She ran her own special events company for 20 years, sold vintage jewelry, studied theater in college. But, Cari Meyers says, "This part of my life is far more exciting."
Meyers is the president of The Puppy Mill Project, a nonprofit she founded in 2009 to get the word out about, and eliminate, what critics call puppy mills — large commercial dog-breeding operations that are often accused of putting profits ahead of the animals' health or welfare.
Meyers and her group are basking in their greatest success yet. On Wednesday, the Chicago City Council voted 49-1 to require city pet stores that sell dogs, cats and rabbits to get them from government pounds, humane societies or animal rescue groups rather than "puppy mills." The measure was spearheaded by City Clerk Susana Mendoza and inspired by The Puppy Mill Project.
"As a lifelong Chicagoan, I'm so proud of my city," she said after the vote. "It did the right thing. ... I just feel like one little organization, one grass roots, tiny organization with no funding from anybody, with very little acknowledgment in terms of who we are, got it done, just because we were so passionate and determined.
"I don't want to say it was David versus Goliath. But ... it was good versus evil. And I think the good guys won."
The passing of the ordinance is just the latest feather in Meyers' cap.
The Puppy Mill Project previously convinced three pet stores, in Naperville, Evanston and Chicago, to stop selling "puppy-mill" animals and move to an adoption model; PMP has gone after stores that sold sick puppies; she helped get the Pet Store Disclosure Act passed in Illinois in 2010, requiring pet stores, shelters and rescues to post breeder information near an animal's cage; she helped get a pet lemon law passed in Illinois last year, entitling pet owners to a full refund if the animal dies within three weeks of purchase. The group's website (thepuppymillproject.org) lists where all Illinois pet stores purchase their animals.
But Meyers, 68, says there is much more to be done. She wants people to listen.
"It's about animal cruelty. It really is," she says. "When did we become a country that turns its back on cruelty?"
Meyers recently discussed her mission. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: The Chicago legislation passed 49-1. To get 49 politicians to agree on anything is amazing. What happened?
A: It was a win-win for everybody. Win for the city, win for consumers, win for their constituents, win for the taxpayers who pay every time a dog is euthanized. ... I don't think the aldermen comprehend how big this victory was for Chicago. The whole country was watching. This was the big prize. We're the Midwest. This is where the majority of dogs are coming from.
Q: Is there enough momentum to try for statewide legislation?
A: I'd like to see it go statewide. .... I don't understand why legislators would vote against this. Just from the information we have on what goes into these stores, how can you refuse the truth?
Q: What other initiatives are on your to-do list?
A: Honestly, my feeling is that the Department of Agriculture needs to do away with puppy mills. But the Department of Agriculture should not be overseeing companion animals. They don't have the manpower, they can't do the job. I think there should be a separate companion animal protection agency, someone to go into these mills and tell them, stop. I think one thing we'll be doing is tracking the mills in the state. We're going to concentrate on Illinois right now. We have a lot to do to get the mills under control.
Q: What prompted you to start The Puppy Mill Project?
A: I was on the board of a large no-kill shelter in Chicago. It was before a meeting. ... I had been reading about puppy mills, and I couldn't believe it. I'd jumped on a website and I was reading all this information, and it was bothering me. (At the meeting) we talked about it and I realized no one was going to touch this. Something just propelled me. I've always been for the underdog. This was so big, so monolithic. I contacted other people and that is how we started.
Q: How much of this is educating people?
A: Seventy percent of the population doesn't know what a puppy mill is. So we are basically an educational organization. But there is still peaceful protesting, putting up billboards.
Q: Do you see a difference in people's attitudes?
A: The winds of change are blowing. So far, 44 municipalities in the U.S. (including Chicago) have banned the sale of puppy mill animals. So it's coming. But there are an estimated 10,000 puppy mills.
Q: Animals from "puppy mills" have a reputation for having issues.
A: People see nice cute animals in the pet shop, but they didn't see them last Tuesday when they were shipped in, shivering, their hair matted. If they survive, OK; if not, they're written off as a business loss. ... A puppy mill is a hell. They are taken away (from their mothers) too young, they're not socialized, the dogs are inbred. It's indiscriminate breeding, not breeding dogs of any quality. They have physical problems, mental problems.
