OLD TOWN — In a move that dog advocates are calling historic, Chicago's oldest pet store has decided to stop selling dogs and cats purchased from mill breeders, a choice supporters hope will spread to other pet shops around the city.
"Why put money in people's pockets who are destroying these dogs?" said Sonja Raymond, who owns Collar & Leash with her husband and his brother.
The pet store, which has been situated along a busy stretch of Wells Street in Old Town since 1956, will make the transition from mill dog and cat sales on April 1.
The three-story-shop will become the first in Chicago to stop the practice and will begin housing dogs and cats from various shelters and breed rescues, which will be up for adoption.
"This is so huge," said Cari Meyers, who started The Puppy Mill Project from her Lincoln Park home about three years ago. "Being the oldest store in Chicago, it's an amazing event. We are very proud of them. It's a big step."
For Sonja Raymond, her husband, Dan, and his brother, Bob Fleming, it was a difficult decision to stop selling the animals, considering Dan and Bob's grandmother opened the store in 1956 by selling extra puppies from her show dogs.
"It's hard to break from family tradition," Sonja Raymond said. "It's been very difficult for my husband and his brother, but we have to go with rescuing these pets that need good homes. There's a lot of them out there."
For years Collar & Leash has bought dogs from "brokers" or "distributors," whom the shop had grown to trust, but in recent years she has been able to determine where the dogs were coming from through a U.S. Department of Agriculture registry.
A statement on the store's website reads, "It has been our misfortune to encounter bad brokers who do not get all their puppies from breeders who really care for the puppies and the parents of the puppies."
Raymond said in the last year, she found that one of the distributors was tranquilizing the puppies before they arrived and another sold the shop a dog with a genetic problem that the broker blamed on Collar & Leash.
"I said this is enough. Enough is enough. I can't deal with this anymore," Raymond said. "I can't trust these people anymore. That was the last straw."
Meyers, who runs The Puppy Mill Project, considers Collar & Leash's decision to end sales to be one of her greatest life accomplishments.
She said the Old Town shop was on The Puppy Mill Project's radar from the day she started the nonprofit to educate the public and raise awareness about systematic cruelty in puppy mills.
The fact that Collar & Leash was ingrained in the community and that she had been captivated by the caged puppies in the store as a young child, put it at the top of her list.
"When I first contacted them, it was in protest outside their store, and it wasn't pretty," she said.
A few months after that October 2012 protest, Meyers called Sonja Raymond and persuaded her to end the sales and to work with The Puppy Mill Project to end the cycle that filters the animals through pet shops.
"The fact that they've entrusted the future to us is fantastic," Meyers said. "We are going to make them rock stars."
The first step in the 56-year-old shop's transformation is a grand reopening on April 6, six days after the April 1 deadline to stop doing business with the dog and cat brokers.
The shop will begin working with The Puppy Mill Project to sponsor adoptions from various shelters and rescues at the shop, while providing food, water and pens for the animals. The shelters will be responsible for caring for the animals at the shop.
The business will continue to operate as a pet shop with supplies and dog and cat grooming services, and it will continue its off-site boarding services.
"They make a lot of money with the dogs and cats, and they are probably going to take a hit, but they are going to have customers now who would have never stopped in that store," Meyers said. "I know people say that's the store they love to hate."