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A legislative task force on “puppy mills” began its work Wednesday already divided over whether the group should look to weed out bad actors in the pet store industry or ban the commercial sale of dogs and cats.

“The problem is, there are dogs coming in from puppy mills outside the state of Connecticut, coming from inhumane conditions,” said Rep. Brenda Kupchick, co-chairwoman of the task force.

“Puppy mill” is a term for commercial breeders where dogs are produced in high numbers and inhumane conditions. Advocates contend that many of the animals sold in pet shops were born in these commercial breeders.

Kupchick, a Fairfield Republican, was one of several lawmakers who sponsored a bill during the legislative session that would have prohibited selling pets in the state unless the pets came from local breeders, animal rescue operations, or shelters.

The bill was opposed by pet shop owners while it was in the Environment Committee and Kupchick said the task force, which gathered for an organizational meeting Wednesday, was a compromise. The panel is expected to make recommendations to the General Assembly to inform legislation to be drafted next year.

In her remarks to the task force, Kupchick acknowledged that she already has a position on the issue but said she wants the group to put together a report with data for lawmakers to look at next year. She said she planned to present information on violations from puppy mills which supply dogs to Connecticut pet shops.

“Even looking at these reports, it’s disgusting. Now if the general public knew that that’s where their cute little puppy was coming from, that that’s how the breeding mother and father were treated . . . I don’t think they’d want to have a dog from these places or want to be involved with something like that,” she said.

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However, a representative of a pet store trade association who also serves on the task force expressed concerns about the group’s mission during the first meeting.

Charles Sewell, executive vice president of Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), said most stores that operate in Connecticut buy their animals from responsible breeders who are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“If the purpose of this task force is to deal with the bad actors, the bad breeders, we think we have common ground and we could develop recommendations for the legislature to go after them. However, if the purpose of this task force is to eliminate legitimate businesses that operate in the state of Connecticut . . . then obviously we don’t think you’re solving the problem,” he said.

Sewell said the his group had “zero tolerance for bad actors” in the pet store industry and believes they should be put out of business. But the 16 stores PIJAC represents across Connecticut should not be forced out of business, he said.

The stores “have lots of happy customers, lots of happy families as a result of the pets they provide. We hope they will be able to continue to be in business,” he said.

Annie Hornish, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, also is serving on the panel. While testifying in support of Kupchick’s bill in March, she told the Environment Committee that nearly all puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills.

“We do receive, regularly at the HSUS, complaints from people who believe they have received animals that have been sourced from puppy mills,” she said, 

According to the Legislative Research Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received 129 complaints about Connecticut pet shops between January 2010 and July 2013. Thirty-seven of the complaints were pertaining to sick or defective animals, the OLR found.

Kupchick said she’s looking for a ban on the sale of puppies and kittens in pet stores, a concept that is not a new and not without precedent. She points to municipalities in other states that have banned the retail sale of dogs.

“Los Angeles passed a ban and Los Angeles, although it’s a city, is bigger that Connecticut,” she said. 

Nationwide, at least 28 municipalities have enacted similar prohibitions, according to the Legislative Research Office. In July, advocates in the town of Branford tried unsuccessfully to pass such a ban.