Q: And the buyers end up victims.
A: We have a stack of (letters from) people who have bought at pet stores; they reached out to us. One guy bought a bulldog for $3,000. Then he spent $4,500 on vet bills. Two weeks later the dog died. He put everything on credit. He's still paying for that dog.
Q: Where are the retailers on this?
A: The Puppy Mill Project sent out close to 200 letters the past two years to every store in the state that sold dogs. We said, let us help you be humane, we'll work with you and hook you up with a shelter in your area. We're not going to close your business, we're just going to change your business. Know how many responses we got? Zero.
Q: What about the pet stores that did change their approach?
A: Dog Patch Pet & Feed in Naperville (is) hooked up with a shelter in Tennessee. He stopped selling puppy mill dogs, and now he hopes to adopt out 500 shelter dogs this year. He sleeps at night. And his business is rocking.
Q: This is a consumer issue too.
A: Yes. When you buy a grapefruit you know where it came from. But in pet stores, they're scripted to tell you, "It's not from a puppy mill," "We have visited the breeder," "It has a USDA license." So all these kids selling dogs in pet stores, they have this script they follow. Meanwhile, in the back, the puppies have nebulizers (an electrical device that turns liquid medication into a mist that can be inhaled) and they're on all kinds of medication.
Q: If you end these breeding operations, what do these people do? It's their livelihood.
A: There's not a lot of money in puppy mills for these small breeders. A broker comes to them, filling orders for pet stores, and say they get $100 from a broker. He sells it to a pet store for $250. Then the pet store sells the puppy for $800 or more. If they have a fancy breed they'll charge more, like $3,000 for a bulldog.
Q: You've always been an animal lover, so you might have had an easier time finding a cause to support. But how do people know where to focus their time?
A: I can't speak for anybody else. But I listen to my gut. That's your soul. ... Just take one thing and be true to yourself.
Q: What's the best way for organizations to get their message to people?
A: Social media, social media, social media. I can't stress how important that is. Our future is there. Also, I annoy everybody. I engage people, talk to people. We have coffees in homes and we invite people in. Hopefully, people donate. They help. You get out there. You leaflet. It has worked for us.
Q: Raising funds for a group can be a challenge. Are there innovative ways to do that?
A: We're in the process of putting a coffee-table book together. ... We're photographing celebrities with whatever pet they have. There's one page with the photo, then a second page where we ask them to write a letter to the pet, what the pet means to them. It should be out in May. The funds raised will go to Millie's Mission (a Puppy Mill Project initiative), which pays for medical costs for rescued puppy mill dogs.
Q: You earlier mentioned protesting. Have those caused you problems?
A: I've been spit at, yes. We were marching in front of a pet store, and a father got all upset. "That's the worst thing I've ever seen! Put that sign down! Look what you're doing to my son!" And one of us said, "We're educating him." I think it's "Teach your children well." We have people who say, "I'm just going into the pet store to see the dogs." We tell them, "There are a lot of shelters where you can go and play with their dogs. Instead, play with them for an hour."
Q: As a pet lover, you must have had a favorite dog in your life.
A: Freddi. They told me she was a poodle and Maltese. She was a puppy mill dog, though I didn't know about puppy mills then. When I saw her she was stuck in the back of a cage, on sale. I looked at this dog and my mom says, "That is the ugliest dog I have ever seen." So I bought her. She was with me 12, 13 years. She is the driving force. I see her face, and I think of what she must have gone through.
Q: What do you do for relaxation?
A: I spend time with my (four) grandchildren, as much as I can. And I do a lot of walking.
Q: Any hobbies?
A: I'm a big film fan. And I must admit I'm a hockey addict.
The Puppy Mill Project will hold its annual fundraiser, Mothers in the Mills, May 10 at John Barleycorn, 149 W. Kinzie St. Ticket information is available at thepuppymillproject.org.
What inspires Cari Meyers? "The beach," she says. "That's where I get it all back. The sea gives me the peace I want."Copyright © 2015, CT Now