AUGUSTA — Dog lovers filled a legislative committee room Thursday for a hearing on a bill aimed at curtailing the flow of out-of-state “puppy mill” dogs to Maine. Opponents contend the measure would hurt pet stores without addressing the core issue.

The bill would make Maine the first state in the nation to prohibit pet stores from selling dogs and cats that were not born and raised by that shop. Led by the group Maine Friends of Animals, the legislation is a response to longstanding concerns about inhumane conditions in some large-scale breeding operations, so-called “puppy mills,” located outside the state.

The issue drew impassioned testimony from both sides that, despite the focus on puppies, was often far from warm and cuddly.

“Maine must continue to make a statement against animal cruelty,” said Karen Brozek, a dog owner and self-described animal advocate. “We have got to stop the cruelty and at least not support these big breeders from out of state, or in-state, that make their money this way. It’s horrific. It’s appalling.”

But George Arthur, manager of Pawz & Clawz Petz in Windham, had a different view of the bill.

“If the proponents of L.D. 335 want to shut down substandard breeders and their kennels,” he said, “they should do so by targeting them directly, not by destroying stores such as ours that try their best to provide people with well-cared-for pets.”

Only four of the 78 licensed pet stores in Maine currently sell dogs and cats and account for fewer than 500 dogs sold in the state per year, according to industry statistics. The vast majority of pets in Maine are purchased or adopted from breeders, animal shelters, animal rescue organizations or through person-to-person transactions.

HEALTH OF MILL PUPPIES, COST OF TREATMENT

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kimberly Monaghan, D-Cape Elizabeth, told the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that 95 percent of the puppies and kittens sold in Maine pet stores were obtained from “out-of-state, large-scale breeding facilities.”

Often located in the Midwest, these puppy mills churn out dogs that suffer from poor health because of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of proper veterinary care, according to the bill’s supporters. They downplayed the significance of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections and licensing, saying the federal agency is poorly staffed and rarely follows up with legal action.

“Reputable breeders will never sell to a pet store, never, because they do not know where the puppies are going,” said Lynne Fracassi, founder of the group Maine Citizens Against Puppy Mills and a former employee at a pet store that sold puppies and kittens.

Mark Pease of Westbrook estimated that his family has spent more than $5,600 in veterinary bills on the beloved but sickly bichon frise-poodle mix he bought from a pet store that acquired it from a large breeder. Pease said he has recovered roughly half of the $925 he spent to buy the dog, but he has been unable to recover any part of the vet bills.

STORE OWNERS’ OBJECTIONS, ANIMAL POLITICS

Shop owners defended their pet sourcing policies and their customer service against what they described as inaccurate generalizations. They also said the focus on pet stores was misplaced.

Bryant Tracy, owner of Pawz & Clawz, said his business depends on customer satisfaction and return buyers. He said his shop only purchases from USDA-licensed breeders who agree to additional voluntary inspections.

Roland Laflamme, owner of Black Shark pet store in Lewiston, said he only sells 10 to 12 dogs a year, compared with the hundreds of rescue dogs brought into some shelters from out of state. Laflamme accused the bill’s advocates – including some within the committee room – of harassing his customers and trying to force him out of business.

“I don’t mistreat my dogs. They are all my pets,” Laflamme said.

Other groups have accused the national animal rights industry of trying to bully the state.

“In reality, national activists are taking advantage of the relatively few stores in Maine to attempt to pass a statewide sales ban here so that they can then point to it as a precedent in other states,” Mike Bober, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, an industry trade group, wrote to the committee. “They are using Maine – and jeopardizing four local businesses in the process – as part of the larger, national agenda.”

Jay Kitchener, a Wells resident representing The Cavalry Group, an organization that provides legal assistance to animal owners and animal-related businesses, said the bill would only drive more Mainers to purchase dogs from entirely unregulated sources.

“Maine has some of the best animal laws in the nation,” Kitchener said. “If we have such good laws, why do we need more?”

DRIVER OF LEGISLATION, POTENTIAL IMPACT

Bill advocates said they fully anticipated that the pet industry would try to portray their efforts as being driven by extreme animal rights activists. Instead, they described the legislation as a common-sense measure to promote humane puppy breeding tactics, reduce euthanasia rates and continue Maine’s leadership on the issue.

“Maine is poised to lead the country with the first statewide ban,” said Carol Reynolds of Naples.

The legislation has the backing of the Humane Society of the United States, although Maine state director Katie Hansberry stressed that the push was created and led by Mainers. The national organization backed and bankrolled much of last fall’s unsuccessful campaign to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding in Maine.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry took no position on the bill, but said that, with only four pet stores actively selling cats and dogs, the legislation would have “little impact on how animals are adopted, sold or traded in the state.”

Committee members did not give any clear indications of where they stood on the bill during Thursday’s public hearing. A work session on the legislation has not yet been scheduled.