For 40 years, Delilah’s Pet Shop has provided pets to the community of Bloomington. But on Jan. 1, a city ordinance banning retail sales of cats and dogs went into effect, forcing the store to adapt.
“It’s so quiet now,” said owner Lesli Henderson-Miller. “We used to hear people laughing and dogs barking.”
Named for the Saint Bernard Delilah family, the business was started by Henderson-Miller’s mother, Karene Kidwell, a veterinary technician. Henderson-Miller broke down in tears as she spoke about her mother’s death, which happened just last year.
“It’s been a tough year,” she said.
In an 8-0 vote in December 2021, Bloomington City Council passed the ordinance in response to concerns about puppy mills, which are large dog breeding facilities that breed for profit regardless of how the animals are treated.
Henderson-Miller said only one city council member visited her store while the ordinance was being passed. She recalls the member saying the store wasn’t what they were trying to stop.
“What we’re doing here is that we love our animals,” Henderson-Miller said. “It’s a soul. It’s a small person. It should be treated as a person.”
Henderson-Miller understands the council had good intentions, but feels the ban was unfair to businesses that did nothing wrong.
“It’s my whole life,” she said.
Opponents of the retail sale of pets are particularly concerned about where the pets come from. Virgil Sauder, director of City of Bloomington Animal Care and Control, said some breeders don’t ensure pets are from healthy genetics and sometimes separate puppies that are too young, leading to health and behavioral issues.
The other option for sourcing is through a brokerage system, where people buy animals from puppy mills and resell them online or to pet stores. Sauder said places like these often put animals in small cages filled with feces, urine and waste.
“They’re basically factory farmed puppies,” he said.
But getting pets from ethical breeders can be beneficial for those who want young puppies or are interested in knowing the pet’s parents, Sauder said.
While the push to ban the sale of pets in stores has reduced the number of pets in mills nationally, some Indiana lawmakers want to pass legislation that would allow stores to sell pets from USDA-licensed breeders. These bills, which have been tabled in both the House and Senate, would make local ordinances like the one in Bloomington unenforceable.
Samantha Morton, Indiana’s director of the Humane Society of the United States, said USDA certification does not mean breeding practices are ethical. According to the Humane Society of the United States, USDA-licensed breeders who violate animal welfare laws are rarely fined and can easily renew their licenses.
Morton said the organization is working to stop Indiana’s legislation. She said there are 32,000 fewer breeding dogs locked up in licensed facilities compared to a decade ago, which she says is due to legislation causing a drop in retail pet sales.
Morton said pet stores may not ethically source pets, even if they don’t source them from puppy factories.
“Responsible breeders want to get to know the family who wants to buy the dog,” she said.
Henderson-Miller says she got her pets from local breeders and emphasized the commitment that comes with pet ownership to potential buyers. She said being a small business owner makes it difficult to compete with big companies that have also stopped selling pets, like PetSmart or PetCo, because they can’t buy items in bulk.
“It’s such a fast-moving world that it’s really easy to sweep someone under the rug when you can,” she said. “But when you destroy someone’s life the way it starts, it hurts.”
Although the status of retail pet sales remains uncertain, Henderson-Miller is adapting to the regulation by providing grooming services and selling a range of pet food, toys and accessories.
In a room with wooden enclosures that used to house puppies and kittens, all that’s left are a few rescues and favors for friends. The pens containing pets are marked with notices that read “NOT FOR SALE”.