By Haidee Chu, THE CITY
City leaders this week took another step toward banning the sale of guinea pigs within the five boroughs.
“Guinea pigs should be adopted, not sold in pet stores,” said City Councilmember Lynn Schulman (D-Queens), who chairs the health committee and held up a guinea pig doll during the committee vote earlier in the day to express her support. “You can see I’m touching this — most guinea pigs you can’t touch. They’re very sensitive.”
As THE CITY previously reported, animal shelters and rescue groups have for months hailed the bill as a measure to deter the impulse purchase of guinea pigs, which spiked in popularity during the pandemic.
Many owners, they said, have subsequently surrendered their furry, four-legged rodents as they found their care burdensome, and as the city began to inch toward normalcy. This, advocates say, has in turn overwhelmed under-resourced animal shelters.
“We’re still getting calls all the time from people who are finding guinea pigs abandoned in city parks,” said Allie Taylor, president of Bushwick-based advocacy nonprofit Voters for Animal Rights, which pushed lawmakers to support the bill and expressed enthusiasm for the committee’s support. “It could not come soon enough.”
Katy Hansen, spokesperson for the Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC), the city’s municipal animal shelter system, told THE CITY that the influx of abandoned guinea pigs has yet to slow down since a Council hearing about the bill in December.
ACC has taken in 188 guinea pigs so far this year, Hansen said — meaning that, in a little more than three months of 2023, numbers are already close to the approximately 250 piggies it received annually before the pandemic. It took in a total of about 750 of these rodents last year, Hansen added — more than half of which she said came from owners who have purchased them from pet stores.
“It’s crazy,” she told THE CITY. “We’ve had to buy housing,” she added — referring to guinea pig towers that can cost about $5,000 apiece.
Councilmember Joann Ariola (R-Queens), however, expressed reservations about the approach of an outright ban as one of the bill’s opponents during Tuesday morning’s committee vote, in which seven members voted for it and two against.
“It seems like an overreaction to an increase in guinea pig intakes by shelters during the pandemic, when so many people were abandoning pets or giving them up for adoption,” Ariola said during the committee vote. “This was likely temporary and could be better addressed by an adoption and awareness campaign.”
Mike Bober, president and CEO of the Pet Advocacy Network, which represents pet shop owners, also suggested that the uptick in shelter intakes merely reflect a pandemic increase in pet ownership that may correct itself.
“I would never want to diminish the importance of any animal’s life,” Bober told THE CITY. “But when you look at the population of New York City, and when you look at the intake numbers, and those intake numbers don’t even leave the hundreds … it raises the question of the scope of the issue.”
Partners or Adversaries
In a December Council hearing on the issue, Bober said the stores also shared concerns about the well-being of guinea pigs and the need for pet-owner education.
“There should be an opportunity for pet stores to operate as partners in pet care with the shelter and rescue community, rather than as antagonists or, you know, as somebody who needs to be reined in,” he told THE CITY Monday.
Pet shop owners have expressed “robust interest” in discussing alternative solutions with the bill’s advocates, he added, and have since December’s hearing reached out to the bill’s advocates to no avail. Its sponsors and supporters, he said, “had no interest in having a dialogue.”
“In some cases, those requests fell on deaf ears. In other cases, they were outright refused,” Bober told THE CITY. “There was very much a presumption and assumption that this was something that needed to be done to the pet store, not with the pet stores.”
He added that pet stores represent a “great source of information,” and are spaces where guinea pigs can be showcased and offered up for adoption. A number of shops are already willing to be facilitators of adoptions, Bober said — which he added could ease up pressure on the shelters.
“It’s entirely possible that this wouldn’t have worked, or couldn’t have worked. But the truth is that it was never even entertained,” Bober said. “And that’s the frustrating part.”
When asked about conversations between advocates and pet shop owners, Hansen of ACC told THE CITY she had “no comment.”
One chain pet store employee who spoke to THE CITY on Tuesday said she owned a guinea pig herself, but agreed they should be restricted.
“It’s a lot of work, especially for a child: food, toys — if you want good quality food, it’s expensive. When you first get one, you’re gonna drop a lot of money,” said the woman who didn’t want her name published because she wasn’t authorized to speak for her store. She said she supports the bill because “they should make it harder to sell so not just anyone buys them.”
The bill will now be sent to Mayor Eric Adams and would go into effect 30 days after he signs it — or automatically become law if he doesn’t act within a month.