Updated Tuesday, September 29 with comments from one of the store owners.
Animal rights activists continue to push for an end to what they call “puppy mills” in Missouri, five years after voters passed a proposition tightening dog breeding regulations. A year later, Gov. Nixon signed a compromise bill into law that reduced some of those regulations.
About 20 people picketed Petland in Lake St. Louis Sunday, carrying signs that read “Honk for a shelter dog” and “Boycott stores that sell puppies.”
Leanne Fritsch of University City organized the protest for “Puppy Mill Awareness Day.” She said a smaller group meets at Petland every Saturday.
“It’s really about the parents in the mills who spend their entire lives caged and bred and bred just to produce puppies to sell and when they can’t breed any longer they’re destroyed,” said Fritsch. “They’re never loved, they have no socialization.”
Asked for his perspective, Missouri Pet Breeder Association President Hank Grosenbacher took issue with that characterization.
“You can’t do what we do and not love your animals. You just can’t do it,” said Grosenbacher, who breeds English bulldogs.
Fritsch said she’s helped close six stores since 2008 by organizing protests.
“There have been customers here at Petland that stop and ask us what’s going on,” Fritsch said. “We encourage them to go to rescues and shelters in the area … I will admit it’s harder to find puppies in rescues and shelters but it is possible. It’s just not going to be an impulse purchase like it is in these stores.”
She said she doesn’t have a problem with PetCo or PetSmart because they stopped selling puppies and host rescue adoptions instead.
“Personally I would prefer that no one breed just because right now there are millions of healthy adoptable animals in our shelters being killed every year. But if someone is set on going to a breeder what we say is make sure you find a reputable breeder,” Fritsch said, adding that a reputable breeder would never sell puppies online or to a store.
In 2011 Missouri lawmakers removed the 2010 regulation limiting breeders to 50 dogs, but left in requirements for annual vet exams, continuous water and larger cages.
According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the state has about 790 licensed commercial breeders; about a thousand fewer than it did in 2009.
Grosenbacher points to the tighter regulations outlined in Proposition B in 2010 as the cause, saying it drove some breeders out of business.
“We estimate that we only have about 25 percent of the adult females in kennels that are producing puppies today,” Grosenbacher said, adding annual inspections with the weight of criminal prosecution if regulations aren’t followed mean their dogs are well looked after.
Penalties for violating state standards are “pretty much a thing of the past,” Grosenbacher said because his organization has a kennel assistance program where breeders help other breeders if someone gets sick or falls into financial trouble.
Jeff Hartmann, one of the owners of Petland St. Louis said Monday that he visits his breeders regularly and picks up the puppies he sells personally.
"If (the breeders) have a problem with the USDA inspection then we take them off our purchase list," Hartmann said, adding that he might make an exception if he knows the breeder was sick at the time of the inspection.
"To the rest of the world they see a dog with mangled hair, but I know the breeder was sick," Hartmann said. "The people that are outside our store are trying to portray our breeders as evil and that's just not the case. They are good people."
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.