If it's Saturday afternoon, Leanne Fritsch, Janet Banks and a brood of six other dog lovers can be found at Chesterfield Mall. There they'll be, standing on the median of the road outside the parking lot, hoisting signs that read "Puppy Mills Breed Misery" and "Missouri Is the Number One Puppy Mill State." [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
Their goal is to put one of the mall's stores, Pampered Pets, out of business. The pet store, which opened a year ago, gets its puppies from commercial breeders, which the protesters consider synonymous with puppy mills. Of the 5,000 United States Department of Agriculture-licensed dog and cat breeders in the country, the federal agency reports, 1,525 are in Missouri — the highest number of any state.
"The problem isn't the pet store," Fritsch explains. "It's the parents in the mills, in cages 24/7, popping out puppies. The stores mislead the public. If they saw where the dogs come from, they wouldn't buy them. Commercial breeders are puppy mills. Some may be clean, but the animals aren't socialized. There's no medical care, no food. They're just in it for the profit."
Other pet stores in the St. Louis area, including PETCO and PetSmart, have stopped selling kennel dogs; instead, they organize adoption events with animals from local shelters.
On this cold but sunny Saturday in mid-January, a woman in a silver Acura slows, rolls down the window and shouts, "I get all my pets from shelters!" As Banks runs to get her some brochures decrying the evils of puppy mills (replete with heart-tugging photos of abused dogs), impatient drivers begin to honk their horns.
"That's why it would be so great if we were inside the mall," sighs Banks. But the mall's management won't let the protesters inside. Instead, they must picket on public property.
An independent, grassroots group with no official name — and no connection to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — the demonstrators began picketing a year ago, after Banks saw an ad in the South City Journal for a monthly puppy auction at the American Legion hall in Shrewsbury. The dogs came from kennels that had closed down.
"It infuriated me," Banks remembers. "They should have sent those dogs to the animal division because they were homeless, instead of selling them for profit."
After three months of protests, the Shrewsbury auction ceased. The group then set its sights on Puppy Pros, a pet store in Fenton. "They were an easy target," Fritsch admits. "Their business wasn't doing so well to begin with, and their lease was up at the end of October." Around Halloween, Puppy Pros closed for good, though Banks declines to take credit.
"We're not so much happy about putting anybody out of business," she says. "But instead of lining someone else's pocket, go to a shelter."
The group took up its post in Chesterfield in mid-November, in time for the holiday shopping season. Although Pampered Pets has locations at MidRivers Mall in St. Peters and St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights, Illinois, Fritsch says the group chose the Chesterfield store because of its central location.
Pampered Pets owner Ovella Lange is unfazed by the weekly protesters and says they've had no effect on her business. "We've sold almost 3,000 puppies in the past year," she says, "and we've had complaints about less than 1 percent."
Some of the puppies Lange breeds and sells come from her own kennel in Silex, in Lincoln County. She has been licensed by the USDA for more than five years and has passed yearly inspections by the federal agency. She insists her kennel is no puppy mill.
"Puppy mills are places where the dogs aren't taken care of," says Lange. "They're filthy. The dogs aren't vaccinated, not fed, live in nasty conditions. To meet the [USDA] standards, you can't be like that."
The Animal Welfare Act, passed by Congress in 1966, established guidelines to regulate commercial dog breeders. The Missouri Department of Agriculture has a long list of requirements for kennels: They must be heated, well-ventilated and cleaned once a day. The dogs must also get food, water and exercise; their cages must have sufficient space for the dogs to turn around, and the whole operation must be supervised by a veterinarian.
Lange's kennel has two vets on staff to guarantee the puppies' health. She adds that she's so diligent about keeping the place sanitary that she requires visitors to cover their hair and shoes.
Jerry Eber, a veterinarian with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, doesn't see anything wrong with pet stores getting their puppies from commercial kennels. "The pet stores are simply providing a need. Those puppies have to come from somewhere," he says. "By and large, the animals are raised in good conditions. We inspect the licensed kennels regularly, and the same goes for pet stores."
The department, however, has no power to bring criminal charges against breeders who mistreat animals, except in cases where the animals are forced to fight each other.
For the Chesterfield Mall protesters, though, the USDA regulations are not stringent enough. "USDA sounds impressive," says Fritsch. "You ask pet-store owners where their dogs come from and they say, 'USDA-certified private breeders,' not realizing how minimal the standards really are."
Bills have been proposed in the Illinois and Minnesota state legislatures to regulate animal breeders more closely and impose harsher penalties, but no one has done anything similar in Missouri.
"It's such a touchy subject," says Debra Sauberli, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I don't know if there's any true definition for puppy mills. The breeders you would worry about are the ones who are not producing quality puppies, who have multiple breeds and cross-breeds and [who have] many dogs. Most true breeders, who care about their dogs, have health clearances and produce maybe two or three litters a year."
A careful breeder, Sauberli adds, will give the dogs blood tests to screen for genetic problems, like hip dysplasia, deafness, heart disease and abnormalities in the eyes. "Most good breeders," she says, "know what general problems are out there."
Meanwhile, the group outside Chesterfield Mall vows to continue picketing every Saturday until it gets results. Fritsch, who doesn't own a dog, admits she's never seen Lange's kennel for herself, nor any other "puppy mill" for that matter, but says she's determined to stop what she calls "dog farmers."
"At the Shrewsbury American Legion auction, they said, 'We sell love,'" she says. "Be honest about what you're doing. You're in it for the money."
Correction published 2/4/09: In the original version of this story, we misspelled Leanne Fritsch's last name. The above version reflects this correction.