By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A cockatoo seems like a fine pet until it starts tearing up your furniture. So does a boa constrictor, but if you put it in the wrong sort of tank, it will get out and eat the neighbor‘s Chihuahua. And a veiled chameleon is really cool, but care for it like an ordinary lizard and it will die in days.
Pet stores all over California are selling animals to people who have no idea how to care for them. The result is that many get dumped and become an expensive public nuisance; the animals themselves suffer needlessly and often die. So activists have pushed for a simple but helpful change: a law that would require pet shops to provide feeding and care information.
This legislation, which is now pending before the Legislature, was unveiled with great fanfare in February and even had the support of Petco, which operates a nationwide chain of pet stores. After all, who would take issue with a bill whose goal is to help pets survive and flourish? And who would object to helping pet owners make better decisions about which animals to purchase?
The answer is the pet industry, which has, through its lobbying, eviscerated the pet-shop bill to near meaninglessness. Even so, the bill is still opposed by Wal-Mart, which sells thousands of goldfish, and sells thousands more when improperly cared-for goldfish die and get replaced. And even Petco, the presumed industry good guy, has undermined the bill behind the scenes -- which is no surprise to some activists, who accuse Petco of numerous abusive practices that harm animals but enhance profit margins.
Senate Bill 1357 began its tortured life when activists approached state Senator Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood). The bill encompassed all pet animals, but primarily targeted exotics such as parrots and reptiles, to abate the alarming rate at which animals are being abused and neglected, said Beverlee McGrath, a regional director of the Doris Day Animal League. Animal-rescue organizations and the Humane Society of the United States as well as law-enforcement agencies support the bill.
McGrath recounted how in Merced, a Burmese python ate a 30-pound bull terrier, and just recently in West Hills a 7-and-a-half-foot boa, whose owners weren’t aware of its tank requirements, got out and ate the Chihuahua in the back yard next door. And there‘s an epidemic of abused and neglected pet birds, say avian rescue organizations.
In its original form, the bill would have required pet stores to “provide written instructions with each sale of a vertebrate or invertebrate animal for the proper care, housing, equipment, cleaning, environment, and feeding of that animal.” That’s it, but those words unleashed an assault.
“Pet shops are no more responsible for educating the consumer than car manufacturers are responsible for giving instructions not to speed in Los Angeles,” said Marshall Meyers, general counsel for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the pet industry‘s powerful trade and lobbying group.
Since it was introduced in February, this simple legislation has been amended repeatedly to appease the pet industry. On April 18, PIJAC had the scope of the bill expanded from “pet shops” to all pet “sellers” in the Business and Professions Committee. The apparent goal was to stir up potential opposition that could take the lead in killing the bill, said Virginia Handley, a lobbyist for the Fund for Animals, an animal-rights advocacy organization. But animal breeders and other pet sellers didn’t step forward.
A more direct and perhaps fatal assault was an amendment stipulating that pet sellers need only provide information for a general class of animal rather than the specific species. “Care requirements differ vastly from species to species, so to lump everything together as a reptile or as a bird is generalizing too much,” said veterinarian Marc Kramer of the Avian & Exotic Animal Medical Center in Miami. Kramer wrote the pamphlet for the Zoological Education Network on the veiled chameleon, whose diet, he noted, differs even from that of other chameleons.
The same applies to birds. A Hyacinth Macaw is 10 times larger than a parakeet and needs a completely different diet. Consumers buy birds, reptiles and other pets on impulse or don‘t do the research in advance, said Eileen McCarthy, executive director of the Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services in Minnesota. Her organization has found new homes for 400 unwanted parrots over the last three years. “If you go to any of the rescue people who take in birds,” she said, “they will tell you most people surrendering a bird say, ’If I knew then what I know now about what these birds require, I never would have gotten one.‘” Which explains, of course, the fundamental reason for the pet industry’s opposition.
The industry also got the specter of criminal penalties removed, in part by characterizing the bill‘s effect as “Sell a snail, go to jail,” in the words of pet-industry attorney Meyers. The first violation is now like a “fix-it” ticket. The fine for a second infraction cannot exceed $250. In addition, amended language states that pet sellers cannot be liable for harm caused by erroneous pet-care information. Another problem with the bill is that information need be provided only after the purchase and not before consumers hand over the Visa.