Buy or adopt?

Where you get your pet is an important decision—and a big controversy

Published November 19 2007


Never mind that Mike Mannarino of Uptown once adopted a dog from a downtown shelter and volunteered his time at a rescue foundation. When he decided he wanted another puppy, Mannarino went to Pocket Puppies, a Lincoln Park store that sells only small dogs from breeders, and paid nearly $1,000 for his Chihuahua, Moxie.

Despite some criticism for getting a "designer dog," Mannarino said the process of getting a breeder puppy was smoother than when he adopted a Belgian Malinois from the Anti-Cruelty Society in 2000 because that dog required training for separation anxiety and food-guarding issues.

"Adopting a dog is usually a lot more work than going through a reputable breeder," said Mannarino, 29, adding: "A thousand dollars out of my pocket is a lot of money, but $1,000 over time—I think it was worth it."

People who bought their pets from a breeder said they got what they were looking for—but at a hefty price. Like Mannarino, these pet owners say they have experienced some backlash for getting a haute dog instead of one from a shelter.

"When he was a little bit smaller, if my girlfriend was walking him or holding him, sometimes she would get the whole stereotype that she got the dog for an accessory, which totally isn't true," Mannarino said.

While these custom canines fetch top dollar, shelter adoptions also are on the rise, according to Chicago-area shelter officials, who credit the attention from the large-scale pet rescue operation after Hurricane Katrina. Pet adoption recently commanded the spotlight when Ellen DeGeneres tearfully recounted on her talk show how a rescue group reclaimed the dog she adopted because DeGeneres gave the dog to her hairdresser.

Chicago dog and cat owners who adopt their pets from shelters say they are helping save animals' lives, though some of these owners told RedEye that the luck of the draw netted them an animal with undiscovered health or behavioral problems.

When she wanted a cat last year, Nikkie Hartmann of Albany Park went to the Tree House Animal Foundation, a non-profit cat shelter that charges a $75 adoption fee. Hartmann said adopting her domestic shorthair Bennie was "overall a good experience," though the cat experienced some health problems after she brought it home.

Bennie had six teeth pulled because of chronic periodontal disease, Hartmann said. The medical bills cost about $1,000, she said.

"You really never know what you're going to get," Hartmann, 29, said. "I would definitely ask more questions next time."

Tree House executive director David DeFuniak acknowledged that "part of [Bennie's] exam wasn't as thorough as it could be. We responded to it as soon as we heard about this and hopefully satisfied this adopter's concerns."

DeFuniak said the shelter, which has locations in Bucktown and Uptown, has since hired an operations manager and a director of veterinary services to give more thorough treatment to the 500 cats it places in homes each year.

"We really pride ourselves in being efficient and thorough with the exams so cats are healthy when they are adopted," DeFuniak said. He hopes prospective pet owners will adopt from shelters instead of go to breeders because "there's not a need to breed more" animals.

Animal shelter officials and store owners that deal only with bred dogs say they target different types of prospective pet owners. Stores that carry dogs from breeders tend to lure prospective owners interested in specialty breeds. These animals can cost hundreds of dollars, and stores that received their animals from registered breeders should be able to provide paperwork showing the animal's lineage and medical history.

When Yen Shi Chin visited a dog breeder five years ago, she forked over $500 to bring home an all-white American Huskie, which she named Hugo. To her dismay, Hugo did not play well with her other two dogs, so Chin said she gave Hugo away to a friend.

Since that incident, Chin said she has avoided buying a pet from a breeder because it "seems to be exorbitant and it's hard to tell if [the dog is from] a puppy mill," a large-scale dog-breeding facility that operates in substandard conditions. When she was interested in getting another animal, Chin said she went to the Anti-Cruelty Society in River North and adopted two cats, Rasheed and Fatty.

"You kind of feel like you're helping the animals out because otherwise they wouldn't have a home," said Chin, 29, of Wicker Park.

Prospective owners who go to shelters tend to be flexible in their needs, said shelter officials, who emphasize a vigorous screening process that attempts to match pets—usually strays and owner giveaways—with the owner's lifestyle.

"I think shelters tend to have a good sense of what the animal's personality is, what its needs are, who it's going to get along with," said Marcia Coburn, president of Red Door Animal Shelter in West Rogers Park. "We're doing it for the love of animals. We're not doing it to make money."

The Red Door houses cats, dogs and rabbits, most of which come from other shelters, Chicago Animal Care and Control and owners giving up their pets. The shelter charges a $200 adoption fee, which covers spaying and neutering, a veterinary exam, a microchip for locating the pet, up-to-date vaccinations and treatment for fleas, heartworm and parasites, Coburn said.

"I do think more people are aware of how many great animals there are in animal shelters," Coburn said.

Nevertheless, Pocket Puppies owner Lane Boron said he never has problems placing puppies into homes, but he recommends prospective pet owners check out shelters first to see if they carry small breeds. Boron said he's heard a few stories of people finding these dogs in shelters.

"If you can find a teacup puppy at a shelter, certainly go and do it. I don't believe we compete with shelters," Boron said. At Pocket Puppies, which gets all of its dogs from breeders, toy breed dogs start at $950 while teacup dogs start at $1,450, Boron said.

Boron said he personally visits all of the breeders and keeps a list of breeders he won't use if they work with puppy mills. He said he provides his customers with information about the dog's breed.

Mannarino said Moxie, his Pocket Puppies dog, has fit in well with his other dog. Mannarino said if he gets another dog, he will seek out a bred dog, despite criticism he may endure.

"It's a lot of money, but I looked at as how long the dog would bring happiness and joy into [my] life," he said.