
Area pet retailers argue they are already subject to strict state regulations and they should not be punished for running a lawfully regulated enterprise.
William Roland, owner of Puppy Town, testified before the County Commission during the public comment portion of a Nov. 19 meeting. He defended his business, saying that although he agrees with the spirit of the proposed ordinance, its focus is misplaced.
“This business is my life, and I am committed to the health and welfare of all my puppies,” Roland said. “I strive to have the highest quality and healthiest puppies anywhere. I would not be in business if I did not.”
Roland also said that he is regulated by stringent state inspections and has never been found in violation of any rule.
A representative of a national pet industry trade association also spoke out against the proposed ordinance at the Nov. 19 commission meeting. Charles Sewell, representing the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, told county commissioners that the proposed ordinance cast too wide of a net and did not distinguish legitimate, appropriately regulated pet retailers from the “bad apples.”
“The pet industry has zero tolerance for bad breeders,” Sewell said. “But we feel the problem is with bad breeders out of state and that there is a better way to address this. We don't want to put legitimate businesses out of business.”
Matthes pushed back, arguing that the ordinance was fair to the existing retailers, citing similar ordinances restricting the import and sale of commercially bred animals that have been passed in municipalities across the country.
“I'm not here to put anyone out of business. We are here to help these animals and prevent the overpopulation of Sarasota's pet population,” Matthes said. “We need to stop the filthy, deplorable conditions at these puppy mills. There are plenty of cities that already have these ordinances.”
The County Commission will review an updated draft of the pet retail ordinance Dec. 10, and the issue will be open to public hearings in January.
Contact Nolan Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org