The Riverhead Town Board listens to comments from the public before voting on a bill banning the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits at pet stores in Riverhead. Photo: Alek Lewis

A ban on the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits in Riverhead Town was unanimously adopted by the town board on Tuesday, to the celebration of animal rights advocates and to the ire of one pet store owner in attendance.

The new law, introduced by Councilman Ken Rothwell, requires that stores offering dogs, cats and rabbits for sale prove the animals came from animal shelters, animal control agencies, humane societies or nonprofit rescue groups registered with New York State. The new law will not affect adoption procedures at local animal shelters, nor will it prevent individuals from dealing directly with breeders.

The intention of the law is to cut off stores from “horrific” and “inhumane” commercial breeding facilities, often called puppy mills, where female dogs are overbred, and often killed or abandoned after they are unable to breed, according to the Humane Society of the United States. There are an estimated 10,000 puppy mills in operation in the United States.

2.6 million milled puppies are sold each year from mills, according to the Humane Society. Puppies bred in mills often suffer with health issues after they leave the facilities and are adopted.

“There’s few times when you have an opportunity to lead by example,” Rothwell said before casting his vote. “I feel like the state of New York will eventually catch up to us. When you see an inhumane practice, and we have an opportunity to take action, and I intend to do that.”

“Certainly any business that is built upon a model of exploiting animals, it’s a bad business and it should go away, there’s certainly plenty of reputable breeders out there,” Councilwoman Catherine Kent said.

“I think all of us who sit up here are animal lovers and dog lovers in particular, and I agree this is a long time coming and it’s the right thing to do,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said.

Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was apprehensive before her yes vote: “I never believed in generalizing people. I think that this legislation may indicate that all pet stores and puppy mills and I’m not sure if that is the case or not,” she said.

“When legislation is passed at the federal and state and local levels, everyone needs to ensure it doesn’t conflict with [or] supersedes laws. So those are things that I didn’t quite have an answer,” Aguiar said. “However, I want to make it perfectly clear, anyone who abuses animals should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Emails between Aguiar and town employees show she was hesitant about moving the legislation forward after it was first introduced, asking town employees to not let a public hearing be scheduled at the next town board meeting and requesting it be tabled for more conversation. She sent an opposition letter to the board from People United to Protect Pet Integrity, or “P.U.P.P.I,” a New York-based organization backed by pet dealers opposed to restrictions on the sales of dogs bred at so-called puppy mills, requesting more conversation.

Aguiar condemned puppy mills and animal abuse in a guest column on RiverheadLOCAL the next week, where she described comments on Facebook against her as a political attack. In an interview with Newsday after the public hearing she said the town has received requests to grandfather, or exempt “certain people licensed by the state” from the law, although the law wasn’t changed with any such clause before adoption.

RiverheadLOCAL reported on Monday that the law’s passage is likely to prompt legal challenges from P.U.P.P.I., according to David Schwartz, a government relations lawyer from the group. The Puppy Experience in Aquebogue, one of two stores affected by the new code, is a member of the organization.

What Aguiar referenced before she voted, and a part of P.U.P.P.I’s argument against the new code, is a state law that says municipalities cannot adopt laws that “essentially result in the banning of all sales of dogs or cats raised and maintained in a healthy and safe manner,” according to a memo to the town. 

The group also says the law will put the pet stores affected by the law out of business “without just compensation.” 

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said on Monday that the attorney’s office remains confident of the code’s legality. Rhonda Greenstein, a town resident and a retired attorney in the New York State Attorney General’s Office specializing in animal rights, urged the board to not succumb to the group’s “threats” of litigation and pass the code. 

“Quite honestly, I could not believe what I was reading. I was shocked by the tone of the letter which I found to be disingenuous, and quite honestly disrespectful,” she said regarding the memo from to P.U.P.P.I. 

She said the legality of similar codes have been supported by the New York City Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee. “To the contrary by counsel for P.U.P.P.I, it’s beyond dispute that this board has the authority to enact the law,” she said.

Greenstein and other people in favor of the law said the argument that pet stores will go out of business is flawed. They said the stores can pivot their business model to provide other pet related services, naming Petco and PetSmart as successful examples of pet stores who don’t sell commercially bred puppies. 

Helen Camlakides, the owner of Sportsman’s Kennel in Manorville, who will be affected by the new law, made a last minute plea to the town board, telling them the animals at the facility are kept in good health and asking for the regulations to be changed. She suggested the new law would shut down her business.

In the last two years, state inspections found Camlakides’ business was “non-compliant critical” for the facility’s veterinary care. It is one of 100 stores on the Humane Society’s 2021 “Horrible Hundred” puppy breeder and seller list. Camlakides told the town board the issue of non-compliance was a result of circumstances related to missing paperwork, which was a result of low staff shortages during the pandemic.

Before the resolution was adopted, the town board heard from residents urging them for the law’s enactment, including Carol Sclafani of Wading River, a veterinary technician and Riverhead’s town board coordinator. 

“The bottom line is the pet stores are not the victims, the animals are,” Sclafani said. “Puppy mills exist because the public is funding them by purchasing puppies in pet stores. How to stop the cruel cycle? Ban the retail sale of dogs, cats and rabbits, period.”

Katie Sweeney of Sayville said she purchased a puppy from a store in Port Jefferson that sourced their puppies from a puppy mill out of state and that her puppy suffered various health problems. “The majority of people who learn about the horrors of puppy mills are against them. No one wants innocent animals to needlessly suffer like this, their fate is in your hands,” she said.

Diane Madden, a Hempstead resident and founder of an animal rights advocacy group called Hope for Hempstead Shelter, said the board will set an example for other municipalities to enact similar laws.

“There are so many people watching this board, because if you do this, first of all you’ll be a group of heroes in the animal welfare committed community, but also we are going to take what you do, and wave it high and set you as an example of what can be done… and make sure that every municipality has the same standards and expectations for animals as hopefully you’ll show us,” Madden said.

Former Councilman James Wooten and assistant to the Supervisor’s Office also came out in support of the regulation. “This town may face a lot of controversial things in the future, this is not one of them. This should not be one of them. This is the right thing to do to help the animals that can’t speak for themselves. The [pet store] business model can be changed,” he said.

Individuals in favor of the law praised the board after the law’s adoption. Some people in the audience came back up to thank the board and said they were brought to tears.

Puppy Mill Free Long Island, a Long Island based group who organizes protests against alleged animal abusers and advocates for the passage of animal rights laws, has been urging followers to pressure the town board into adopting the new code since it was introduced. In a statement to RiverheadLOCAL, the group praised the legislation’s adoption.

“We could not be happier and thankful to learn that the Town of Riverhead has passed their Puppy Mill legislation in favor of saving the millions of dogs imprisoned in Puppy Mills as well as helping provide homes for rescue dogs,” the organization wrote. “Councilman Rothwell stated it best when he said this bill was a “great opportunity to lead by example” and which will no doubt be vital a stepping stone to help pass NY’s statewide legislation and with that, more bans in more states.”

Any business caught in violation of the law can face fines from a $250 minimum for the first violation to a $2,500 maximum for a third or subsequent violation, as well as imprisonment of up to 30 days. Pet store operators would have up to 90 days to comply with the new code after its effective date.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.