The subject was pet shops. And the gory stories, told to Fairfax County supervisors, included the execution of leftover Easter bunnies, cannibalism among starving puppies and inhuman breeding farms that supply many of the defective animals sold in some area pet stores.
"Too often pets are considered products rather than living creatures by flesh merchants," said Guy Hodge, a U.S. Humane Society official and one of more than a dozen speakers at a heated public hearing in Fairfax this week to consider new and stricter regulations for the county's 60 pet shops.
Fairfax pet store owners, kennel operators and other local representatives of the $4 billion-a-year national pet industry conceded that some animal dealers are guilty of abuse. But they complained that humane society activists, who one shop owner labeled "humaniacs," were using those few instances to smear all pet store owners.
"It is indicative of the friction, if not the downright enimity between animal welfare people and pet shop owners," said Larry Keeth of Pup Fair in Fairfax City. "I think it's high time we are considred legitmate members of the community. As long as they continue to look on us as slobs . . . the childish bickering will continue."
The pet fight in Fairfax is part of a nationwide effort to legislate rules governing the breeding, shipment and sale of pet animals. Twenty-eight states now have some type of statutory provision for the licensing of pet shops. But even in areas where pet shops are regulated, such as Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, animal welfare offices say they receive numerous consumer complaints.
"We have a number of pet shops in this city that need to be upgraded," says Jean Goldenberg, the executive director of the Washington Humane Society. "We operate under a 1967 statute that is just minimal."
This week, Edward Tuck, the owner of Animal TV Trainers pet shop in the District, was fined $250 in D.C. Superior Court and received a one-year suspended sentence after being convicted of an animal cruelty charge. Another misdemeanor count is pending against Tuck, whom Humane Society officials have been investigating for more than three years.
Local animal welfare officers complain that convictions under current laws are extremely difficult, and expensive, to obtain. In Fairfax County, a pet store owner may be cited for misdemeanor violations under a two-year-old state statute, but the store's license cannot be suspended or revoked.
"The present code is unenforceable," says James Armstrong, the county's animal science specialist who received 90 complaints about pet stores last year.
Fairfax humane society officials testified that the county should amend its ordinances to imitate those in Alexandria where pet shop licenses may be suspended or revoked as a result of violations.
"I think our pet shops can serve as a very good example to others in this area," says Gail Snider, Alexandria's superintendent of animal control. "The regulations are strict, but I think the pet shop people are generally pleased with it. Everybody knows the rules and everybody toes the line evenly."
Snider offered sympathy for pet store owners in Fairfax who she guessed were upset at Humane society members because "they have this image of little old ladies coming into their stores with white gloves and tennis shoes saying that Fishy doesn't have enough water."
Some of the shop owners who testified before the Fairfax board this week characterized the proposed amendments to the county's animal housing ordinances as "vague," "discriminating" and "one-sided." Marshall Meyers, the counsel for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, told the supervisors that passage of the ordinances would be used by humane society officials as "a tool for harassment."
The board listened to more than an hour of testimony and looked at gruesome pictures of emaciated animals at midwestern puppy mills where dogs are mass-produced and shipped by truck and plane to East Coast pet stores. Then, by unanimous vote, the board decided to defer action on the ordinances for two months.
"We've been working on this for a year," said Barbara Cohen, a Virginia Humane Officer. "What's another eight weeks?"