Ex-puppy mill pet shop manager heeds call to sell shelter animals

Sunday, June 6, 2010
Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society.

LOS ANGELES -- For five years, the manager of a pet store in posh Bel Air met delivery trucks loaded with hundreds of ailing purebreds from Midwest puppy mills.

"They often got sick in transit," Jamie Katz said. "They would put hundreds of puppies on a semi and if one got sick, they all got sick. I tried to fix the problems but it's hard when you are the only one trying."

Two years ago, she found herself with allies -- protesters who showed up in front of the store in a high-end mall. They were working on a campaign of the Best Friends Animal Society to persuade people just like her to sell shelter animals instead, which is exactly what happened thanks to Katz.

Amid the protests, Katz spent time talking to picketers, reading their literature and doing research, then the owners of the shop, Pets of Bel Air, decided to close. Katz borrowed money, leased the vacated store and stocked it with shelter animals.

Her business, Woof Worx, is now Best Friend's poster image for going humane and is endorsed on Web sites, press releases and ongoing demonstrations at other stores.

In one year, Katz has sold 200 shelter dogs, from puppies to 3-year-olds. Woof Worx is in the Glen Center, where valet parking is complimentary, paparazzi are banned and factory puppies used to sell for $3,500 or $4,000 each.

"People up here can absolutely afford an expensive dog, but it's about doing what's right. People are falling in love with the rescues we are saving," Katz said.

She offers grooming (she has two groomers on staff), concierge services, training classes and teeth cleaning clinics (vaccination clinics and microchip clinics are planned). Katz, 28, usually has between eight and 15 dogs in the store.

"I know what my customers want. I like to rescue dogs," said Katz, who with her boyfriend owns four, plus a cat. "We also try to get more adult dogs than puppies because most puppies will end up getting homes anyway. The older dogs need more help."

In addition to startup help, Best Friends will show pet store owners how they can offer mobile adoption services, where the burdens of finding dogs, screening, paperwork and transportation are handled by a rescue group, said Elizabeth Oreck, who managed the Best Friends campaign that won over Katz.

Some larger chain stores like Petsmart and Petco have long held weekend adoptions in conjunction with rescues and shelters near individual stores, a far more useful endeavor over trafficking in factory puppies, Oreck said.

"These puppies have never been on solid ground or seen the sun before," she said. They're often chronically sick or have genetic problems from inbreeding or overbreeding.

Best Friends, based in Kanab, Utah, has been demonstrating in three cities -- Los Angeles, New York City and Las Vegas. Los Angeles County has about 400 pet stores that sell live animals.

Seven Los Angeles stores targeted by Best Friends have closed down, Oreck said. The organization would have preferred they stay in business and sell shelter dogs, but many feel they can't make it without the high-priced, purebred puppies that come primarily from commercial breeders in Missouri, Nebraska and Pennsylvania, she said.

"People fall in love with the dogs, not the label or breed," Oreck said. "The kids don't know the difference. They just see a cute dog."

Customers are smarter these days and often reject stores stocked by puppy mills, Oreck said. It's a trend that is growing one store and one convert at a time, she said.

In Utah, Best Friends runs the largest no kill animal sanctuary in the country on a 3,700-acre compound that is home to 1,700 to 2,000 animals at any given time.

The organization isn't working alone. People used to think all shelter dogs were old or bad, but many minds have changed. More celebrities than ever champion animal causes alongside animal welfare organizations.

Katz charges customers more than a shelter would, but a dog comes with a Woof Worx guarantee that it has been fixed, microchipped, vaccinated, groomed, well fed and the center of a lot of attention.

Best Friends doesn't picket a pet store until investigators confirm it is selling puppy mill dogs, Oreck said. In Los Angeles, the breeder's name, city and state have to be posted on every pet store kennel. In other cities, stores have to make that information available on request.

There are also brokers that handle many of the puppy factories, Oreck said, and those names must be on the paperwork.

Most pet store owners don't visit the breeding farms where puppies come from, she said. They just go to the Internet and choose from lists on a Website, Oreck said.

"You would never adopt a child that way. It's not a pair of shoes," she said. "It's a living thing you will take care of your whole life."

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