|Sent on:||Tuesday, May 8, 2012 7:20 AM|
Anti-puppy mill crusader and her group raise anger, awareness by going after pet stores
May 8, 2012 | By Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
Marti, left, and Leroy Brown serenade owner Pam Sordyl at their home near Clarkston. Sordyl, an ex- financial analyst for General Motors, protests stores that she believes got pets from puppy mills, which breed dogs under inhumane conditions. / PATRICIA BECK/DETROIT FREE PRESS
Pam Sordyl starts with a softer touch -- a letter, a phone call.
But if a pet store owner ignores or refuses her request to stop selling puppies, the Clarkston-area woman ratchets up the pressure -- weekly protests outside the store, an online campaign.
The 41-year-old former financial analyst for General Motors has spent the last several years hounding pet stores that sell dogs in places such as Novi, Westland and Flint, referencing publicly available shipping records and inspection reports to support her claims that they get their animals from puppy mills, where dogs are bred under inhumane conditions.
Sordyl, founder of the Puppy Mill Awareness Meetup of Southeast Michigan, credits the intense campaigns she and her group wage with helping close half a dozen pet stores in metro Detroit since 2008, and she defends her group and her tactics.
"You need to have someone who is willing to stay the course and say: 'We're not going away,' " she said.
Sordyl is also actively pushing for passage of a series of bills, known as the Puppy Lemon Law and the Puppy Protection Act, currently in committees in the Legislature. The bills would give consumers recourse if they buy a sick puppy from a pet store or a dealer and set standards for keeping dogs in large-scale breeding facilities.
Sordyl cited two incidents last month that she said demonstrate continuing problems with the way animals are bred and sold in Michigan -- the seizure of more than 350 dogs kept in dire conditions by an Allegan County couple who were breeding them and charges of animal cruelty against a Dearborn Heights man and his store, Pet Station.
Area animal activists who know Sordyl praise her commitment and marvel at her research skills and seemingly boundless energy. The pet store owners she targets offer a decidedly less-positive assessment, using words such as "extreme" and "terrorist" to describe her.
Sordyl, who is married to a GM engineer and lives in an upscale subdivision bordering Independence Oaks Park, was laid off during GM's restructuring and uses the time she used to spend on the job to push her cause. She developed her interest in animal-rights activism during a vacation volunteering at SASHA (Sanctuary and Safe Haven for Animals) Farm in Manchester. She has three rescue dogs of her own.
Sordyl said that only through constant vigilance, such as weekly protests, will she effect the kind of change she wants to make.
That intensity is appreciated by some.
"In your lifetime, you can count on one hand the number of people who will take up an issue that's near and dear to their heart and will relentlessly pursue what they feel is right, and that's Pam," said Deborah Schutt, chairwoman of the board of the Bloomfield Township-based Michigan Pet Fund Alliance. "She is the dog with a bone."
But that persistence is what infuriates the pet store owners she targets. What may start as a few letters inviting a pet store owner to stop selling puppies can turn into months or years of protests asking people to boycott the store.
"She's an awful person," said Donna Corbett, who owns the Shaggy Dog in Shelby Township. "The things she's saying are not true."
Corbett and other shop owners Sordyl pickets defend their business practices. Corbett said, "I would never buy from a breeder that would run their business like a puppy mill."
Sordyl asked why she has never been sued if what she publicizes at www.meetup.com/puppymillawareness and on signs that she and members of her group carry is false.
She acknowledged that protests can get heated, especially when counter-protesters come to support the stores. Police have been called in some cases to keep order or to take reports, but Sordyl said she is careful to follow the law.
Sordyl was cited in April over a Westland sign-ordinance violation. According to a police report, an officer told Sordyl, whose group had staked three signs into the ground, that she could not post signs on public property. Sordyl told the officer she did not have to remove the signs. According to the report, the officer said Sordyl "then told me to issue her the citation, and (said) that I could speak to her ACLU attorney."
Sordyl said she plans to fight the citation. The next court hearing is May 30.
In a separate incident outside the Westland store in January, Sordyl is listed as the victim in an assault report. Sordyl told police that a counter-protester pushed her in the chest and pushed the camera she was holding.
Kelly Schwartz, director of volunteers and operational support for the Humane Society of Huron Valley, has known Sordyl for several years and said Sordyl is raising awareness of a real issue.
"Sometimes it takes extreme measures, like protesting or standing out on a street corner, to let people know it's not the appropriate thing to do," she said. "I don't look at (Sordyl and her group) as being aggressive. I look at them as getting their message out."
John Stottele, who owns five the Family Puppy stores in the region, said Sordyl's focus misses the big picture. He notes that breeders who sell to pet stores are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while the vast majority of dogs sold in the U.S. are distributed through other means, such as unregulated backyard breeders.
"Pam keeps beating the drum about puppy mills, puppy mills, puppy mills, and there's a bigger issue here, and it's animal welfare," he said. "Why doesn't she picket these casual breeders where there's no oversight?"
But it's the business model that Sordyl is really fighting.
Buying and selling dogs, and other animals, works against her group's mission, which is to promote adoption from shelters.
Stottele said that's a laudable goal but not always realistic. Not all shelter dogs make good pets, he said.
For Sordyl, adoption is the morally appropriate choice. Selling dogs means the dogs' welfare is a secondary consideration, she said.
"We do not support any live animal sales. Whenever animals are used for profits, profits come first."
More Details: Legislation in the works
• Senate Bill 574, known as the Pet Lemon Law, would require pet shops or dealers to refund the pet purchase price, exchange the animal for one of equal value or reimburse veterinary fees in cases in which a veterinarian determines that an animal was unfit for sale. It would also require pet shops or dealers to provide information about the breeder to customers.
• House Bills[masked] and Senate Bills[masked], known as the Puppy Protection Act, would set standards for large-scale breeding operations covering housing, food and water requirements and mandated rest between breeding cycles. It would also prohibit such breeders from selling puppies younger than 8 weeks old.