Blogs & Comment

Pet sales, municipal rules, and social responsibility

Toronto has banned the sale of 'puppy-mill' puppies, a product with consequences far beyond their owners.

Toronto’s city council has just told an entire category of retail stores that they must only sell second-hand goods. No, the move isn’t some ‘green’ initiative aimed at encouraging recycling. It’s an animal-welfare edict, a move to force pet stores to sell dogs and cats sourced exclusively from “shelters, rescue groups or people giving up animals for free.” In other words, no more puppy-mill puppies or kitten-mill kittens are to be sold in Toronto.

See the story here, by Carys Mills for the Globe and Mail: Toronto Council bans pet shop sale of dogs, cats, unless they come from shelters.

The motion was passed unanimously, with all councillors bravely taking a pro-puppy stand. And it’s not surprising to see unanimity, even regarding a restriction on commerce, when that restriction can plausibly claim to protect not just helpless animals, but customers (including children) too.

One interesting point about this is the focus—both legal and ethical—on retail. Regulation (in this and many other cases) has, in principle, three possible targets: producers, consumers, and retailers. Council has chosen to focus on retailers—rather than, say, pass rules about how dog breeders should operate. Partly that’s a matter of jurisdiction: the municipal government has some authority over how business is conducted within its territory, but no jurisdiction over production processes at puppy mills in far-flung rural locales. But it’s not just a matter of jurisdiction: enforcement can be a lot more efficient when it can focus on just a handful of retail outlets. Retailers are the intermediaries between producers and consumers, and so they’re effectively gatekeepers. That makes them a good target for regulation, but it also means that as crucial links in the flow of ‘product’ (i.e., pets, in this case), they have power—and with power comes responsibility.

The other interesting point here has to do with the public good. The sale of a pet is notoriously likely to result in ‘externalities’—that is, to have an effect on people not party to the transaction. Poorly-socialized puppies may grow into dangerous dogs. Unwanted dogs and cats may be abandoned, turning into social nuisances, and straining municipal resources such as dog-catchers, bylaw enforcement officers, etc. Unhealthy pets may transmit communicable diseases to other people’s pets. So the policies and practices that a pet store follows affect the interests not just of customers and suppliers, but of society at large. In other words, we see here good examples of that subset of ethical issues that truly are about the social responsibilities that businesses have.