Royal Oak bans sale of animals at pet stores in effort to end puppy mills

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Michigan’s puppy mill reform is starting to take shape in Royal Oak.

A new ordinance adopted by the city commission last week will go into effect on July 4. It bans the sale of dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets by retail pet stores in the city. Promoted as a way to reduce the presence of puppy mills in Michigan, Royal Oak is one of the first cities in the state to enforce such a rule.

“In Michigan, which is full of animal lovers, this ordinance has received so much attention,” said Molly Tamulevich, the director of the United States Humane Society Michigan chapter. “People are thrilled that it’s been put into effect.”

The City’s mayor pro tem said Royal Oak was picked as a “test case” for other cities to model similar legislation off of. Sharlon Douglas said the Michigan Humane Society chapter made a very compelling argument for why the city should enact the rule.

“We have two pet stores in Royal Oak, neither of which sell animals from mills,” Douglas said. “There are other potential locations for pet stores, and we wanted to forestall any of them from selling animals in the future.”

Before Royal Oak’s passage, there were four cities with similar bans on the sale of pets: Eastpointe, Memphis, New Baltimore and Fraser.

While breeding pets for the purpose of selling them is a legal practice, anybody who works in the profession must keep their business up to USDA standards - those standards aren’t always met, however. Because of a dearth of inspectors available to monitor these sites, many breeders skirt the rules, which leads to unsanitary conditions for the animals they keep. Because of the challenges present in closing an illegal breeding practice, Tamulevich said bans like these are the next best thing to ending puppy mills.

“Because it can be difficult to shut down the mill, communities that want to oppose it find it’s easier to shut down the outlet of the pipeline,” she said.

The Humane Society of the United States has ranked Michigan in the middle for protection against animals. A watchdog group that tracks puppy mills and retailers that sell those animals cite about two dozen of those stores in Michigan. Whereas states like California have enacted statewide bans on the retail sale of dogs, efforts to enact these bans have been largely on the local level.

Ironically, the practice of pet stores selling animals purchased from breeders has largely been phased out in Michigan and around the country. Tamulevich said it’s not a very dominant business model. But that didn’t stop the debate over the legality of selling the animals from becoming highly politicized last year.

In May of 2018, a pair of bills (HB 5916 HB 5917) were introduced that would outlaw cities from enacting ordinances like the ones passed by Royal Oak. They made their way to a second reading before not being taken up again for months. That’s partly due to what Tamulevich describes as “bipartisan opposition” to the pair of bills. Then during the lame duck session in late 2018, the legislation reemerged on Nov. 28. After votes along party lines in both the House and Senate, the bills were vetoed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who cited local control as his reason.

“It was surprising to us, It was all surprising. It was a roller coaster,” Tamulevich said.

However, there was little politicization over Royal Oak’s decision to enact the legislation. Tamulevich and Douglas both said that’s due to the strong support among animal rights groups everywhere.

“It’s not anti-business, this is working against an industry that hurts dogs, cats and rabbits,” she said.

After a first read of the bill on May 20, the city was contacted by the West Michigan Ferret Connection which requested adding ferrets onto the bill. After a second reading on June 24, the city unanimously approved the ordinance.