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Cambridge aims to take pets out of pet stores

Julia Bonner, 16, of Canton looked at a green iguana at Petco in Needham.
Julia Bonner, 16, of Canton looked at a green iguana at Petco in Needham.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Forget the doggie with the waggly tail — that parrot, guinea pig, or iguana in the window will never be for sale in Cambridge if the City Council approves a plan to ban sales of most animals that didn’t come from a shelter or rescue organization.

The proposed city ordinance is aimed at cracking down on out-of-state breeding operations, widely criticized as inhumane, that supply all manner of furry, feathery, and scaly companion animals to national pet store chains that operate in Cambridge.

It follows similar laws enacted around the country in recent years that seek to curb the revenue streams of so-called puppy mills — poorly regulated dog breeding operations that churn out designer breeds in substandard conditions. Boston barred the sale of dogs, cats, and rabbits at pet shops in the spring.

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But no Cambridge pet store currently sells dogs. Nationally, Petco and PetSmart have never sold dogs and cats, but have instead partnered with rescue groups on adoptions, a spokesman said. And opponents of the ordinance say it would function as a de facto ban on the kinds of animals that aren’t readily available from shelters and rescues.

They envision a bestiary black market, where illicit lizards and bootleg bunnies are subjected to conditions far worse than their pet shop aquariums and cages.

At a public hearing at Cambridge City Hall on Thursday, breeders and representatives of national pet store chains clashed with officials from animal welfare organizations and volunteers from area animal rescues.

A man clutched a forlorn gray dog that was too scarred from her time in a puppy mill to walk on her own and now has to be carried everywhere, said a woman who identified herself as the dog’s mother.

“Responsible breeders do not sell to pet stores,” said Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director of the Humane Society of the United States, who spoke in support of the ordinance and showed photos of dead and suffering animals at breeding operations in the Midwest.

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Animals purchased on a whim at pet stores routinely turn up in area shelters once they prove difficult to care for or their novelty wears off, said Laura Hagen, deputy director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Hagen said she had a guinea pig as a child, and only later developed a sense of “what the pet industry trade costs animals.”

The ordinance under consideration in Cambridge would also rein in the practice of selling animals at roadside stands and putting up signs advertising, say, the family cat’s new litter of kittens.

“This is your neighbor who has kittens. This is your kindergarten class selling turtles at the end of the year,” cautioned City Councilor Craig Kelley, who asked for clearer definitions of who exactly would be affected by the ordinance.

The potential for unintended consequences echoed a controversial bill in the state Senate that targeted irresponsible dog breeders by requiring a license for any size breeding operation, but also appeared to criminalize even the simple act of giving away a household pet’s litter of kittens or puppies.

Johnna Whalen, store manager, passing a rescue rabbit she named Winston to customer Katerina Maheras for her to hold at Petco in Needham.
Johnna Whalen, store manager, passing a rescue rabbit she named Winston to customer Katerina Maheras for her to hold at Petco in Needham. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Under the bill New Bedford Democrat Mark Montigny introduced in the state Senate in May, giving someone a cat without obtaining the proper permit would be punishable by a $500 fine or 90 days behind bars.

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That bill, which was referred to a committee for study, attracted strong opposition from breeding groups.

Bird and reptile breeders from around the state, some of whose feathers were ruffled by the state proposal, appeared in Cambridge on Thursday.

Linda Rubin, a Dedham parrot enthusiast and the author of “The Ultimate Parrot Guide,’’ which she described as a book to help with “selecting the right bird for your lifestyle,” said that pet stores were her gateway into agriculture, and helped cultivate her passion for exotic birds.

Denise Cabral, president of the Massachusetts Caged Bird Association, submitted a letter in which she described the ordinance as “exactly the sort of thing my father fought in World War II to prevent.”

And a former president of the ASPCA, Ed Sayres, spoke on behalf of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, calling the pet store industry a “vital partner” in animal welfare and the proposal a punishment for the entire industry because of “a few bad actors.”

But while councilors took no action on the proposal Thursday, several in attendance expressed support.

Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, who has championed the proposal, said the ordinance would hardly put Petco and PetSmart out of business. Rather, he said, they would be forced to obtain animals from rescue organizations and shelters that are now inundated with the unwanted animals the stores bring into the city.

“We are a city that often sets the standard when it comes to protecting things that are vulnerable,” McGovern said.

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City Councilor Jan Devereux agreed.

“I had birds,” Devereux said. “They were miserable.”


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.