The Last Pet Store Standing

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

A Grove City Petland store has become ground zero in the debate over puppy mills, animal rights and the paradoxes of pet ownership. Mya Frazier explores the moral ambiguities of the controversy.

As pre-teens, juiced on sugar after the requisite mall Cinnabon, we would hang out inside the glass-walled Petland store in Cincinnati, waiting for our parents to pick us up. On a good outing, we weren't recognized as non-buying regulars, and a worker new on the job would unlatch the cages, one after another, and we would play at being adult, asking about shots and bloodlines-anything to keep those tiny creatures in our laps.

Lacking cogent opinions about much of anything yet, I knew nothing of the legal and ethical complexities the sale of puppies at retail stores entailed-an issue that has roiled the Columbus suburb of Grove City this year and spread all the way to the Statehouse. I felt only pure sentiment. Puppies were cute. Holding such helpless bundles delivered a jolt of unrivaled joy. I had not yet been confronted with the moral questions such a simple commodity transaction raises, let alone the idea that the life of a dog isn't necessarily less sacred than the life of a human, a mind-bending provocation raised by moral philosopher Peter Singer in his seminal 1975 book "Animal Liberation." Within the myopic moral universe of suburban mall culture in the late '80s, it all felt as inconsequential as eating an 880-calorie cinnamon roll.

My childhood home, like nearly half of all households in the U.S., included a dog-a succession of Shetland sheep dog puppies bought on impromptu road trips to farmhouses in rural Ohio. Were these "good" breeders or puppy mills? I recall papers on offer, framed photographs of various "bloodlines," show ribbons hung on mantles-signals of legitimacy, cues of something greater than calculated commoditization was at work, even if we paid in cold, hard currency.

Pet ownership has tripled in the U.S. over the last four decades to nearly two-thirds of all homes. Our collective pet obsession is a mess of paradoxes. We pamper our animals with far more than the basic necessities-spending more than $60 billion on pet supplies each year. Yet such material abundance, in the aggregate, hasn't created better lives for all creatures great and small, but a steady supply of outcasts: 3 million dogs and cats are killed each year, extraneous products deemed impossible to monetize-unwanted extras in our commercialized visions of hearth and home.

The two largest pet store chains in America-Petsmart and Petco-don't actually sell puppies or cats in stores, acting instead as brokers of sorts, facilitating adoptions with local animal shelters and rescue organizations. Founded in 1987, Phoenix-based Petsmart operates 44 of its 1,200 stores in Ohio; San Diego-based Petco, founded in 1965, operates 40 of its 1,430 stores in Ohio. The strategy has delivered exceptional growth for both chains. Adoptions get customers through the door, and instead of trying to make money on the sale of puppies, the big chains make money on what has always been the more profitable side of the pet business anyway-selling everything else puppies need, and all other manner of extras we regularly lavish on our pets.

Closer to home, Chillicothe-based Petland, a privately run company founded in 1967, operates 150 stores, including 17 in Ohio, and has long relied on the sale of puppies to run a profitable business. As one of the smaller players among the big national chains, Petland is an outlier-the last true "pet store" chain standing. But how to explain the stubborn insistence on a practice public opinion is increasingly against?

As a society, we have grown uneasy with the relentless death toll; we want to do something, anything, to try and stop it. Cities nationwide, including Los Angeles and San Diego, have passed legislation banning the sale of so-called "mill animals" at retail stores. In Ohio, Toledo and Grove City have passed ordinances requiring that pet stores offer only dogs sourced from animal shelters, humane-society shelters or rescue groups.

Such prohibitions aim to deter breeders from producing puppies in the first place. The basic logic of such bans is that they decrease the supply of puppies, and with fewer puppies available, more adoptions of unwanted dogs might occur, lessening the state's burden to care for and euthanize unwanted dogs.

Unfortunately, that's not how such bans tend to work in practice, for two not-so-obvious reasons: Most puppy mills aren't located in cities where such bans have been enacted-and most puppies produced by puppy mills aren't actually sold at pet stores. In fact, despite the passage of more than 100 puppy-mill bans nationwide, only about 7 percent of the so-called "pet trade" actually occurs in pet stores, with the rest of the $2 billion spent annually on live animal purchases either originating online, through classifieds or at so-called backyard breeders.

"Animal mills have proven to be a difficult area to regulate," legal scholar Christopher Moores argues in his paper, "The Puppy Prohibition Period: The Constitutionality of Chicago's War on Animal Mills," suggesting local governments instead help responsible breeders in "outcompeting animal mills," paying some of the costs for vaccinations, genetic testing or the spaying or neutering of animals with hereditary conditions.

