Federal judge: Cook County OK to prohibit sales of animals from 'inhumane' 'puppy mills'

Jonathan Bilyk May 22, 2015, 12:35pm

Cook County’s so-called “puppy mill” ordinance has cleared a judicial hurdle, as a federal judge brushed aside a legal challenge from pet store owners and a large association of out-of-state pet breeders, declaring the county was within its rights to seek to restrict the sources from which local pet shops obtain the dogs and other animals they sell.

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly ruled in favor of the county in Chicago’s federal court on May 21, dismissing the complaint brought by plaintiffs, including the Missouri Pet Breeders Association and local pet shops in Hoffman Estates, Chicago Ridge and Arlington Heights, who asserted the ordinance was unconstitutional and would destroy their businesses.

Kennelly said the Cook County Board’s efforts to create “breeder-size requirements to ensure that pet stores bought animals from small breeders as opposed to inhumane mass-breeding facilities” represent a legitimate exercise of power by the county, even if the ordinance does not fully address the issue of humane treatment of pets.

“The ordinance's breeder-size limitations are plausibly designed to reduce the number of animals sold in Cook County that are obtained from mass-breeding facilities,” Kennelly wrote. “This restriction is rationally related to a legitimate government interest, even if it does not include all animals from mass-breeding facilities.”

Further, Kennelly said the ordinance does not impinge upon interstate commerce or violate state contract laws.

The case arose in the fall of 2014, as the county prepared to begin enforcing its ordinance governing the sale of pets. The ordinance had been approved unanimously in spring 2014.

Supporters of the ordinance said the measure would help eliminate the sale of animals from “puppy mills,” or large-scale pet breeding operations often accused of mistreating animals and selling animals in poor health to unsuspecting pet buyers.

The ordinance restricts pet shops to selling only animals purchased from Class A federally-licensed breeders with no more than five female breeding animals or animals from animal shelters and similar not-for-profit animal welfare organizations.

In response to the ordinance, the MPBA and the pet shops – the Petland stores in Hoffman Estates and Chicago Ridge and Happiness Is Pets in Arlington Heights – sued in federal court, arguing the ordinance violates the equal protection rights of the pet store owners and pet breeders, illegally regulates interstate commerce and is too vague.

Further, they asserted, the ordinance would effectively put them out of business and block out-of-state breeders from the Cook County marketplace, while leaving unlicensed in-state breeders free to continue selling animals without regulation.

Kennelly, however, rejected each of the pet breeders’ and store owners’ arguments, noting he believed pet breeders and store owners could comply with the ordinance by altering their business practices.

“A Cook County pet store operator could comply with the ordinance and federal law by sourcing from small, licensed breeders,” the judge wrote. “And breeders could comply with the ordinance by reducing the number of female animals on their premises and obtaining the necessary licenses.”

Kennelly further rejected the contention the law would impinge interstate commerce, reasoning, while the ordinance may shift business from pet stores to local breeders, “a law does not burden interstate commerce if it shifts business from one in-state firm to another in-state firm.”

“The most likely outcome will be that Cook County consumers who would have purchased a pet at a Cook County pet store instead will travel to a pet store in one of the surrounding counties,” Kennelly said. “Alternatively, more people will get pets from not-for-profit or government entities.

“But neither of these outcomes imposes a burden on interstate commerce, as business would simply shift between entities within Illinois.”

And, Kennelly said, if, as the MPBA and pet stores contend, virtually all of their animals come from out-of-state breeders, would-be Cook County pet buyers serious in their desire to obtain a pure-bred animal would likely be willing to travel some distance to find just the right animal.

“Plaintiffs indicate that there is a large demand for pure- and specialty-bred dogs that will go unmet if the ordinance takes effect,” Kennelly said. “They state that ‘the average selling price of a [specialty-breed] dog at a pet store is approximately $1,200, while the average price at a shelter is around $150.’

“If consumers are truly as discerning about their pure- and specialty-breed dogs as plaintiffs suggest, then wouldn’t those consumers also be willing to travel significant distances (if Missouri can be considered a significant distance) to buy a particular breed from a breeder?”

Kennelly gave the plaintiffs until June 11 to amend their complaint to address his findings. A status hearing on the case is scheduled for June 16.

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