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Orland Park dog debate to continue

  • Written by Tim Hadac

 The debate over puppy mills is expected to continue in Orland Park Monday evening, nine days after a village trustee visited a commercial dog breeding facility in Indiana.

Trustee Daniel T. Calandriello said Tuesday that he and “a friend from law school” visited the Miller family facility near Goshen last Saturday at the invitation of Ron Berning, founder and owner of Happiness Is Pets, 15647 S. 94th Ave.

Berning had made the invitation to the three members of the Orland Park Village Board’s Public Safety Committee on April 21, after activists dismissed his photographs of commercial dog breeding facilities with which he does business as little more than “pretty pictures.”

The other two members of the committee, Trustees Patricia A. Gira and Kathleen M. Fenton, have not visited the facilities.

Gira told The Regional News that she wanted to accept Berning’s invitation, but declined when she learned that she would not be able to choose the facility and the date of the visit. She said that the most accurate impression would be gained via an unannounced visit that would show a facility in its natural, everyday condition—and not one where facility management had advance notice and therefore an opportunity to “clean up” and “hide problems.”

Berning explained the situation by saying that “many breeders have been burned in the past, again and again, both by journalists who say they’re unbiased but aren’t and by these so-called animal rights activists who pose as journalists, lie their way into a facility, take undercover video, and then use editing techniques to twist the truth into something entirely different.”

He added that he was attempting to convince more breeders to open themselves up to visits and offered to take The Regional News on a visit to the Goshen facility and several others.

Background

At issue is whether Orland Park should use its home-rule powers to opt out of the Cook County Companion Animal & Consumer Protection Ordinance, passed earlier this month and set to take effect Oct. 1.

The county ordinance is designed to strike a blow against puppy mills by attacking the problem at the retail level.

“Puppy mill” is a derisive term used by activists and others to describe those large-scale commercial breeders that engage in sloppy and even inhumane treatment of dogs and cats.

The new law’s chief proponent, County Commissioner John Fritchey of Chicago’s North Side, has said that the ordinance will limit “the retail sale of puppies and kittens in Cook County pet stores to animals sourced from shelters and other humane adoption centers.” The measure also allows pet shops to purchase dogs and cats from small-scale, hobbyist breeders.

It was passed in the wake of a similar and stricter ordinance passed the Chicago City Council by a vote of 49-1.

In Orland Park, the new county ordinance would drive Happiness Is Pets out of business after 28 years in the village, Berning has repeatedly claimed.

Activists have mostly agreed, and some have taken to the Internet and even the picket line in an attempt to drive Berning under.

Berning has repeatedly responded that his business is licensed, regulated, inspected, law abiding, taxpaying and well established in Orland Park, with hundreds of positive testimonials by satisfied dog lovers, many of which are posted on his store’s website.

A key point of the debate is whether a commercial dog breeding facility can operate safely and humanely. Many activists say it is impossible and have branded such facilities as puppy mills that should be forced out of operation. Pet shop owners, commercial dog breeders, the American Kennel Club, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say otherwise.

The Village Board has three options, according to Calandriello:

  • Do nothing and allow the new county ordinance to take effect in the village;
  • Opt out of the county ordinance and preserve the status quo in the village;
  • Opt out of the county ordinance, yet craft a village ordinance that addresses the issue by tightening controls on pet shops that sell dogs and cats.

Calandriello’s findings

“It is important for me as a trustee to research the issue and gather as much information as possible to make a factual decision. There are many parts to this decision. That is why I decided to visit the handpicked breeder that Ron Berning sent me to,” Calandriello wrote in an email to The Regional News on Tuesday.

The trustee said that the Miller family facility “had about a week notice of my visit. This breeder was still under construction. They had about 70 breeding female dogs, seven to nine breeding male dogs at that location when I visited. However, there were no puppies at that time, which is somewhat interesting.”

Berning was not at the facility last Saturday, but his sons, Jonathan and Justin, were. He explained on Tuesday that the lack of puppies is due to the fact that the facility is a “brand-new kennel still under construction.”

Calandriello wrote that he spoke with one of the owners of the facility. “He talked about what the mill will look like in the future. Some comments from the breeder stood out to me. First he said that he isn’t making any money right now because he doesn’t have any puppies to sell.

“Additionally, the breeder used to be a hobby breeder, four or fewer breeding females, but because he saw he could make money being a bigger breeder, he built the new barn,” the trustee added.

“The biggest thing that stood out from that conversation was the breeder kept singling out one of the male dogs,” Calandriello said. “He said he liked to use this male a lot to breed with female breeding dogs because of his face. To the breeder it was attractive and profitable.

“I have never heard anyone talk about a dog and his offspring like this before. It was as if the dog’s face structure meant more money to him,” he added.

Other observations included the noise level inside the barn, the trustee added. “It was tremendously loud in the barn, which had 22 cages with only Mr. and Mrs. Miller staffing the entire mill.

“Since there were no young puppies, when that mill starts breeding, with 70 female breeding dogs, there is a potential to have 350 dogs at that mill, which would be about four times the dog population I observed on Saturday. That would be way too many dogs at that location,” he added.