Even so, with societal norms and sentiments changing, why doesn't Petland simply adapt to shifts in consumer conscience and end its sale of puppies?

At Petland, the end of puppy sales is seen as an existential threat. "We can't change our business model and succeed against Wal-Mart," Petland's CEO Tom Watsonhas said repeatedly against a tide of negative press. Over the last year, the company has been embroiled in controversy, including a defamation lawsuit against a Grove City councilman. Grove City officials, who first approved the company's plans to open a new store in the city, passed an ordinance restricting the chain from selling dogs and cats for profit.

Petland has fought back at the state level, backing a bill through the Ohio Statehouse that would override such local ordinances. The "right" to sell puppies is a complex legal question, intersecting with the contract, commerce and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The so-called "Petland Bill" has been called a step backward by the ASPCA. But for Petland's Watson, it's a fight for corporate survival.

"Fifty percent of our revenue is from the sales of pets," Watson says. "That's our business model." A typical Petland store, Watson explains, is about 4,000 square feet, while larger competitors, including Petco and Petsmart, are sometimes as large as 15,000 square feet and primarily devoted to products other than live pets. With a smaller store footprint and fewer stores, Petland, in the logic of supply-chain economics, simply has less buying power.

When sourcing dog food or other pet supplies like collars and pet beds from industry suppliers, it buys less, so it pays more. Bigger national chains, with store footprints in the tens of thousands, win every time on price when selling bulk items like dog food. Petland's market differentiation has always been wrapped up in the sale of puppies. Capitulate on that singular distinction and where does that leave this family-owned, private company, which employs 500 in Ohio?

"It's a mathematical problem," Watson says. "You can't convert a 4,500-square-foot store into a dry-goods store." Additionally, Petland stores are mostly owned and operated by franchisees-making top-down dictates difficult, if not illegal, because of longstanding contracts with owners. (There are only 13 corporate-owned and operated stores in the 150-store chain; the rest are franchises.)

Watson, a former telecommunications executive who joined Petland in 2005 and was appointed CEO in 2011, grew up on a small family farm with dairy cows, hogs and lots of dogs in Athens, Ohio, and takes issue with how aggressively the chain has been targeted by animal rights activists, especially since only 1 percent of puppy sales take place in a Petland store. "We aren't a major player, but a major target."

Petland has taken steps to bring more transparency to the buying experience-from giving shoppers access to USDA inspection reports to video chats inside the store with breeders where the chain sources puppies. Such measures are unlikely to appease those who view the commoditization of dogs-and their sale for profit-a wrong in and of itself.

In "Pets in America: A History," historian Katherine C. Grier writes: "All large puppy-breeding operations, whether a run-down puppy mill or a scientifically managed puppy farm, treat dogs as livestock, violating public expectations about the status and appropriate treatment of dogs."

"PUPPY SALE" announces the red and white banner hung above the storefront windows, which are plastered with supersized photos of puppies. It's a recent weekday morning at the Petland store in Hilliard. I've brought my young son and his friend from the neighborhood to visit-after the prospect of the pool lost out to holding puppies. Inside, a Petland employee, dressed in a khaki uniform, accommodates request after excited request to hold the puppies, which a sign announces are discounted by 30 percent or more. The boys have asked to see a handful of tiny puppies in rapid succession-a Maltese, a toy poodle mix of some sort, a Bernese mountain dog-and every request is met with exceptional patience. We sit inside the "exercise and socialization area," large open-air rooms in the center of the store with doors that close shut. For each puppy, there's a folder that includes inspection reports and a name and address of a breeder. As the boys play with a mini Aussie, I ask for additional details on breeders and the inspection reports. I'm told not to worry: "We had someone fail because the grass was too high."

I ask the boys to put the Aussie away. I want to hold a white Pyrenees-a rather large animal offered half off. The dog paces frantically inside a tiny cage. I'm told I can get him for an even better deal than advertised. But the boys aren't interested. They ask instead to hold another puppy-the toy poodle mix. It looks to weigh less than a sack of flour. The young man who's helped us for the last hour seems pained by such rejection, a look of quiet despair on his face. As the boys squeal with delight while a blond poodle licks their faces, he turns to me and says: "My goal is to send them home during their super cute fluffy puppy stage." And that's when he hands me a clipboard with an application for a Petland credit card.

A Pickerington Petland general manager holds an Olde English Bulldog.

photo: dispatch file

Petland protest in Grove City in February

photo: Tom Dodge