Money Talks as Commercial Puppy Industry Digs in Heels at Hearing

In Hartford on Wednesday, the second of two public hearings on possible legislation requiring pet stores to sell humanely sourced puppies. Pet store owners, suppliers and industry representatives traveled from as far away as Arkansas.

Michael Stolkey of Hunte Corporation traveled from Arkansas for the hearing in Hartford on Wednesday. Credit: Leslie Yager
Michael Stolkey of Hunte Corporation traveled from Arkansas for the hearing in Hartford on Wednesday. Credit: Leslie Yager
By Leslie Yager 

Hearing room 2A was standing room only at the second of two public hearings convened by the Task Force Concerning the Sale of Cats and Dogs at CT Pet Shops from Inhumane Origins, co-chaired by State Sen. Bob Duff and State Rep. Brenda Kupchick. 

At the outset, Kupchick addressed the treatment of members of the public by task force members at the previous hearing. 

"It is important that we treat the people who come before us with respect. Even if you disagree with what they're saying," said Kupchick, though there were multiple times during the hearing when Duff interrupted panel member Charles Sewell, representing Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PJAC), for getting into debate with individual speakers.

Familiar were the faces of pet store owners and industry representatives who spoke at the October hearing in Fairfield. 

Making the trip to Hartford to oppose possible legislation requiring Connecticut pet stores to sell only dogs and cats from shelters, in-state breeders and rescue groups, rather than commercial breeders were Steve Primus of Statewide PetsPeter Noel, owner of Gentle Jungle Pets in Meriden, Brian Winslow, the Director of Animal Welfare for pet stores franchiser Petland Monty and Lauren Kaufman who co-own Puppies of Westport in Norwalk, and Ed Foucault who owns All Pets Club in Southington.

Indeed on Wednesday, the ranks swelled among supporters of the existing industry, which relies on trucks full of puppies from commercial breeders –proponents of the legislation use the term "puppy mills" – from states in the mid west.

Steve Primus, operating Statewide Pets since 1972, who said his motto is Make Families a Pet at a Time, defended his business model. 

"We are humanely sourcing our pets," Primus insisted. Then, holding up a copy of the New Haven Register, he read aloud advertisements for pit bulls needing homes. "We are in business because people don't want an old pit bull dog."

Former State Rep. (1997-2006) Ken Bernhard, an attorney based in Westport with Cohen and Wolf, spoke in favor of the proposed legislation. 

Sewell of PJAC pressed Bernhard, "What is a puppy mill? These store owners say, 'I don't buy from a puppy mill.' What is a puppy mill?"

Bernhard replied, "The standards are so minimal. That gives me no comfort. There are legitimate breeders if you take the time to find them and they take the time to help you. Pet stores are a short cut."

Sewell took issue with Berhnard's assertion that all USDA licensed breeders are "puppy mills," arguing that the USDA reports that there are only 109 with serious violations.    

"I read all the time that we don't have enough inspectors for nuclear plants! How many inspectors do you think are out there in the field finding these violations? How about meat packing plants? Or coal mines? All the time we're hearing inadequate funding for inspectors...There is no sanctuary in the definition of a USDA-sanctioned facility because the standards are so minimal. ...Raising dogs in horrific conditions just because they happen to be USDA-qualified, that doesn't give me any comfort."   

Bernhard addressed his concluding remarks to the entire task force. 

"This industry misleads and victimizes its customers," Bernhard said. "I urge you to do what your heart tells you is the right thing to do, what your sense of morality tells you is the right thing to do, what your children, friends and family want you to do, and what hopefully will be the end of the business of the wholesale breeding of dogs under horrific conditions that embarrasses our claim to being a caring, dominant species."

Duff asked Bernhard if he thought the proposed legislation might result in "underground, illegitimate organizations popping up in parking lots."

"They're already there, especially on the internet," Bernhard replied.

Dr. Diane Vigneau, a veterinarian from Canton, spoke in favor of humane sourcing. 

"There is a power imbalance here between the basic needs of the animals and the financial needs or wants of the humans," Vigneau said.

It has been well documented that the conditions of breeding dogs and their puppies in many of these facilities are substandard at best, and deplorable at worst," Vigneau continued, going on to paint a picture of neglect. "The combination of a lack of husbandry, lack of medical care, lack of enrichment and exercise produce intense physical and mental stress for these animals, otherwise known as animal cruelty."    

"How can the good breeders and people in the industry get rid of the bad people?" State Senator McKinney asked Michael Stolkey, Director of Corporates Sales for Hunte Corporation, who traveled to Hartford from Arkansas. "How can we have a private solution rather than a government solution?"  

