Advocates Share Stories on Banning the Sale of Puppies and Kittens at Pet Shops
Tara Buonanno Williams
In May 2017, at their town meeting, Stoneham residents passed the second ordinance in the state that bans the sale of puppies and kittens at pet shops, but allows pet shops to partner with a shelter or rescue to provide these animals to the public. Tara Buonanno Williams is the citizen animal advocate who lead the charge.
In February 2020, The Pittsfield City Council passed, and the mayor signed into law, the fourth ordinance in the state, which similarly bans the sale of puppies, kittens, and rabbits. Leslie Luppino worked to pass this measure.
Read on to learn about Tara’s and Leslie’s experiences, how they became involved with this issue, what tactics they found to be most effective, and advice for other Massachusetts residents who would like to become more involved in animal advocacy.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in this effort?
Tara: In 2013, my now-husband and I adopted our first rescue pup, Lily. From there, I learned about the terrible overpopulation problem we have in our country’s shelters, as well as how the pet store/puppy mill connection is exacerbating the problem. I began volunteering for local organizations by doing transports, helping out at adoption events, processing applications, and fostering.
Leslie: I became involved in animal advocacy during the ballot question to end greyhound racing in 2008. I wasn’t political before. This gave me the curiosity to figure out how to get laws passed to help animals. I got in touch with local people who had worked on that campaign and then started Berkshire Voters for Animals. I also read the book, Get Political for Animals, which was helpful.
What motivated you to initiate this effort?
Tara: In 2016, I won the title of Mrs. Massachusetts America and decided to focus on my personal platform, “Adopt Don’t Shop.” During that year, I had the opportunity to meet many other like-minded advocates and people in my community and became involved with the Mass. Coalition to End Puppy Mills. At a pet store protest, we began discussing the recent pet store ordinance that Boston had passed, and I thought: if Boston can do it, why can’t Stoneham?
Leslie: Working with the MSPCA and knowing that the more towns and cities that pass measures like this, the more likely it will pass at the state level, we decided to do it in Pittsfield. Most of our members live there.
How did you go about figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to navigate the process in your town?
Tara: As my mentors at the Mass. Coalition to End Puppy Mills suggested, I reached out to a member of the Stoneham Select Board, who introduced me to Selectwoman Caroline Colarusso, who is known to be an animal lover and supporter of animal rescue. She was immediately on board with the idea, and explained all the nuts and bolts of the process to me. Caroline guided me through the steps, and was a constant support throughout. She worked with me on the bylaw language, gathering the needed signatures, and submitting the documents to the town.
Leslie: We had worked through the Pittsfield City Council during the effort for a ban wild animal circuses a few years ago, so knew about the process. I had reached out to my city councilor to learn how to get an ordinance through. He went thru the steps on how to submit a petition, find out about the agenda, and how a proposed ordinance is sent to a committee. Our group also worked with the city clerk to understand the process and make sure we were meeting deadlines. We always made sure councilors had reliable and fact-based information and always answered questions quickly. We worked to develop that relationships with councilors.
What outreach and awareness raising activities did you do to drum up support for your petition?
Tara: I reached out to people in the community who I knew supported animal rescue, who in turn introduced me to their friends who were also supporters. I created a Facebook event for the vote at the town meeting and invited people to attend through our town’s community Facebook page. Being somewhat new to the town, I was worried that I would have trouble getting enough people on board, but Stoneham is an amazing community and this did not end up being a problem. Phone and email communications were sent out through local and state animal protection organizations leading up to the town meeting.
Leslie: Berkshire Voters for Animals started as a small grassroots group and had grown, so we used our members to spread the word, connect with city councilors, and testify. We had also spent time over the years making alliances with MSPCA, HSUS, and other groups that do this type of work, so we were able to work together. Those groups also sent out alerts to their Pittsfield members, reached out to the animal control officer, answered questions about ordinance language, and testified. We also had support from our local humane organization, Berkshire Humane Society.
What challenges did you encounter along the way? What opposition did you face?
Tara: On the night of the town meeting, the hall was completely packed. I was shocked when a member of the community stood up to call for the bylaw being voted on first, before any other matters. Was this good or bad? I had no idea. I was called up to speak in support of the bylaw, and again was shocked when no opposition asked to speak or rebut. When it came time for the vote, people were asked to stand in support of the proposed bylaw. I was again in shock to see most of the people in the room, well over the percentage needed, stand up in support. We had the support of the Select Board and the town’s Finance Committee and that was also made known before the vote.
Leslie: This proposal was not as controversial as the circus ordinance. Having gone through the process before made it easier to know the ropes. For this one, we didn’t have significant opposition. Some of it was just clarifying what the ordinance did/did not do. For example, explaining it did not impact local breeders because they do not sell to pet shops and that it wasn’t prohibiting pet shops, but just ensuring they don’t sell these animals from mills. We made sure to point out they can partner with shelters and rescues to provide these animals to the public. Doing this proactively, as we didn’t have a pet shop in the city, made it easier.
What, if anything, would you do differently if you could do it over again?
Tara: I would have contacted the MSPCA and HSUS earlier in the process for support, as they are so knowledgeable and have many resources, which would have prevented us from having to recreate the wheel as much as we did in Stoneham.
Leslie: It is best to start in town where it is not an issue, i.e. no pet store to gain experience before taking on an established business and more controversy. However, you need to have a resident from that town that is willing to take the lead and other residents willing to add their voices. This was the lesson we learned from the circus ordinance.
How time-consuming was this undertaking?
Tara: At times, taking this endeavor on was overwhelming, but having the support of like-minded community members in Stoneham as well as advocates around the state made it happen.
Leslie: It involves some planning, and making sure you have a good schedule, people to be in the hearing room, and time to put materials together such as packets for city councilors. It is important to be organized.
What would be your advice to other citizens trying to decide whether or not to take up the effort of trying to pass a municipal law to protect animals in their town?
Tara: My advice is this: go for it. If there is an animal issue you are passionate about, do something about it. Step out of your comfort zone. Surround yourself with like-minded people and network. Attend trainings and workshops. Work together. Strive to present yourself as educated, put-together, well-spoken, and level-headed. Do not engage in the bad behavior or back-and-forth that your opposition may be engaging in. Take the time to get to know your town officials and share what is important to you and educate them with facts. Remember that not all people are animal lovers, so think outside the box in terms of how legislation will help the people of your community and, at the same time, not have a negative impact on the local economy. Back your claims up with research and data. My hope is that with continued hard work, dedication and education, Massachusetts will eventually pass pet store legislation on the state level.
Leslie: It’s worth doing; it’s good for everyone to get involved at the local level to help get ordinances through. It’s very rewarding to accomplish something and feel like you are making a difference. Anyone can do it. That is what the city council and town meeting are there for. It is important to get residents involved who live in the town — it should not be all “outsiders.” We also made sure to include arguments that may impact with people who might not be influenced by the animal protection arguments. This included concerns about consumer protection and public health.