The Morristown council approved a $53.7 million, zero-tax-hike budget on Tuesday. But the public spent much of the evening hotly debating an ordinance that wasn’t even on the agenda.
A measure to ban pet stores from selling dogs and cats drew passionate support from animal rights volunteers and dog lovers, including students from the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School who presented a petition with more than 100 signatures supporting the ordinance.
Owners of pet stores in White House Station and Union vehemently defended their businesses, contending they were victims of lobbying by activists, and that compliance with the proposed law would be impossible.
More than 100 towns across the state have passed some version of this measure, which aims to shut down “puppy mills” — unscrupulous breeders who supply shops with pets raised under cruel conditions.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates 10,000 puppy mills in the U.S. annually produce more than 2.4 million puppies–often crammed into cages, sometimes outside in subfreezing weather, with poor nutrition, inadequate veterinary care and no documentation.
A state law to ban puppy mill sales was vetoed last month by Gov. Christie, who said it “goes too far.”
‘WE NEED TO BE MORE HUMANE’
Morristown doesn’t have any pet shops. The closest thing is the Bubba Rose Biscuit Co., a newcomer to South Street that sells doggie treats. Its owner urged the council to pass the ordinance.
“Puppy mills are not going to go away unless we stand up for animal rights,” said Amanda Smith. “It’s time to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”
“We have many, many happy customers…I’ve been dragged through the mud,” said Stephanie Earl, co-owner of the Furrylicious Pet Salon & Boutique in Whitehouse Station.
A model ordinance was submitted to the council by Jeanne Clayton, of New Jersey Residents Against Puppy Mills. Council President Stefan Armington brought it up under “new business” at the April 25, 2017, council meeting.
The council was prepared to introduce the ordinance on May 23 — a large crowd showed up for the occasion–but Armington tabled it for study by town lawyers.
Joni McDonnell, assistant town attorney, reported on Tuesday that the pet sale ban has withstood about a half-dozen challenges in the courts. Armington directed that the ordinance be readied for introduction at the council’s June 27 meeting.
“We as a society need to be more humane,” said Councilwoman Alison Deeb, a volunteer puppy-raiser for the Seeing Eye Inc. who favors the ordinance.
It would allow pet shops to sell pet care items and host pet adoptions from rescue shelters.
Puppy mills made local news in February when health officials shut down the Just Pups store in East Hanover. The chain’s owner faces a slew of complaints alleging violations of consumer protection and animal welfare regulations at the Route 10 shop and at now-closed locations in East Brunswick, Paramus and Emerson.
Over the last few weeks, Morristown council members have received stacks of reports full of gruesome photos documenting the horrors of puppy mills.
An August 2016 report from the Humane Society of the United States said New Jersey pet stores were buying from dozens of breeders with Animal Welfare Act violations. This included more than 50 breeding facilities that have been cited on the Humane Society’s “Horrible 100” list.
Several stores failed to disclose breeder information on puppy cages, and bought pets from breeders with severe violations of the Animal Welfare Act, in apparent violation of New Jersey’s 2015 Pet Purchase Protection Act, the report said.
According to that report, such breeders sold puppies to Furrylicious and Shake-a-Paw, a Union store represented at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Responsible breeders don’t sell to pet stores,” Brian Hackett, director of the Humane Society’s state chapter, told the council. He described pet store owners at the meeting as “disgruntled, angry individuals” whose “pet sources have been outed.”
“Please, listen to your gut,” Human Society volunteer Larry Cohen implored council members.
A former Furrylicious employee, Joann Muoio, said the shop’s dogs “had a lot of health problems.” She now volunteers at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison.
The pet store owners said they only deal with breeders who pass inspections by the federal Department of Agriculture.
“These kennels are nicer than most people’s homes… We know how to take care of puppies and how to work with breeders,” said Furrylicious co-owner Cindy Knowles.
Shake-a-Paw’s Jeff Morton said it was “really shocking to hear these animal rights activists. Their accusations are scandalous.”
He said Hackett, the Humane Society’s state director, “claims to be an expert. what he is expert at is politics. He doesn’t do animal care. He lobbies, and tries to push the Humane Society’s political agenda.”
Pet shops would be unable to host pet shelter adoptions, as suggested in the ordinance, because shelters are not regulated as strictly as pet stores, Morton said.
“It sounds rosy,” Morton said. “But it’s not what consumers want, and it’s impossible to comply.”
AS FOR THE BUDGET…
The municipal budget is identical to the version introduced last month by Mayor Tim Dougherty, except for $40,000 added for the Community Garden on Early Street, said Stefan Armington, the council president.
The funds will construct a walkway that is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, augmenting a capital fund drive by Grow It Green Morristown, said Armington.
In 2014, Grow It Green set a target of $200,000, to fund an expansion of the garden and related improvements. Armington said the nonprofit raised about half that amount. The town has a “quasi-partnership” with Grow It Green, he said, referring to grants secured by the town to acquire the garden property several years ago.
Councilwoman Alison Deeb, a Republican running for mayor, cast the lone vote against the budget, which averts local tax increases for the seventh straight year.
“It’s great having no tax increases. But some want them reduced,” Deeb said.
She also expressed disappointment that no funds were allocated to dredge Foote’s Pond. The town has agreed to commission a hydrology study to explore the feasibility of dredging.