Jonathan Ito is the owner of Animal Connection in the Sunset District. The… (David Butow, For The Times )
Reporting from San Francisco — The first vision was simple and straightforward: To curtail puppy mills and kitten factories, the sale of cats and dogs should be banned in San Francisco, where the loving guardians of animal companions come to regular blows — politically — with the loving parents of children.
The ban was put on hold last year after animal advocates broadened it to include anything with fur or feathers. Now it's back, with a new name and a new strategy: More is more. The Humane Pet Acquisition Proposal is on its way to the Board of Supervisors, and it hopes to protect everything from Great Danes to goldfish.
Yes, goldfish. And guppies, gobies, gouramies, glowlight tetras, German blue rams. No fish, no fowl, no reptiles, no amphibians, no cats, no dogs, no gerbils, no rats. If it flies, crawls, runs, swims or slithers, you would not be able to buy it in the city named for the patron saint of animals.
Representatives of the $45-billion to $50-billion-a-year pet industry call the San Francisco proposal "by far the most radical ban we've seen" nationwide and argue that it would force small operators to close. Animal activists say it will save small but important lives, along with taxpayer money, and end needless suffering.
"Why fish? Why not fish?" said Philip Gerrie, a member of the city's Commission of Animal Control and Welfare and a coauthor of the proposal. "From Descartes on up, in the Western mindset, fish and other nonhuman animals don't have feelings, they don't have emotions, we can do whatever we want to them. If we considered them living beings, we would deal with them differently.… Our culture sanctions this, treating them as commodities and expendable."
The commission voted earlier this month to send a proposal to the Board of Supervisors recommending a ban on the sale of all pets in the city to shore up the adoption of unwanted creatures from shelters and rescue organizations. Commissioners are now looking for a supervisor or two to sponsor such an ordinance.
Snake food was almost exempt from the proposal. After all, pythons have to eat, and they like their lunch alive. But at a heated meeting, Commissioner Pam Hemphill questioned how it could be humane to sell live animals to be fed to other live animals.
"If a snake is caught with a rodent in a box, the rodent can scratch its eye and cause an infection," said Hemphill, who noted that reptiles on display at the California Academy of Sciences eat dead, frozen prey. "The snake can't escape, and the rodent might be stuck for one or two days in the box with the snake because the snake's not hungry right then.
"So it doesn't seem very humane to me," she continued. "And if the frozen [food] works, then I think the killing of the animals to be food is probably more humane."
It is legal in San Francisco to sell live animals for eventual human consumption, and the proposed ban would not stop markets from selling live fish, poultry, turtles or seafood for that purpose.
Rebecca Katz, director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, said her agency supports a ban on pet sales — particularly one that includes the so-called smalls, such as hamsters, which are euthanized at her city shelter at a higher percentage than any other domesticated animal. Although she did not advocate for the inclusion of fish, she is not against it.
"We're the agency that receives the old, filthy fish bowl with the goldfish at risk and have to determine whether we can make them healthy and adopt them out or flush them down the toilet," Katz said. "These are the lucky ones. Most people just flush them themselves."
Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian and co-president of the San Francisco SPCA, notes that only a handful of stores in San Francisco sell animals of any kind and that the effect of a ban would be largely symbolic. But she said that symbolism, and the conversation that it raises, is critical in improving the lives of millions of helpless creatures.
"For us as an organization, we've identified the larger problem of online purchasing of dogs, and we hope this is an avenue to get to that," she said. Still, when it comes to birds and fish, "there's a lot of cruelty around where they are sourced from. We see the cruelty."
But Jonathan Ito finds the proposal to be far more than symbolic. To the owner of Animal Connection — who has sold fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, rats, mice and hamsters for a generation — the ban is a threat to his livelihood.
"It would put us out of business and our employees out of work," said Ito, who believes there is "no cause and effect" to the proposal.
Pet stores, he said, do not cause overcrowding at the shelters. They do not promote impulse buys of small, cute creatures that will later be tossed aside by bored children. And they work hard to educate prospective pet owners.
"The animal-rights activists are trying to drive a wedge any way they can in order to get a foothold on changing the ownership of animals," Ito said. "They don't believe they should be bred. They don't believe people are responsible to care for them.… They are about eliminating animals as pets."