Jennifer Grafelman, general manager of the Animal Connection pet store… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from San Francisco — Here in the land of animal companions and their faithful guardians — do not call them pets and owners — a battle is raging over just what it means to be creature-friendly.
In true San Francisco fashion, city officials are considering a ban on sales of almost all pets. If the prohibition passes, it would mean no cats for sale here, no dogs, no hamsters, no rats, no guinea pigs, no macaws, no parakeets, no cockatiels, no finches. If Junior wanted a snake, Mom could probably still buy him one within the city's precious 47 square miles. But forget about those mice for Drago's dinner.
The proposal started out small: prohibit commerce in cats and dogs as a way to discourage puppy mills and kitten factories. South Lake Tahoe and West Hollywood passed such laws within the last 18 months; in Texas, Austin and El Paso are considering similar ones.
But this being San Francisco, the discussion didn't stop there.
After multiple meetings of the Animal Control & Welfare Commission and hours of impassioned testimony — peppered with the word "symbolic" — the narrow proposition blossomed to include most creatures great and small. The commission is set to vote on a ban in August. If it passes, the Board of Supervisors will weigh in.
Jennifer Grafelman, general manager of the Animal Connection pet store and an enthusiastic rat breeder, says she hates puppy mills. But the proposal "has so easily snowballed into small animals and birds. … Where's it going to end? Reptiles and fish could be next."
But Rebecca Katz, head of San Francisco's animal control department, says the prohibition could help solve one of her shelter's biggest little problems: Hamsters, she said, are euthanized at a greater rate than any other animal. Banning their sale could curtail such deaths.
Humans on both sides of the pet-sales debate cloak their arguments in terms of what's best for the critters involved. The pro-pet-store faction launched a group called Protect Our Precious Animals. But the issue really bubbles up at the nexus of lives and livelihoods.
Nationally, pets are a $40-billion to $45-billion-a-year business, and trade groups have gotten involved in the fight. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council has a plea on its website "urging those who support the right to have pets" to contact San Francisco officials "in opposition to this blatant anti-pet proposal."
Even Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly has joined the fray. San Franciscans, he blustered recently, are "kooks!" "Insane!" The proposal is "fascistic!" "You're basically taking away people's freedoms for this kind of far-left vision of Nirvana!"
This tempest in a water bowl began in April, when Philip Gerrie, backyard beekeeper and member of the animal commission, suggested that San Francisco go the way of West Hollywood and South Lake Tahoe.
Although the city has only one store that regularly sells puppies and about half a dozen that sell any animals or birds, Gerrie said, "large pet stores were considering moving into the city that do sell puppies." A ban on puppy sales, he thought, was "preemptive" and "doable."
But at the April animal commission meeting, the discussion turned to other animals that are euthanized, Gerrie said, "and that's when we started thinking about what we call the smalls — hamsters, rats, guinea pigs, chinchillas, mice, five little furry things sold in pet stores."
The matter came up again in May and June when bird activist Elizabeth Young begged commission members to add her feathered friends to the list of protected species.
"Birds are extremely intelligent and emotional," Young, a volunteer with Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue, told the panel. "All kept birds, no matter what kind, suffer horribly when not taken care of well."
In July, a couple dozen heated speakers from both sides piped up during the meeting, which stretched to four hours, "but it felt like five," Gerrie said.
Rick French, owner of the Animal Company in the swank Noe Valley neighborhood, said that during the meeting he rattled off a list of obscure San Francisco laws he'd found on the Internet. It's illegal here "to wipe your windshield with dirty underwear…you can add to those, pet stores without pets."
"It didn't go over too well," said French, who sells pet supplies and birds and is a cofounder of Protect Our Precious Animals.
The actual proposal has yet to be written, Gerrie said, and he's a little cagey about just how far he plans to push the prohibition.
But this is his thinking so far: Cats and dogs would be out because of puppy mills and kitten factories. Birds would be out because of "their sensitivity and inappropriateness as pets; they are wild animals." Hamsters, mice, rats, chinchillas and guinea pigs would be out because of high euthanasia rates. Sales of bunnies and chicks were axed in San Francisco more than 30 years ago; you can thank Easter excesses and pint-sized attention spans for that.