A pet store chain that plans to open its first Ohio store next month in Westfield Franklin Park mall will be opening with a little something extra. Controversy.
The Family Puppy, a southeast Michigan chain that sells puppies, plans to open a store in mid-October after being courted by the mall’s ownership for a year.
John Stottele, who co-owns The Family Puppy with his wife, Deb, said he often goes to Indiana to pick up puppies from about 20 primarily Amish breeders who provide him with dogs to sell, and the route he travels made Franklin Park a good fit.
“Toledo is kind of on the way. We get our puppies from Indiana. ... Geographically, it works,” Mr. Stottele said.
The company has five stores in Michigan malls. He signed a long-term lease with Westfield that is expected to be honored by Starwood Retail Partners, which has agreed to buy the mall.
However, the impending opening of The Family Puppy, which only sells dogs, has alarmed local animal rights activists who allege that the chain is supplied by commercial breeders who run so-called “puppy mills.”
Puppy mills are generally characterized as kennels where dogs are bred in cages with little or no human contact, unsanitary conditions, and improper health care.
Mr. Stottele, who has been in the pet store business 35 years, said The Family Puppy does not do business with puppy mills.
“The bulk of our business is finding great breeders that will sell to us, and then we sell to the public. We know what to look for with breeders. I know how to screen a breeder because I’ve been working with breeders for 35 years,” he said.
He declined to provide a list of the breeders he gets dogs from, but he said information on each puppy — including information about the breeder — is available to customers in his stores.
Mr. Stottele has clashed with animal activists in Michigan.
Locally, a group called the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates started an online petition asking signers to stop shopping at the mall as long as The Family Puppy is there. The petition is being sent to both Westfield and Starwood, and as of noon Thursday it had more than 6,100 signers.
Jean Keating of Toledo, the coalition’s co-founder, said the local effort was to make the mall owners aware of the chain’s history and business practices in an attempt to end their relationship with The Family Puppy.
“They’re business people, they’re not animal welfare people,” Ms. Keating said of the mall owners. “We want to make them aware to how many people in this area object to this company and how many won’t be shopping at that mall anymore.”
Ms. Keating said The Family Puppy stores in Michigan “have a track record of buying puppies from local puppy mill operations. They have numerous violations from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and repeated violations,” she said.
“People in our area, if they’re looking to get a family dog, they need to get a dog with a sound temperament and good health, and puppy mill dogs have neither,” she said.
More importantly, Ms. Keating said, pet stores lead to impulse buys. People buy dogs without realizing how much of a commitment they are, and the result is often bad for the animal.
Mr. Stottele said he ended a relationship with a Missouri breeder after he and his wife visited there.
“We were disgusted with what we saw,” he said.
So Mr. Stottele began relationships with a group of Amish breeders in Indiana and now travels to the state to obtain dogs. He said that allows him to monitor the conditions the breeders employ, and if he has qualms he can and has stopped doing business with that breeder.
“We only use breeders that will meet our standards, and those standards are above those of the Animal Welfare Act,” Mr. Stottele said.
Amish breeders have a reputation among animal welfare groups of raising dogs in poor conditions. Mr. Stottele agreed “that there are some bad” Amish breeders.
“But we handpick them,” he said.
Mr. Stottele said many of his breeders have, upon his insistence, retrofitted kennels and begun regular health testing of their dogs.
Puppy Mill Awareness, an activist group in Michigan, provided information to Ms. Keating’s group noting that in 2009-2010, 13 of the 16 primary suppliers used by The Family Puppy had been cited by the USDA for noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act.
Mr. Stottele said he monitors the citations, and says that nearly all were “indirect” violations, not “direct” violations where a dog needs veterinary treatment.
In 2012, Marlin Bontrager, an Indiana breeder used by Mr. Stottele, did have two “direct” violations cited by the USDA during an inspection. A follow-up inspection two days later showed that Mr. Bontrager had remedied the two problems, but Mr. Stottele said he quit doing business with Mr. Bontrager as a result of the incident.
Puppy Mill Awareness, which has picketed The Family Puppy stores nearly 150 times according to Mr. Stottele, says that customers have filed 33 complaints with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and 29 various problems have been noted with puppies purchased from The Family Puppy stores.
Mr. Stottele said most of the 33 complaints were filed between 1998 and 2009, the year Gov. Jennifer Granholm cut the state agriculture department’s budget, which eliminated inspections of commercial pet stores.
The Blade found only two complaints against The Family Puppy since 2009.
In one, the Michigan Agriculture Department investigated a complaint that The Family Puppy store in Flint bought an underaged puppy to sell, but investigators found that the puppy was older than the paperwork indicated.
Another complaint, filed by Puppy Mill Awareness, alleged that two puppies who became ill at the Flint store had contracted canine parvovirus, a highly contagious disease. A state investigation concluded that one of the dogs had parvovirus, and both puppies were euthanized.
Dr. James Averill, Michigan Department of Agriculture veterinarian and director of its animal industry division, said the department has no violations on record for any of The Family Puppy’s stores.
“We do know they have five stores, but we have not received any active complaints against them. There has been no need for us to go out and do an investigation of them, and there has been nothing else about them that has been brought to our attention,” Dr. Averill said.
Julie Sanderson, a spokesman for Westfield Franklin Park, said the mall knows The Family Puppy is controversial, but its policy is not to permit protests on mall property.
“We are private property, and we recognize that everybody has an opinion and passions and we totally take seriously the right of people to express their opinion but in a lawful way. But that means in designated areas on the public property sides of the mall. That would be the sidewalk all the way around,” Ms. Sanderson said.
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.