It's been a interesting few weeks for Mike Wiemann, owner of Critter Nation in Webster City. Little did he realize that his small-town pet shop would be the target of protesters accusing him of supporting Iowa puppy mills.
For about seven weeks, a group of about a dozen people have gathered in front of his shop on Saturday afternoons. They carry signs urging people to "Adopt, don't shop," referencing the puppies that Wiemann sells in the store.
According to Wiemann, protesters have been picketing in front of Dyvig's Pet Shoppe in Ames for about a year. Dale Dyvig owned a pet store in Webster City for many years. Wiemann was an employee at the store and later purchased the shop, changing the name to Critter Nation.
Legend, a Japanese Chin from New Designs Kennel in Rockwell City, is one of the newest additions at Critter Nation. Protesters claim the breeder and another Iowa kennel which supplies Critter Nation are actually puppy mills.
"He (Dyvig) initially was shocked and didn't understand what was going on," Wiemann said. He added that Dyvig had spoken with the protest organizers. However, Wiemann said the protest leaders had yet to communicate with him about the Webster City protests.
"While I've never spoken with Mindy Callison, she came up to my store with a friend on the day of the first protest. I had done a little research and so I knew who this was," he said.
Wiemann said Callison, who runs an animal rights blog entitled "Bailing Out Benji," walked into the store and circled the dog display cage in the middle of the store.
"I asked if there was anything I could help them with but I got no response. I told them if they had any questions, I would be happy to answer them, but they just proceeded out the door without comment," he said.
A local woman, who Wiemann said was a longtime customer, Katherine Flockhart, was among the protesters. The Stanhope woman asked him to write down the names of the kennels that supplied puppies to his store, which he did.
"Katt Flockhart told me that her friend was going to come up to protest," he said, adding that he wasn't really surprised, given the activity at the Ames pet store.
"I figured, OK, that's fine as long as they were peaceful and truthful and educational," he said. "I don't agree, but they have the right."
Flockhart said the goal of the protesters is to educate people about puppy mills. The group, which Flockhart said consists of people that have worked in the field of animal care, are also aiming to get Critter Nation to discontinue its business with both Century Farm and New Designs Kennel.
"We're there to explain to people what's going on. We do not want to shut the store down and we have nothing against the town," Flockhart said.
Wiemann said he didn't deny that puppy mills exist.
"There are bad people out there who are only trying to make a profit from the sale of puppies with little thought to how the puppies are treated," he said. "But that's not the case with Century Farms and New Designs."
He has never purchased puppies from a broker, rather he chooses to work with USDA Certified kennels that are subject to regular, unannounced inspections by USDA inspectors.
"I don't trust anyone who sends a fax that is pages long listing the dogs that you can check off how many you want, and then they'll deliver them to you in a truck," he said. "That's not how we operate."
The protests have been relatively peaceful, according to Wiemann, with the exception of a few confrontations with local customers and business people. On the fifth week, a local resident brought in several vehicles to park in front of the shop to block the protesters from the street view. That same week, protesters posted video of the confrontation on YouTube. Last week, Wiemann said his wife documented the protest on videotape from the back of a truck.
"There's not going to be an end anytime soon," Flockhart said. "People are sticking to their guns on both sides. The protesters are not giving up, and the same for Critter Nation supporters. It's wonderful that he has such a strong following, but we do too."
The third week, Wiemann said he and Chamber Director Deb Brown and Police Chief Brian Hughes were ready to suggest a sit-down meeting with the picketers but none of the protesters showed up. Wiemann said he still would be happy to sit down one-on-one with the protest organizers to discuss their concerns.
What is a puppy mill?
There is apparently no standardized legal definition for puppy mills but most agree to a description something like this - a puppy mill is a breeding operation in which the health of dogs is disregarded in order to maintain low-overhead and maximize profits, according to Wikipedia information.
Flockhart said both Century Farm and New Designs Kennel, the facilities where Wiemann purchases his dogs, fall under the protesters definition of a puppy mill.
"A puppy mill is not a puppy mill because it's filthy," Flockhart said. "A puppy mill is a puppy mill because of quantity and because they live in a cage."
She said she does not like to use the word kennel for breeding facilities, because a kennel is something that a pet owner uses to house their dog. For her and other protesters, the overall quality of a dog's life is what defines a puppy mill, rather than the cleanliness of a facility and the healthcare the dogs receive.
"People from Webster City can walk through Century Farms and say nothing was wrong with it and it was very clean. That does not matter. They're still in a cage for their entire life. It's about the quality of life for the animal, and they have none."
