National City passed an ordinance on September 3 to tighten a state law that requires pet stores to obtain all dogs, cats, and rabbits they sell from shelters or rescues.
The ordinance will be the county's strictest because it prohibits a pet store from even selling rescue animals, or charging any fees for its role in adopting them out.
The state law regarding animal adoption, which took effect in January, defines a rescue as a tax-exempt organization that does not obtain animals from breeders or brokers for money. The problem is, pet stores found a way around it.
"Puppy laundering" isn't what California lawmakers had in mind when the bill, passed in 2017, gave pet stores over a year to transition to a new business model.
But that's what Iowa's Attorney General calls the practices of a national network of commercial breeders, 501(c)3 nonprofit rescues, and pet stores that work together to evade California’s law.
While National City Puppy's website claims their animals are adopted from local shelters, animal activists said it's not so.
"I have yet to see one shelter that has a working relationship with David Salinas," National City Puppy's owner, said Leslie Davies, co-founder of Not One Animal Harmed. Davies said she's been volunteering at local shelters for over 20 years.
Andrea Cunningham, the group's other co-founder, told the story of a Marine who bought a mixed breed "pomsky" from National City Puppy for $4,264; $6,186.41 after financing, on Aug. 25. Two days later he was diagnosed with kennel cough.
"His paperwork shows he did not come from a local shelter or rescue," Cunningham said. His origin, Pet Connect rescue, is linked to Rescue Pets Iowa Corp. – both being sued by Iowa.
The lawsuit says "defendants continue to ship their 'rescue' dogs to California using sham entities." Pups are churned out at profit-centered mills, exported to other states through rescues set up for the task, and sold in pet stores for prices far above any standard adoption fee.
According to the suit, Rescue Pets Iowa launched right before California's law took effect. The defendants, under investigation for one false rescue, started a fresh "sham charity” run by a puppy mill broker.
The lawsuits don't end there. A California Superior Court judge just ruled that a lawsuit against Bark Adoptions in Menifee, one place National City Puppy obtains pups, can move forward.
Where does Bark Adoptions get dogs? Rescue Pets Iowa uses Bark Adoptions "as a pass through to sell mill-bred puppies to California pet shops," an investigation by Companion Animal Protection Society found.
On the other side, pet stores are fighting back. A federal lawsuit was filed in August in Maryland, the second state to pass a ban like California's, which takes effect in Jan. 2020.
In defense of National City Puppy, David Salinas and a string of his employees and other supporters spoke at the hearing, wearing T-shirts saying "adopt or shop – that's my choice!" Salinas criticized the "propaganda" of the animal rights groups. "You have to understand there is an agenda here."
National City vice mayor Ron Morrison agreed, arguing that the advocacy groups are in competition with the stores.
The city's two pet stores, each with about 20 employees, operate legally with California's law, he said. "So the city council is saying, because these businesses are in competition with the Humane Society and other shelters, we're gonna put 35-40 people out of work."
He said the groups targeted the city as leverage "to go after Santee and Escondido." Their "constant crusade" would leave National City with "less revenue, less choice, less employment."
"We can say we're not really taking them out of business because they can sell pet supplies..." But online sales are killing pet supply stores, he said. And we tell them they can sell the dogs for a humane society or shelter, but can't keep any of the money. It's not a viable business model. "It's antichoice and abuse of government power."
Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis said it's not about choice, but closing a loophole. The animals can still be bought directly from breeders or the premises where they are born.
As for being used as leverage for other cities or counties, "if they are looking at us, let's be that goal-setter."