San Francisco has a long history of raising eyebrows across the country for its politics.
But in June -- when media outlets began publishing the headline “San Francisco Mulls Gold Fish Ban” -- right-wing pundits and political commentators took shots at the beacon of liberalism for acting like a nanny state.
Some in San Francisco took offense to the characterization of their city as crazy. Some including the very people behind pushing legislation that would ban the sale of live animals – everything from cats and dogs to goldfish and birds – for the sake of becoming a pet.
Those behind “The Humane Pet Acquisition Proposal” say the plot is not as sinister as some would imagine – or as headlines suggested. They say it is not as crazy, over-reaching (or, dare we say “San Francisco”) as it may seem.
In fact they say San Francisco is not the only city to look at regulating the multi-billion dollar pet store industry.
“I think on the surface, it’s very easy to talk about the issue and have it be polarizing,” Ryan Young, a commissioner on the San Francisco Commission of Animal Control and Welfare said. “A lot of people say, ‘Here goes San Francisco again with trying to ban something’ but here we are actually behind other cities.”
In fact Young says other cities have passed bills that ban the sale of cats and dogs, while some, such as Los Angeles, have extended measure to protect rabbits, the sale of which, along with chickens, has been illegal in San Francisco pet stores since the 1970s.
TAKING A BAN TO THE NEXT LEVEL, DEBATED
But while San Francisco’s may not be the first measure of its kind, it may be the farthest reaching.
At issue is how future pets get to pet stores and what happens to them after their owners get bored with them. A conversation started in San Francisco on how to prevent animals from kitten factories and puppy mills from going on sale in the City.
So San Francisco’s Commission of Animal Control and Welfare, an advisory and voluntary committee that has the power to suggest ordinances to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors for consideration, took up the issue last year.
The first conversation of drafting a bill to send to the Board of Supervisors was focused on dogs and cats. But that was soon expanded to cover anything you would find in a pet store that can breathe.
“From my perspective I kind of come at this and view this as an animal welfare issue,” Young said. “But I understand how other people may not see it this way.”
Michael Maddox of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a 40-year-old national organization that promotes responsible pet ownership and animal welfare, is one of those people.
He said bills, such as the proposed one in San Francisco, actually endanger animal lives because the pet industry goes to great lengths to protect animal welfare.
“Such bans not only do not benefit animals, they harm them,” he said. “By eliminating heavily regulated, responsible pet stores as a source for pets, a ban such as this merely creates a vacuum in which illegitimate pet dealers who have neither the inclination nor the intent of complying with law will fill the demand for pets. The bans don't benefit the public, which is merely deprived of a responsible source for companion animals.”
BAN STILL A WAYS OFF
San Francisco’s bill is by far the furthest reaching in the nation, according to Maddox. But it has not gone without thought, public comment and revision.
The first version of the ban caught San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors off guard, according to Young. It was put on hold when it was expanded and in June, after further discussion it was sent back to the board.
But Young says the bill is a long way from becoming a reality. He said right now it is still in the process of being reviewed by individual board members and it will require one or some of them pushing the measure to a full vote.
While that conversation continues, Young says it’s important to understand that the measure is not an attack against pet stores, or an attempt to put them out of business.
“One of the supervisors asked me, ‘So are you saying I can’t have a golden retriever?’” Young said. “No what we are trying to say is let’s go adopt the golden retrievers that are out there and not breed more golden retrievers.”
PET SHELTERS VS PET STORES
More San Franciscans getting their pets from animal shelters would be welcomed by Rebecca Katz, the director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control.
She said she hopes the bill, if passed, would help reduce the amount of animals that are euthanized in the City.
The San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control takes in 11,000 animals a year. Of that about half are cats and dogs, a quarter wildlife and 25 percent “smalls” – domesticated animals, such as birds, rats, hamsters and guinea pigs.
The issue than becomes a public one since tax dollars are used to take in the animals and house them in a city run shelter.
Katz said her agency is able to place many of those animals in homes through partnerships but many organizations either do not or are unable to take in animals.
“We know that most of the animals coming to us originally came from pet stores,” Katz said. “People buy from pet stores on impulse or without sufficient adoption counseling or without knowledgeable assistance. Some results are that people surrender the animal when they find out about the challenges.”
Still some say the ban would be largely symbolic because there are only about five stores in San Francisco sell live animals anyway. There are about 30 pet stores in the City.
That handful of stores illustrates a larger point for Young.
“I think there is a way that pet stores that sell live animals can work with rescue groups and could still stay in business,” he said. “It’s not like we are targeting pet stores and trying to shut them down.”
Young said only about 11 percent of pet store sales come from live animals. The rest of the business comes from food and supplies.
“I would hope that pet stores would flourish,” Young said. “The issue is not about shutting down pet stores but about making sure animals come from a good place.”
Still Maddox worries that some stores will be forced out of business if the measure becomes law.
“But passing a ban on puppy sales will substantially impact a pet store that sells a significant number of puppies, and banning all pets will without question put pet stores out of business,” he said. “The net economic impact is indubitably negative and will cost jobs and, indeed, cause responsible businesses to permanently shut their doors.”
He said the bill might not have the effect of driving San Franciscans looking to adopt from animal shelters. Instead some may find it easier to just travel to the next city over and visit a pet store for their needs.
Katz, however, said the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control would welcome a partnership with pet stores. She said she also encourages people to come adopt animals from them but she is not able to advertise that fact due to budget constraints.
“We’ve tried education and marketing but do not have anywhere near the advertising budget that businesses use and we are not a place people necessarily know to come for smalls,” she said.
But Maddox says shelters across the country cannot keep up with the growing demand for pets. He said about 60 percent of American households have an adopted animal living with them.
“The fact is that, while adoption is an excellent choice for some people, it isn't the answer for every pet owner,” he said. “Animals are relinquished to shelters for various reasons: often they are geriatric, sometimes they have socialization or health problems. Unfortunately, not all of these animals are even adoptable. But for those that are, the pet industry has been highly supportive of helping to rehome these pets. However, most species of pets, and many types and breeds of dogs for example, aren't even available in shelter populations.”
There is currently no timeline on when the full board will take a vote on the proposed measure.