AUGUSTA — Nobody will ever again ask “how much is that doggie in the window?” if a Maine lawmaker is successful in pushing through a bill that would bar the sale of dogs and cats at pet stores.

“It’s an effort to reduce overpopulation of pets and to curb puppy mills,” Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor, said Monday.

Bryant Tracy, the owner of Pawz & Clawz Petz in Windham, with a pug puppy he has for sale. A proposed new law would bar him from selling dogs and cats. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

It appears, though, old-style pet stores have already almost vanished even without a law pushing them out of business, replaced in large part by a growing reliance on shelters and rescue groups ready to provide pets to Mainers.

“The traditional pet store is starting to fade away,” Liam Hughes, Maine’s animal welfare director, said Monday.

Bryant Tracy, the owner of Pawz & Clawz Petz, said his little shop up the street from the Windham Mall is the only pet store left in Maine that offers puppies and kittens for sale. But Hughes said there are a couple of others still in business.

Tracy said he sells about 250 puppies annually and perhaps 20 kittens. Without those sales, he said, he would have to close down.

Banning pet store sales of dogs and cats is a priority for many animal rights groups that see the move as a way to combat so-called puppy mills, and to encourage more people to find pets at animal shelters.

Chipman said the goal of the legislation, which he suspects will pass, is “to get away from selling dogs and cats.”

Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, who is co-sponsoring the proposed bill, said there is a lot of interest in putting an end to puppy mills by shuttering stores that sell dogs and cats.

Given that shelters now “bring them up from the South,” he said, there is no reason to have stores selling puppies and kittens.

Tracy, whose shop is 14 years old, said his store only gets animals from breeders whose operations are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and adhere to high standards. Doing anything else, he said, would be dumb because he has no interest in sickly or poorly socialized animals that customers would simply return.

“Cutting us out is not going to help the puppy mill problem,” Tracy said.

Sheet music for the 1952 hit “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window” made famous by singer Patti Page.

For Tracy, it is a matter of preserving options for those looking for a pet.

“It’s all freedom of choice,” he said.

But opponents are skeptical.

“Pet shops treat puppies, kittens, birds, hamsters, mice, rabbits and other animals as if they were fashion accessories, and they sell them to anyone with a credit card,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals writes on its website.

“Most animals sold in stores come from mass-breeding facilities, where they’re denied socialization, exercise, and veterinary care,” the animal rights group charges.

Tracy said what it boils down to is that some of his critics “think every breeder is a puppy mill” when the  truth is that the ones he deals with are a far cry from the wretched places that used to be featured in television exposes.

These days, he said, shelters and rescue groups are often the ones relying on iffy breeders, as a story in The Washington Post detailed last year.

Tracy said protesters sometimes gather in front of his store. He said he understands their concerns but wishes they knew more about his operation.

He said his shop is heavily scrutinized by government rules and inspectors and the breeders he works with are as well.

“You would think people would want regulated pets,” Tracy said, instead of acquiring them from breeders who ship them from out of state or meet buyers in a box store parking lot.

Hughes said pet buyers should make sure they are getting one from a source licensed in Maine.

“Don’t get your animal from a parking lot,” he warned, and do the research ahead of time to ensure any pet is affordable and matches its owner’s lifestyle.

Hughes also suggested anyone getting a pet find a veterinarian right away to check on the animal’s health and make sure somebody is available if there is an after-hours crisis.

The USDA requires pet stores and breeders who want to sell dogs to consumers on the web to obtain a license if they have five or more breeding females.

The problem with that, the nonprofit Puppy Mill Project says, is that government inspectors are overburdened and the rules too lax.

Tracy said animal rights advocates would accomplish more by convincing Maine to require additional state inspections rather than targeting his store.

Pawz & Clawz Petz in Windham, the last pet store in Maine to sell puppies and kittens. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

Tracy said the puppies he sells, which include a number of breeds, cost $1,200 or more, which includes hundreds of dollars in medical care and electronic identification chips.

As recently as a couple of decades ago, pet stores that sold pets were commonplace. But a growing desire to adopt rescues and shelter animals — and buying direct from breeders — has largely shifted the business away from retailers.

A 2017 survey by the American Pet Products Association found that only 4 percent of dog owners in the United States bought their dog at a pet store. Shelters and rescue groups were the source of 44 percent of dogs while breeders delivered another 25 percent. Another 25 percent came from friends or family.

Hughes said that Maine has 82 pet shops, but few are selling dogs and cats. Some have fish or birds, he said, and many others only deal in pet supplies.

Even though stores selling pet products are doing more business than ever, the vast majority of them don’t sell pets. They sell pet products, a booming business.

Tracy’s store is also chock full of pet-related items, but the owner said he doesn’t make enough from them to stay open without selling pets as well.

The bill to end animal sales at pet shops is similar to one approved by lawmakers four years ago that failed to become law because former Gov. Paul LePage refused to go along with the ban.

In the years since Maine nearly took action, animal rights advocates have succeeded in convincing California and the United Kingdom to prohibit pet stores from selling cats and dogs. California’s ban took effect this year, the first state to enact the prohibition.

Other states, including Massachusetts and New York, are debating the idea, which is already law in scores of municipalities across the country..

Chipman’s bill before the Legislature this year would allow pet shops to “provide space to an animal rescue entity to offer to the public” for adoption as long as the shop owners have no ownership interest in the animals or receive a fee for providing space to the group.

Violators would be subject to a $500 fine and the possible suspension or revocation of its pet shop license.

Co-sponsoring the measure with Chipman are Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, and four House members: Donna Bailey, D-Saco; Campbell; David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield; and Margaret O’Neil, D-Saco.

Once the Legislature sends the bill to committee, a public hearing will be scheduled.

To become law, a bill needs the backing of the House, Senate and Gov. Janet Mills, though if she opposed it, the Legislature could override her veto if two-thirds of lawmakers support the move.

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