A Dangerous Mantra

Promoting ‘Adopt, Don't Shop' programs is a risky strategy for the pet industry.


An October 17 blog on PetBusiness.com revealed a disturbing lack of understanding of an issue confronting the pet industry. The writer evidently thought the phrase “Adopt, Don’t Shop” would make a catchy lead line to the story, clearly not realizing how inherently hostile such a mantra is to pet stores and breeders.

The blog, which described a recent survey by PetSmart Charities, suggested that pet retailers should capitalize on consumer interest in pet adoption by hosting adoption events at their own stores. In my view, retailers should think very carefully before doing so.

Animal rights organizations spend millions of dollars annually to promote negative messages about pets sold at retail, even though the facts do not support their claims. While they tout adoption as an “alternative” to purchasing a pet at retail, their ultimate goal is to make sure that adoption isn’t just an alternative—it’s the only option available to consumers. Groups that once were considered mainstream are now promoting adoption as the only responsible path to pet ownership. As a result, dozens of responsible, well-regulated, tax-paying pet businesses across the country have been forced to close.

The sad truth is that the moderate, mainstream adoption movement has been hijacked by animal rights extremists as a vehicle for moving forward their own radical agenda. This is not a new phenomenon. A few years ago, Patti Strand, the founder of the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), and her husband, Rod, published an excellent book, The Hijacking of the Humane Movement. It described how well-funded organizations such as HSUS have slowly moved out of the moderate animal welfare mainstream and into the radical world of animal rights extremism.

The radicalization of the adoption movement becomes even more apparent when you look at the new adoption models gaining popularity. Many pet shelters, which formerly made rescued strays available at low or no cost, have transformed into pet retail outlets, charging high fees and often importing dogs from other regions or even outside the U.S. when the local supply is insufficient to meet demand. They are, in fact, acting as retail pet stores, enjoying the tax-exempt status of non-profit organizations even as some pay themselves exorbitant salaries by non-profit standards.

The new “retail shelters” also operate without the same licensing and consumer protection rules that most pet stores must follow. While local governments are not hesitant to regulate businesses like pet stores, many jurisdictions have allowed their “non-profit” shelters to operate virtually without regulations to ensure pet health or protect consumers.

Part of the hype around the adoption message is the notion that adopting pets from a shelter helps to put sub-standard breeders out of business. In fact, that’s just plain nonsense. The vast majority of pets found at shelters are not pure-bred pets, and they didn’t come from pet stores or professional breeders. Most are older, mixed-breed dogs that end up in shelters because their owners are no longer able (or willing) to care for them, or because they presented disposition or behavioral problems that their owners could not manage.

In spite of these realities, adoption shelters are doing a brisk business while many pet retailers fight to survive. As the animal rights movement continues to invest its vast resources in positioning adoption as the only “responsible” course for prospective pet owners, the retail pet industry struggles to find ways to educate consumers about the significant advantages and benefits of purchasing purebred puppies from reputable pet stores.

For most of us, that means putting our marketing and promotion dollars to work in more creative and innovative ways. Every special event, every ad, every exposure that consumers have to us must be designed to showcase the unique and compelling advantages that we offer our customers: healthy purebred pets, comprehensive consumer protections, licensed and well-regulated operations, and conscientious commitment to the highest standards of animal welfare.

When it comes right down to it, there is another important distinction between shelters and pet stores. Many families, especially those with children, want a pet they can enjoy from puppyhood to ripe old age. They want a dog whose traits and temperament are a good fit for their family. They don’t want just any dog—they want the right dog. They’re unlikely to find that dog at an animal shelter.

There’s a place for adoption, but anybody who buys into the “Adopt, Don’t Shop” hype is overlooking a fundamental reality. This slogan is designed to put an end to the pet retail market. When adoption rules the landscape, and all the available pets have been spayed and neutered, no more pets will be bred. Sadly, pet industry leaders who promote adoption are just playing into the hands of our adversaries. PB

Andrew Hunte is president and CEO of The Hunte Corporation.

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