By STACY ST. CLAIR | CHRISTY GUTOWSKI |CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Nick Avila for (CNT) City News Talk #chicago-il
A Chicago alderman who long championed the city’s anti-puppy mill ordinance has reversed his position and wants to lift a key restriction on pet shops, a move that comes after he received donations from a Lincoln Park store owner whose business sells primarily purebred and designer dogs.
Under a new ordinance proposed by Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, pet shops no longer would be restricted to only selling rescue dogs as they have been for the past five years. Instead, they could offer puppies from federally licensed breeders without critical violations on their records in the past two years.
Lopez, who has embraced animal welfare initiatives during his tenure, stunned advocacy groups that he had worked with for years by changing his position. As recently as last year, he publicly expressed support for tightening the city’s anti-puppy mill ordinance.
“This really is reversing course and taking 10 giant steps back for animal protections,” said Marc Ayers, Illinois state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “He knows this. It’s hard to say why he’s being influenced so heavily.”
A longtime critic of the ordinance, store owner Lane Boron has contributed $2,000 since July 2018 to campaign funds that Lopez controls, according to state campaign finance reports. Boron owns Pocket Puppies in Lincoln Park. His most recent donation of $500 was in late January.
Less than seven months later, Lopez made an about-face when he publicly criticized another alderman’s proposal to close a loophole in the city ordinance that some advocates say has allowed a few pet stores to continue selling pricey puppies sourced from rescues with strong ties to out-of-state dealers.
Pocket Puppies, located in Lincoln Park, in 2018. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Lopez introduced his own proposal earlier this month that would allow pet stores to sell commercially raised puppies. In a written response to Tribune questions about the contributions from a business outside his ward, he said the donations were unsolicited and did not influence him.
He said the money was “returned immediately.” But, when the Tribune asked for supporting documentation, the alderman did not respond further. A review of Illinois State Board of Elections records did not show an amended report to reflect that any of Boron’s three contributions over 18 months was returned.
Lopez denied that he is abandoning his earlier efforts to strengthen animal welfare standards. He said the city’s ordinance has led to a “decimation of the pet store industry,” forcing consumers to instead buy from “an underground market of bad breeders and internet dealers that I believe the new guidelines will end.”
Chicago was among the first major cities in the country to pass a law that permitted pet shops to sell dogs only if they were obtained from government pounds, humane societies or rescue shelters.
It passed nearly unanimously and went into effect a year later in March 2015 — one month before Lopez was elected — with the aim to prevent businesses from sourcing dogs from so-called puppy mills, large-scale breeding facilities often criticized for poor conditions and mistreatment of the mother dogs.
Another goal of the Chicago law was to reduce the number of euthanized shelter dogs. Indeed, city officials say the live release rate for dogs went from 65% in 2015 when the ordinance went into effect to nearly 91.5% in 2019.
The city ban affected about 13 stores in Chicago. Most closed, relocated or changed their mission.
But a 2018 Tribune investigation found the loophole allowed three local pet stores — including Pocket Puppies — to sell pricey dogs supplied by out-of-state rescues in Iowa and Missouri that were closely linked to longtime commercial dealers.
In an arrangement that was not an express violation of the ordinance but ran counter to the spirit of the ban, these rescues had provided city shops each year with hundreds of purebred and designer-mix puppies that came through kennels and properties owned by for-profit businesses or dealers, records show.
Days after the Tribune’s report, Lopez proposed changing the city law so that it allowed only dogs from a government facility or an organization “that has an agreement or other affiliation with Chicago Animal Care and Control” to be sold at local shops.
Two months later, Boron made his first donation — of$500 — to a Lopez campaign fund.
Lopez’s proposal, which was far more stringent than even the Humane Society wanted, failed to gain momentum.
The City Council largely ignored the issue until this spring, when Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller announced a settlement in which two so-called rescues in his state that the Tribune found had supplied dogs to two of the three Chicago pet stores agreed to cease operations and pay $60,000.
