West Coast director of The Puppy Mill Project addresses Santee City Council

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Sydney Cicourel has a long campaign in mind for San Diego County. As West Coast Director of The Puppy Mill Project, she concluded work in Washington State by shepherding into law a 2004 bill banning storefront sales of puppies. Now, Cicourel has moved to Southern California. In 2013, she introduced a similar local ordinance for the City of San Diego. Oceanside and Chula Vista also passed puppy sale bans. Late in June, Encinitas followed suit, banning sales of commercially bred puppies and kittens within the city’s jurisdiction.

Sydney Cicourel has a long campaign in mind for San Diego County. As West Coast Director of The Puppy Mill Project, she concluded work in Washington State by shepherding into law a 2004 bill banning storefront sales of puppies. Now, Cicourel has moved to Southern California. In 2013, she introduced a similar local ordinance for the City of San Diego. Oceanside and Chula Vista also passed puppy sale bans. Late in June, Encinitas followed suit, banning sales of commercially bred puppies and kittens within the city’s jurisdiction.

Cicourel addressed the Santee City Council on July 8, urging the East County representatives to do likewise.

Cicourel described the origins of the project as a national effort in Illinois, which resulted in 80 ordinances to date banning retail puppy sales. She said, “I am very passionate about the issue,” for bringing awareness to the general populace about differences among commercial pet breeders and the interrelated pet overpopulation problems.

Asked to define a “puppy mill” versus a “reputable breeder,” Cicourel replied, “A puppy mill is a mass-breeding canine animal facility that places profit over the well-being and welfare of animals.”

She distinguished reputable breeders as those who breed and raise dogs but never sell to pet stores, instead placing bred puppies with people through “one-on-one interviews, like job interviews.”

Cicourel stated that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates commercial animal breeding, and a reported 3,300 commercially licensed breeding facilities are under USDA scrutiny. She mentioned the Midwest as locations where Puppy Mill Project advocates believe puppy mills outnumber reputable breeders. She identified the Hunte Corporation of Goodman, Missouri, by name, as “the worst” as a “puppy mill” broker.

The Santee City Council and members of the public on hand listened as Cicourel requested that the issue be placed on the agenda for discussion. She asked that Santee consider adopting a retail pet sale ordinance, as other localities have done. The council took no action.

There is no widespread problem of mass storefront puppy sales in East County.  Santee features only one pet store where people can pay for and adopt a puppy.

On the same day that Cicourel addressed the Santee City Council, Al Franco provided a tour of the family-owned pet store he runs with his wife, Sharon, and daughters, Christina and Rachel. The puppies for sale at Pups & Pets in Santee appeared happy and healthy. The store was clean, and the Franco family members eager and welcoming in answering questions and responding to criticisms of their business. The puppies in a central fenced-in play area were wagging their tails and frolicking around the enclosure.

Franco has been in the pet store business for 28 years. He moved his family store operations from Puppy Time in El Cajon, after the economic downturn caused many ventures, such as his, to collapse. His family rebuilt their business as Pups & Pets in Santee. They have been there for five and a half years.

Cicourel and The Puppy Mill Project volunteers have been protesting outside Pups & Pets on an occasional schedule for four and a half years. Franco said that he and his wife have received anonymous threats of violence from project activists and their associates.

He responded to points of concern raised by Cicourel. He said his business operations are in compliance with USDA regulations. He said his daughters and their friends walk the larger-breed dogs along the nearby riverfront area for exercise. Family members often bring home puppies from the store overnight.

“My job is to provide the healthiest dogs around,” Franco said. Each pet sale has a 150 percent price guarantee on the purchased pet’s health.

“We have to stand by our dogs,” Franco said. He agreed with Cicourel’s statement that the puppies are transported by truck. He disagreed with her characterization of the trucks as substandard and dangerous. He maintained that the trucks are air-conditioned and heated, and moreover that the trucks stop frequently for water breaks. Franco further disagreed with Cicourel’s condemnation of the standards practiced by the Hunte Corporation, which he praised as “one of the best.”

Franco said he supports pet adoption through shelters and rescue organizations, saying, “That was part of my background growing up.” He noted some families want to purchase a specific breed of dog for individual reasons and that they may only find their ideal pet at a retail pet store. He added thoughts on the negative consequences, if The Puppy Mill Project puts his family out of business through the proposed ordinance. Franco predicted that local people in the market for a specific kind of dog, who are barred from access to storefront pet stores like his, will likely resort to buying in Tijuana or out of a parking lot, with no guarantees on the dog or the dog’s provenance.

“We’re happy. We love what we do,” Franco said. He invited anyone interested in personally delving into the contentiousness over retail pet sales to visit his shop at 50 Town Center Parkway in Santee. He also pointed to a new “live puppy cam” that people can watch at any time at puppiesforsalesandiego.com.

Examinations of available records show no ongoing, long-term investigations or citations for violations against Hunte. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 2003 cited one Hunte kennel for clean water and waste violations, as a result of a complaint about improper disposal of dog carcasses. Massachusetts state police followed up on a 2006 Hunte transport truck fire that killed about 60 puppies, issuing three citations for unrelated violations of defective brakes and expired inspection cards. A class-action lawsuit, filed in federal court in Arizona against Hunte for “non-disclosure,” was dismissed in 2009. The judge ruled against plaintiffs demanding that Hunte notify potential pet buyers that their puppies for purchase were from puppy mills, because the “puppy mills” claim was based on unsubstantiated allegations. The plaintiffs have not re-filed suit with any evidence the judge stated that they must provide to have a case. The City of Phoenix recently passed a broader ban on retail pet sales from any out-of-state breeding facility, and that ordinance is being challenged in another federal suit, which was filed in mid-May. The court case contends that the Phoenix ordinance is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which bars any state in the federal union from discrimination against commercial imports from another state. The plaintiffs have requested summary judgment striking down the Phoenix ordinance and issuing declarative and injunctive relief against the city’s action.

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