Regarding what he plans to say at the Public Safety Committee meeting on Monday, Calandriello wrote, “I plan to tell the committee about what I saw on Saturday and tell them that we need to look at all the facts regarding puppy mills. Staff has researched this issue, we all have researched the issue and we listen to arguments from all side.

“Most importantly, I went to the puppy mill of Happiness is Pets choosing --- the only one that I was allowed to see, and it was under construction. After stating my observations, I will focus the conversation on overall policy regarding puppy mills.

“It is important to recognize that Happiness is Pets and their current animal suppliers are only a part of this puzzle because our actions will affect all animal retailers. At the end of the day, it this all comes down to what is the best outcome for Orland Park,” he concluded.

The Bernings respond to Calandriello

Upon learning of Calandriello's observations and comments, the Bernings reacted with anger and frustration, using words like "deceitful" and claiming that what the trustee told The Regional News is significantly different from several positive comments they said he made at the visit on Saturday.

They also were displeased with Calandriello bringing along an unannounced, uninvited guest, especially when neither the guest nor Calandriello said the man's name, according to the Bernings.

Jonathan Berning told The Regional News that he and his brother, Justin, recognized the man as Christopher Mermigas, an activist attorney who reportedly advised Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey on crafting the new county legislation.

Calandriello did not initially name his companion to The Regional News, but when pressed, said on Wednesday morning through a village spokesman that it was indeed Mermigas, "a friend from law school who has some knowledge on the subject" but was not with Calandriello "in any official capacity."

The Regional News has learned that Mermigas is a City of Chicago employee working for City Clerk Susana Mendoza, the champion of the city's new ordinance that bans pet shops from acquiring dogs through commercial breeders.

In contrast to his reportedly tight-lipped demeanor Saturday, Mermigas, on his Facebook page, publicly speaks with pride about his activism and writes that he is "fighting for companion animals, man's best friend, because they cannot fight for themselves. All they want to do is love you, now we are giving them a voice to show we love them back."

Calandriello has not yet responded to a question from The Regional News on whether he or Mermigas made audio or video recordings of part or all or their visit to the breeding facility.

Jonathan Berning said it is "beyond frustrating" to learn that Calandriello repeatedly described the breeding facility as a "mill" and offered a detailed response.

He said that one reason that Calandriello did not see puppies on Saturday is that the breeding facility owner "currently whelps (births puppies) in the house, since a dog kennel is not a very conducive environment for newborn puppies to be. A separate, more sterile environment is the best. Most kennels, regardless of their size, have a separate whelping area. Mr. Miller showed Dan a separate area under construction that will be the new whelping area upon completion."

The reason why the Millers "don't 'have any puppies to sell' would be because since his kennel is rather new, he has to wait for his dogs to be sexually mature to begin breeding them, which is what responsible breeders--like the Millers--do," Berning added. 

Berning continued, saying that "the 'cages' are 16 sq/ft with a solid surface (no wire that is commonly shown in 'puppy mills') cots or astro turf, and dog toys. They have direct unfettered, 24/7 access to outdoor runs and a 60 square-foot outside pen, and 77 small dogs in over 23 pens is less than 4 dogs per pen. Plus, they are building a 2,500 square-foot outdoor play area, into which the dogs will be turned out five times a week, weather permitting. So it's clear that the dogs have more than ample room, and frankly will get more exercise than many people's personal dogs."

Calandriello's surprise at hearing the breeder make positive remarks about one dog's face is nothing more than an indication of responsible, selective breeding, which is "something puppy mills do not do," Berning said.
 
He addressed the trustee's concern about the kennel being "tremendously loud" by saying, "It's fairly obvious that dogs bark. Seventy-seven dogs can make a lot of noise, especially when two strangers walk into their home."
 
Further, the Millers do not "intend to have more than 80 adult dogs," Berning added. "I agree with [Calandriello] that 350 dogs is too many to have there and Dan was never told of intentions of that. Seventy females do not produce 350 puppies annually, not even close, especially with small dogs. For example, [Miller] recently just had a Yorkie that had a litter--of one."

Berning said that he and his brother "had intentions of taking [Calandriello] to three breeders total; however, since he misrepresented the identity of his 'buddy', we decided that Mr. Miller's [facility] would be the only kennel we would take him to. That is also why we stayed near during the conversations."
 
If the Public Safety Committee takes any action Monday night, their recommendation would be expected to be considered by the full Village Board at its meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday June 2 at Village Hall, 14700 S. Ravinia Ave.
 
(Editor's note: Please read The Regional News' latest editorial on this important issue.)
 
2colswide womanand2puppies 051514-copy

Photo by Tim Hadac

Two 12-week-old puppies, a Bichon Frise (left) and a Shih Tzu, take a break from playfully grappling with each other to pose for a photo with Erika Bowlds, manager at Happiness Is Pets, 15647 S. 94th Ave., Orland Park.

 

 

 3colswide HappinessisPets 0515141-copy

Photo by Tim Hadac

Happiness Is Pets, 15647 S. 94th Ave., Orland Park, a store that its owner says will be driven out of business if village officials do not opt out of the new Cook County Companion Animal & Consumer Protection Ordinance.