Miller found that the two nonprofits — Hobo K-9 Rescue of Britt, Iowa, and Rescue Pets Iowa Corp. of Ottumwa — transferred at least 3,600 dogs to entities in Illinois, California, Florida, Missouri and New Jersey from 2016 to 2019.
The Iowa attorney general alleged the owners of J.A.K.’S Puppies started Hobo K-9 Rescue in 2016 as a way to provide commercially bred designer puppies to businesses in California and Chicago, where laws require pet stores to sell only shelter animals.
Miller called the Iowa operations “integral actors of a national puppy laundering ring.” In response last year, Lopez applauded Iowa’s action and said he had put the local pet stores on notice.
“I flat-out told them at some point their industry was coming to an end in the city of Chicago,” Lopez told the Tribune in March 2019. “They know they are the last of their breed — pun intended.”
Pocket Puppies was not part of the Iowa litigation. But the 2018 Tribune investigation detailed how a Missouri canine dealer with a nonprofit rescue sent hundreds of puppies from April 2016 to June 2017 to either Pocket Puppies or a nonprofit with the pet shop’s address, according to public records.
And, last week, Nov. 26 Chicago Animal Care and Control issued administrative notice of 13 alleged ordinance violations to Pocket Puppies on suspicion the pet store sourced several 8-week-old English and French bulldogs from an Oklahoma breeder over a three-month period earlier this year, according to a city report.
The city investigation was sparked by a complaint from the Humane Society, the report said. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Jan. 4.
To address the ordinance’s loophole, North Side Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, proposed changes earlier this year so that stores only would be permitted to sell shelter dogs at a nominal fee. The price restrictions would make it harder for brokers and breeders to exploit the rescue animal requirements, he said.
The revamped language allows pet shop owners to show dogs from rescues and shelters but the store “shall not have any ownership or monetary interest in the animals displayed for adoption. The animals may only be transferred to an adopting individual for a nominal adoption fee.”
Approved rescue groups must not have any affiliation with a commercial business such as a breeder or dealer, under Hopkins’ plan.
Lopez was critical of the proposal in a City Council committee hearing in July. Boron and his wife, Stefanie, also spoke out against it at the public hearing.
Lane Boron acknowledged in July that Pocket Puppies uses a rescue “that sources from breeders.” The Borons told the panel they deal with reputable enterprises and the real problem lies with what they called a retail rescue industry that buys from substandard breeders.
The Borons say their store, which has 15 employees, would close if they could only sell “food and bones.” Though Pocket Puppies is not located in Lopez’s ward, Lane Boron told the Tribune he has donated to multiple elected officials over the years.
He said Lopez has returned his contributions.
“We support aldermen that, in our opinion, see synergies between businesses, regulation and consumer protections,” said Boron, who answered Tribune questions through email.
Regarding the recent city investigation, Boron said his business has never received a CACC violation in its 15-year history.
He and Lopez said Hopkins’ measure limits consumers’ choices and, because the demand for pricey pups won’t go away, will lead to unintended problems by enhancing less regulated sales by online or backyard breeders.
Advocates such as the Humane Society and Chicago-based The Puppy Mill Project say there’s no evidence of that. They support Hopkins’ plan. Hopkins said Lopez’s idea “seems to have the best interest of the commercial pet industry first and foremost. My ordinance has the best interest of the animals first and foremost. That’s the main difference.
“Ald. Lopez seems to have faith in the best intentions of the commercial breeding operations and that they will change their practices to be more humane. I don’t share that faith.”
Pocket Puppies has fought hard against the ordinance for years, going so far as joining two other businesses that sell puppies to battle it unsuccessfully in federal court. They have predicted it would financially devastate their businesses.
Lane Boron said the 2015 ordinance’s only impact has been to force several city pet stores out of business.
“The Hopkins ordinance continues the same failed and ineffective narrative since 2014,” Boron said.
Steve Dale, the popular WGN radio host and an animal behavior consultant, said the ordinance’s aim isn’t to close pet shops but to require them to adhere to standards that better protect animals.
“I don’t want to see anyone go out of business,” he said. “That was never the intent. But I would rather see them go out of business than see them sell dogs unethically and defraud the public.”