animal welfare

Is it time to commit to pet-free pet stores?

guinea pigs

I’ve always found it ironic that when you finish checking out at places at Petco and PetSmart, they pop the question – would you like to make a donation to help homeless animals today?

It brings to mind the thousands of guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, reptiles and birds who end up in shelters or worse.  Many of whom were purchased at places like Petco and PetSmart.

Walking among the cages of small animals in these stores, you’ll see signs that encourage you to “think adoption first.”  But, given the pet overpopulation epidemic, why don’t we think adoption only?

If you browse the Los Angeles County Animal Care & Control website right now (which is looking pretty nice after a recent makeover, by the way!), here’s what you’ll find:

  • 17 rabbits
  • 5 red eared sliders
  • 8 guinea pigs
  • 1 ball python
  • 1 corn snake
  • 1 yellow-headed Amazon parrot
  • 1 cockatiel
  • 1 cockatoo

Searching with Los Angeles Animal Services will give you 273 small animals of similar varieties, plus a few hamsters and mice.  That’s over 300 small animals in need of a home, not even counting the ones on Craigslist, posted on social media and neighborhood apps, abandoned in parks, and being fostered through reputable rescue groups.

I spoke with Michiko Vartanian of Orange County Cavy Haven to get an idea of the number of animals the rescue works with, and to see the breadth of how many small animals need homes in the Los Angeles area.  OCCH is a tiny but mighty organization that works closely with each animal, and focuses only on one species: guinea pigs.  They typically have 25-30 animals in foster homes at any given time, and average about 25 adoptions per month.  One of the largest small animal rescue groups in Southern California is Bunny Bunch, and I counted 158 animals (mostly rabbits, with a few chinchillas and guinea pigs), at their two locations in Fountain Valley and Montclair.

Clearly, small animal rescue groups deserve a huge round of applause.  They are doing the work for these little guys that pet stores don’t, from educating the public about proper housing and care, to rehoming the animals who are no longer wanted.  And even though most animal lovers support adoption of dogs and cats, the idea of rescuing a small animal – or donating to groups that do – might not even be on their radar.

I first got some insight into the world of small animal rescue pretty early on in my activist career, when I started a campaign against a local pet store to stop them from selling puppies from puppy mills.  One of my biggest supporters was Linda Baley, founder of Too Many Bunnies Rabbit Rescue, who also despised the store.  She said that not only did they sell rabbits with cages that were much too small, they kept a stack of her cards to give to customers when the rabbit inevitably outlived their short attention span, or became too difficult to care for.  I also became familiar with a few common dumping grounds for small animals, a plan which is not only cruel to the animal you’re abandoning, it’s harmful to native species, and most definitely illegal. 

My campaign against the pet store was successful, and the location in Torrance pretty quickly closed down.  Their other branches switched to adoption only for puppies, which is what we wanted, but it was hard to see this as a victory.  The conditions these rescue puppies were kept in were far below ideal, and small animals were still being sold.  When the chain eventually went out of business, I have to say it was a huge relief.

In the past decade or so, we’ve seen some corporate and legislative improvements to help animals in pet stores, and overpopulation.  City ordinances have slowly popped up around the country that outlaw the retail sale of dogs, cats, and sometimes rabbits.  PetSmart actually stopped selling rabbits in 2007 after pressure from The House Rabbit Society, and Petco followed in 2008.  Both chains also used to sell puppies, something that is a very foggy memory from my childhood, but gives me hope that their policies can improve for small animals as well.  After talking to Michiko, I’m more convinced than ever that this has to happen soon.  She says:

Our biggest problem is that the laws that require pet stores to sell only animals from rescues do not include small animals.  When these ordinances were passed in some counties a few years back, it only made the situation for guinea pigs worse, as they were one of the few animals now in pet stores, so they are now filling up shelters faster, and the incidences of them being dumped in parks, trash cans, etc., has increased dramatically.  Furthermore, we have a ‘re-home’ program, where we will help people re-home unwanted guinea pigs, and the prior owners now become ‘fosters,’ while we find new homes for their animals.  This helps us help more guinea pigs in spite of having very limited foster space, but we also track the origin of the animals.  In 98% of the cases, they came from pet stores.  It’s sad the new laws won’t help the guinea pigs and other small animals.

I’m writing this post in the wake of yesterday’s PetSmart raid in Tennessee, which I believe accurately depicts the values of these big name pet stores and their small animal suppliers.  We would never support a company that treated puppies this way, and I think it’s time to extend our compassion to the little guys, too.  Vote with your dollars, and support companies that understand animals – big and small – deserve more consideration than a product on a shelf.

For a list of local compassionate retailers, have a look at my South Bay Pet-Free Pet Store Guide.


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