"Many people here think that the system is broke. I think there are areas of lax oversight because not all kennels are under inspection. They are not USDA licensed or state licensed. But the licensed breeders sign up and pay their dues and allow the inspections to make sure their kennels, the size, the watering, the way they feed, how they provide shade, bedding and warmth.  They are the ones who welcome inspections and want to do the right thing for the dogs," Stolkey replied.

Patch had a chance to speak individually with Stokley during a break. 

"It's emotion. There are no facts from the opponents. They want to attack pet stores, but the shelters are getting puppies from the same auctions as breeders. The same pregnant bitches," Stokley said.

"We want the same oversight on shelters and rescues (as for breeders)," Stolkey continued. "They're getting dogs from out of the country...from Mexico, Puerto Rico, even Europe and Asia," he added. "Why do dogs wind up in shelters? Because someone didn't want them. They're sick. They bit someone. But, if you charge people $1,500 for a puppy, those are the people who can afford to maintain a dog."

Asked about Rasmussen's collection of photos of violations at commercial breeders, Stolkey was dismissive. 

"Those photos look old and grainy to me. If conditions exist like that, maybe they've made improvements between then and now," Stokley said. "Besides, we don't buy from direct violators," he concluded.

At the mention of Monty Kaufman, Stolkey said he was familiar with the owner of Puppies of Westport. 

"He won't buy from us. Our trucks are too big," Stolkey said. "They are big because they are mobile kennels designed for the health, safety and comfort of our puppies. All our puppies are microchipped. I have a target on my back because we are the biggest in the industry."

Before returning to the hearing, Stolkey, who had traveled from Arkansas for the hearing, predicted that the "black market" would flourish should the proposed legislation pass.  

Lauren Kaufman and her husband Monty of Puppies of Westport in Norwalk each had their turn at the microphone. 

Debora Bresch from the ASPCA frowned when Lauren Kaufman said she planned to visit all 74 mid west breeders that supply Puppies of Westport

"I'm going in February on a long trip," Kaufman insisted.

"How long does it take to visit 74 breeders," asked Bresch incredulously.

"It takes a long time," Kaufman replied. "And I speak to them on the phone on a daily basis. When there is one violation, we dump them like a hot potato."

"The tide has turned. Animal rights groups have lost momentum," said Monty Kaufman, claiming that pet store bans in cities in California have failed. "Half of the towns where the ban was passed had no puppy stores, which is the equivalent of Connecticut outlawing the planting palm trees on I-95," he said to a some chuckles in the audience.

Kaufman said proponents of the legislation don't account for loss of jobs and tax revenue to the state, and what he described as "already heavy regulations on pet stores," as well as "the fact that fatal viruses are more prevalent in shelters versus pet stores." 

Exceeding his three minutes at the microphone, Kaufman refused to yield before having a go at Bernhard, who has protested outside Puppies of Westport and has represented its disgruntled customers in court. 

"His clients have been related to Puppies of Westport," Kaufman said of Bernhard who had left the hearing at that point. "He brought one of the cases to the brilliant jurist Judge Marilyn Milian on TV's People's Court and lost. I hate to say it, but at the end, Milian said to the client, 'I think you ought to get a better lawyer,'" Kaufman said to a round of laughter from opponents of the legislation and stone faces among others.

After more than two hours into the public hearing, Duff announced that 35 speakers waited their turns, urging speakers to stick to the three minute time limit. 

Karen Rasmussen of Wilton took the microphone in support of the proposed legislation. 

"Hunte, PJAC, USDA, you guys are the big guys, you're the big guns. You guys should be more proactive about getting the bad guys out!" Rasmussen said. 

"This was extremely time consuming," said Rasmussen of her research into breeders used by Connecticut pet stores. "I'm one unpaid person. Looking up the records of 722 breeders," she said, holding up her report that included disturbing USDA photos of dogs in feces in wire cages off the ground, and dogs with open wounds and untreated medical conditions. Rasmussen acquired the photos through the Freedom of Information Act requests.

Toward the end of the hearing, Sewell said there are 120 USDA inspectors with 5,000 facilities to inspect. "That means they're inspecting two a week. The USDA would like to come before the task force on this matter," he suggested and most of the members nodded in agreement.

Related Stories:
Protest at "Puppies of Westport" in Norwalk Shakes up a Gray Sunday
Hearing Pits Pet Store Owners Against Animal Welfare Advocates
Public Hearing on Future of Connecticut Pet Shop Industry Set for Wednesday


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