Cambridge On Verge Of Banning Pet Shops

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CAMBRIDGE — Progressive city leaders have spent more than a year crafting an ordinance that would ban the sale of various animals at pet shops, and now it appears the City Council is on the verge of passing it.

This ordinance would not just apply to furry creatures — it would cover feathered and scaly friends as well, including reptiles, rodents, amphibians, and even spiders. Cambridge, however, boasts just two pet stores, industry giants Petco and PetSmart.

The only transactions allowed under the ordinance involve rescue organizations or shelters.

Fish are not listed in the ordinance, but once the ban is enacted — likely in the summer of 2018 — the chances of creatures like goldfish being added to the list at a later date will likely increase.

“We decided to not include fish at this time because the ordinance is built on two foundations — one being bad breeders and also the creation of adoption programs,” Vice Mayor John McGovern said at the City Council’s meeting on June 20. “There’s not a whole lot of evidence about the bad breeding of fish.

“The MSPCA does not have a drop off shelter for fish.”

Laura Hagen, deputy director for advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told city councilors at a June 6 meeting of the Ordinance Committee that the MSPCA’s facility in Jamaica Plain recently transformed a “cat colony” room into a sanctuary for birds, as the organization’s “aviary room cannot handle the volume of birds we house.”

She testified that a yes vote on the proposed ordinance would take Cambridge “out of an inhumane supply exchange,” ensuring “Cambridge won’t be part of an inhumane economy.”

In a follow-up letter to the Cambridge Chronicle, Hagen pointed out that the ordinance “does not prohibit Cambridge residents from breeding their animal, but helps protect consumers from unknowingly purchasing animals with serious health or behavioral problems — common occurrences in animals from large-scale commercial breeders.”

She cited “recent federal inspections and undercover investigations” which she said “revealed that pet shops buy animals from breeders that treat animals as mere commodity, prioritizing profit over animals’ well-being.” 

Meanwhile, at the recommendation of McGovern, the committee added “arachnids,” or spiders, to the ordinance. City Councilor Craig Kelley mentioned concerns raised by residents over whether the ordinance would punish those selling animals like kittens or guinea pigs out of their homes. Kelley also pointed out that “relying on the city to decide the difference between a bird ‘offered for sale as a pet animal’ and a bird offered for sale as an agricultural animal” — such as chickens — “may be difficult and subject to personal judgment.”

“For someone who was raised on a farm, the line between ‘pet’ and ‘agricultural animal’ can be blurry, until it is as sharp as a knife,” Kelley wrote in his June 6 memo to the committee.

Vendors at farmer’s markets, he pointed out, could be affected. McGovern said the city’s law department is reviewing Kelley’s concerns.

Meanwhile, pet shops that disobey the ordinance can rack up stiff penalties, enforced by the city’s Animal Commission.

“Any person who sells an arachnid, bird, mammal, amphibian, or reptile in violation of section 6.20.020 or 6.20.030 of this chapter shall be fined three hundred ($300.00) dollars,” the ordinance states. “Each animal sold or offered for sale in violation of these sections shall constitute a separate offense.”

While fish are not currently included in the ordinance, testimony from the June 6 meeting documents the push from activists.

Delcianna J. Winders, an academic fellow with Harvard Law School’s animal law and policy program, submitted testimony calling for councilors to consider adding fish to the list.

“We vastly underestimate fish, who are complex, intelligent animals, who feel not just pain but also empathy,” she wrote. “They also use tools, communicate with one another, and have excellent memories, and they can even recognize human faces.

“And yet the aquarium industry is virtually unregulated.”

Nobody spoke against the ordinance during the public comment period preceding the City Council’s June 20 meeting. 

However, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which advocates for pet shops, has been following the issue closely. 

The organization, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, argued in a memo last year:  “the proposed amendment not only repeals consumer protections, it also removes consumers’ ability to use pet stores as highly regulated sources for pets which provide personalized attention and service during, and after, the purchase of a new family pet.”

“This is not in the best interest of Cambridge’s taxpayers or their beloved pets and doing so also fosters an underground black market for pets where there are no protections for animals or consumers,” the organization said.

Pet shop critics have argued that federal regulations have been insufficient. 

Residents who testified at the City Council’s June 20 meeting included John Tyson, who also submitted testimony to the Ordinance Committee in which he pointed out that the city has “been the scene of many historic steps forward in the cause of social justice.”

“Please do not let outsiders motivated only by greed dictate the morals in our fair city,” he wrote in his June 6 testimony.

On June 20, Tyson returned and thanked city councilors “for allowing me to speak on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves” and added that “through this ordinance we can reduce suffering, and that simply makes us better people.”

The City Council will reconvene on July 25 and again on August 7.