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.