Saturday's grand opening of a new Petland in East Liberty saw a bright store packed with families and a veritable army of khaki-clad employees, exhorting kids to be gentle with morsel-sized hamsters, flop-eared bunnies and pups of all sorts.
And just across the parking lot on Penn Avenue, a group of local animal lovers stood vigil -- voicing their opposition to the store. The loosely organized protesters object to Petland's policy of selling animals that haven't been spayed or neutered, which they say can only contribute to animal overpopulation and crowded animal shelters. They plan to keep the unwelcome-mat rolled out indefinitely.
"Petland doesn't spay or neuter their animals," says activist Shona Stewart, of Friendship. "It's like a kick in the guts to everyone in the city who works very hard to convince people to spay and neuter."
Owners Marci and Eric Caplan say that the animals they sell are too young to be spayed or neutered. "Puppies shouldn't be altered until six months," says Eric Caplan, adding that they'll sell puppies as young as eight to 10 weeks old. The Humane Society says on its Web site (http://www.hsus.org/pets/pet_care/myths_and_facts_about_spaying_and_neutering.html) that many veterinarians will alter a dog or cat at as young as eight weeks, but Caplan says he's going on veterinarian advice himself. The Caplans' store also offers vouchers to help defray the eventual cost of spaying or neutering.
Ironically, the new Petland is located about half a mile from the Animal Rescue League, an open-door shelter that adopts out dogs, cats and rabbits. Both demonstrators and the ARL say there is no link between the agency and the protest. But "We're not thrilled about the fact that a Petland is coming in," Daniel Musher, ARL's development director, acknowledges. "It kind of goes against what we do here."
ARL's animals are always spayed or neutered prior to adoption. This is to help keep a lid on the numbers of puppies and kittens that are born each year, many of which end up back in the shelter, where space and resources are always at a premium.
"We feel like [Petland] adds to the overpopulation problem by selling unaltered animals," Musher says.
"We encourage people to adopt animals from shelters," says Eric Caplan. But "Those animals are not for everybody -- if they don't find the right pet [at a shelter], should they not have a pet?" Caplan says Petland's animals are checked by vets, and their temperament is examined before they're sold. And even pet lovers who get their animals from the shelter have reason to celebrate Petland's arrival, Caplan says: Pet guardians need a place to buy food, treats and toys, he points out, and ARL sells only very basic supplies.
The Caplans say they are just interested in being good neighbors and contributing to the upswing in the East Liberty area. Their store includes space for a Community Service Center, where the Caplans say groups -- including spay/neuter groups -- can hold meetings or seminars.
The Caplans also offered kennel space for ARL animals to be adopted from the store, but Musher confirms the ARL turned them down. They do adopt out of local Petcos, which sell altered animals, but he says they won't do business with Petland.
"It's a shame," says Marci Caplan. "We could really help them out. We're willing to put their dogs in our windows."
"They won't even meet with us," says Eric Caplan.
True, says Musher.
"It's hard for us in good conscience to be involved with people who do what we consider an egregious offense. We don't hate them, but we just don't see any synergy between the two organizations," Musher says. "It doesn't align with what we're trying to accomplish."