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A Pet Peeve

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.

Attorney Meyers defends all the changes, insisting that “The bill’s advocates are going on the assumption that the general public is totally ignorant as to how to take care of animals, and you have to spoon-feed [pet owners]. My real problem is that I don‘t think you have to staple a piece of paper to the tail of a bird.”

But advocates question why it is any harder for pet shops to hand out a care sheet than it is for them to give out a register receipt with every purchase. “This information is already available in most pet stores, but it’s available at a price,” said Janel Artis, legislative consultant for Senator Vincent.

Pet stores are reluctant to give up that cash source, as was made clear in a February letter from a pet-industry lobbyist to Senator Vincent. “Pet dealers already sell books and offer brochures on various species of animals kept as pets,” the lobbyist wrote. “Why should this info now being sold be given away for free?”

Petco had been the bill‘s only industry backer, and even hosted the press conference introducing the bill at the a company’s Westwood store. In attendance were animal advocates as well as Jan and Mickey Rooney. (The Rooneys‘ granddaughter had bought several animals that no one in the family knew how to care for, and the pets ended up at shelters.)

The event generated some much-needed good publicity for Petco, which has been criticized by activists for such alleged practices as killing sick animals by sticking them in the store freezer -- to avoid the expense of treating them or euthanizing them properly. Petco insists that its stores comply with all laws and ethical principles.

As for the pet-store bill, Petco supports the industry-friendly modifications. “We’re not out here as a lone wolf on any of these matters,” explained Don Cowan, Petco‘s director of communications. And late word is that Petco may now actively oppose the legislation unless further concessions are made.

The bill has been so emasculated already that the pet industry has switched from opposing the bill to a position of neutrality. “They gave us a big chunk of the amendments we wanted,” said Meyers. “Once they agree to 90 percent of what you want, it’s very difficult for you to continue to raise hell.”

Wal-Mart, however, recently came out against the bill, arguing that it‘s not cost-effective to generate care instructions for goldfish, given the small profit margin on each. And the company has hired a top-shelf lobbyist to press its point.

It sounds almost comical, but Senator Vincent seems determined to hold this particular Maginot Line. “We’re not making special allowances for goldfish,” insisted Janel Artis, Vincent‘s aide.

Some advocates concede that the bill’s main accomplishment may be prying open the door, so that something more substantial could be accomplished later. “I wish the bill was stronger,” said McGrath. “I get depressed that it isn‘t. The art of legislation is to do what’s possible.” The pet industry, she added, “really doesn‘t care whether the sale of an animal is to a good home or not,” especially when dumping a pet means a consumer is free to buy something else.