Wiemann said he has visited both of the kennels that supply his store with puppies - Century Farm at Grundy Center and New Designs Kennel at Rockwell City. The store owner said he found the facilities to be clean and caring. He added that sometimes reputable commercial breeders get tossed into the same category as those considered puppy mills because of overgeneralized descriptions.
The counter at Critter Nation has several flyers for people to pick up which outline the difference between responsible breeders and those that people call "puppy mills." Wiemann agreed that while some breeders give the industry a bad name, there are many caring, responsible breeders out there.
Nancy Carlson, who owns New Designs Kennel with her husband, Tom, is also the spokesperson for the Iowa Federation of Animal Owners, the legislative arm of the Iowa Pet Breeders Association. In that capacity, she said she visits and speaks with most licensed breeding facilities in the state.
"Licensed facilities need to be compliant with all the regulations for breeders," she said. "We can help them become compliant. Or we can help them go out of business if they are no longer able to run the operation."
Carlson said the licensed breeding operations are subject to unannounced inspections.
"The inspectors go through the facility thoroughly. They look at all of our animals and count all of the animals," she said.
The breeder said that many of the protesters had held up two USDA inspection violations her kennel received. One involved dirty floor drains and the other was rusted wires in dog runs. Both were promptly corrected.
The protesters also note a report from April 18, 2013 shows that Century Farm had 155 adult dogs and 48 puppies at one time. An inspection of New Designs Kennel on Dec. 10, 2012 said 134 adult dogs and 48 puppies were at their facility.
"Those inspections are a snapshot in time. Kennels are given the opportunity to fix the problems, but woe be the breeder who fails to complete the repairs in the time allowed, and certainly before the next inspection," Carlson said.
The breeder said her kennels have never had a direct care violation.
"We love our dogs," she said, "and we care about their well-being."
Carlson said she speaks directly to her veterinarian on a daily basis. Her dogs are fed high quality feeds, they have feeders and self-waterers in their runs and the facilities are heated and air conditioned. Each dog is named, using the first initial of its mother. Each puppy received a microchip. She said her facility maintains strict disease-control procedures including keeping the animals away from areas that may have parasites or insects.
Wiemann sells approximately 35 dogs per year, roughly half from New Designs and half from Century Farm, as well as a few from private sources. In the time that he has owned his store, Wiemann said has never had a puppy returned due to illness or genetic disorders.
The protest has moved from the streets of Webster City to social media, with lengthy back-and-forth comments from supporters of the protest and supporters of the pet shop posted on the Critter Nation Facebook page and other sites.
Carlson said she has been hurt by many of the comments posted on her Facebook page and her website.
"We've even had death threats," she said. "Those comments weigh heavy on my heart. And all of that noise takes me away from my dogs."
"My inspector, vet and our customers are confident that we care for animals in a responsible way. The accusations made by this group of protesters are baseless, factless accusations," she said.
Carlson said Deb and Rex Meyers, the owners of Century Farms, are close friends.
"They are also conscientious breeders and I can vouch for them," she said. She also had high praise for Wiemann and Critter Nation.
"I've always found Mike to be pleasant, knowledgeable and professional. I give him great credit for how he's handled these recent events," she said.
Flockhart said as long as Critter Nation continues to buy dogs from both breeders, protesters will continue to be in front of his store every Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
"We just want him to change his business ethics on how he gets his supply of dogs, and that's not a bad thing to ask for. If his dogs weren't produced in the manner that they are, it would not be a big deal," Flockhart said.
While compromise is unlikely, Flockhart said that even if Wiemann agreed to stop selling dogs bought from a breeder and wanted to sell homeless dogs, she would not feel comfortable with it unless he had a process to find the dogs a loving, permanent home.
"People are going to a pet store and paying $300 to $500 for a dog that comes out of these conditions when there are shelters everywhere that have thousands of homeless dogs," Flockhart said.
Carlson said the idea that shelter pets are adopted - is really a misconception.
"You get your checkbook out when you to the shelter and pay for it," she said. "Children are adopted. Pets are purchased."
She added that the rates of return at shelters can be incredibly high. Animals with behavior or temperament problems are often returned, she said. That can result in shuttling the dog off to a different kennel where his track record isn't known.
Carlson said if one of her pet owners can no longer care for the animal or has an issue, she will find a forever home for that dog at no cost.
"We invite all of customers to keep in contact," she said, adding, "We offer lifetime tech support."
Wiemann and Carlson said no one should be told where they can or cannot purchase a pet.
"It has to be whatever works for the pet owner," Wiemann said.
"I think it's a noble service to support finding homeless dogs a good forever home," Carlson said of the protesters. "But they don't have a lock on loving dogs."