Saving lives, one puppy at a time

Two local residents convert their pet shop into a “rescue” store, selling only animals that have come from shelters or that have been rescued or dropped off by owners who don’t want them anymore.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu residents Scott and Kim Lee have run the Aquarium and Pet Center in Santa Monica for 25 years and have seen many pet trends come and go. The 1996 film “101 Dalmatians” brought a surge of interest in polka-dotted puppies and the success of the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde” fueled a demand for teacup Chihuahuas, along with the requisite adorable pet-sized wardrobe.

But the recent recession has not been kind to the Lees, when people have been more concerned with affording food for their own table rather than their pet’s. On top of that, the Lees were subject to protests from animal rights’ groups targeting pet stores they perceived as patronizing “puppy mills”-kennels that indiscriminately churn out popular pet breeds like assembly line auto parts, while subjecting their breeding stock to cruel living conditions.

Last year, the Lees switched tactics, halted orders to breeders and started to offer rescue animals.

“There are some breeders I had worked with for 25 years,” Scott Lee said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “I told them I was changing our policy.”

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Los Angeles County animal shelters take in some 90,000 animals a year. A cultural aversion to neutering dogs ensures that this number will be difficult to reduce. Roughly 60 percent of shelter animals are euthanized, leaving thousands of dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals still available for adoption.

Not all are the veritable “Heinz 57” mutt. Lee said many animals are purebred, but are given up by owners who purchase in a moment of impulse, but cannot provide proper care afterward, for whatever reason.

“Maybe they don’t have the time to exercise a puppy, maybe the animal has a behavioral problem, maybe they are bored,” Lee said. “Some people are really affected by the economy and can’t afford to keep a pet, but want it to go to a good home. We help them out.”

The Lees work with Animal Advocates Alliance, a rescue group that finds abandoned animals for the shop. Lee, whose own pet at home is a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named “King,” has even taken in pets from people who come to the shop and surrender their pets, citing financial difficulties.

“We take any animal and quarantine it for a week,” Lee said. “We neuter it, provide all the medicines it might need, give it its first vaccinations, get rid of the kennel cough. Some animals arrive underweight and really matted. We clean them up and make sure they are healthy, micro-chipped and ready for a family.”

Pure breeds from a kennel can cost upward of a couple thousand dollars. Lee offers his rescue animals for $200 to $500, little more than the cost of neutering them. He advises prospective buyers of behavioral traits and works to match owners harmoniously with pets. And he stages “adoption parties” in front of his shop every weekend.

“Sometimes we have those purebreds that have been so popular,” Lee said. “Sometimes they are Chihuahua or terrier or lab mixes. Mixed breeds tend to be healthier and sturdier than purebreds. There are fewer behavioral problems with mixed breeds.”

Carole Raphaelle Davis is the West Coast director of the Companion Animal Protection Society, a nonprofit organization that investigates and exposes puppy mill operations nationwide. Her group staged regular protests in front of the Aquarium and Pet Center for months, culminating in an alleged shooting incident last year, which is still being investigated by local authorities. (Davis, a Malibu resident, also protested against Pet Headquarters in 2008, which was located at Cross Creek Plaza. It has since closed its doors, and the former manager, Paul Dalton, opened Pacific Coast Pets at Malibu Colony Plaza, selling only pet products).

“Mr. Lee was selling dogs from inhumane breeding mills for a long time,” Davis said. “When he finally learned the facts, he decided to work with us and dozens of lives have now been saved, thanks to his courage.”

Davis facilitated the relationship with Animal Advocates Alliance, who works reciprocally with the Lees.

“The Alliance will take some of Mr. Lee’s animals and offer them at adoption events around town, and then send those new pet owners to Aquarium and Pet Center for all their pet supply needs,” Davis said. “This is what conversion to humane adoptions does. It strengthens ties between the retailer and the community.”

Indeed, one new Southland pet owner selected her puppy from a rescue Web site that directed her to Aquarium and Pet Center. Susan Beall of Newport Beach found “Daisy” at Lee’s shop.

“We had had a Siberian husky who just didn’t work out with the family,” Beall, a mother of four, said. “So I wanted our next dog to be the right fit. Daisy came from one of those ‘high kill’ shelters (a shelter that euthanizes a high percentage of its animals) and was a little older so we could see her personality.”

Beall said she had heard of the bad press puppy mills received, but it was a friend’s good experience with a rescue dog that convinced her to go for Daisy.

“When we took Daisy home, Mr. Lee said to her, ‘Goodbye Daisy, have a good life. This is your new family now,’” Beall said. “Now, I’m not a crazy dog person, but that’s sweet. Daisy is now the mascot of our neighborhood.”

Lee said the conversion to adoptions has resonated well with his clientele.

“We have customers who purchased purebred dogs from us years ago now coming back to adopt companion mixed breeds,” Lee said. “Even if we have a shelter animal for awhile, we will keep trying to foster it out. My new motto is, once they are rescued, they are rescued.”

More information about pet adoptions can be found at the Lees’ Web site, www.aquariumandpetcenter.com. The Lees stage adoption events every Friday, Saturday and Sunday (weather permitting) from noon to 5 p.m. The address is 826 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, 90401. 310.395.1009

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