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Hours before the storefront security gate rattles open, Kristin Smith has guzzled her black coffee, cleaned the kennels and released her puppies to pad around the last pet shop in the Twin Cities.

Children inside the Northtown Mall in Blaine press their faces to the front window of Four Paws and a Tail, coming nose-to-nose with tiny French bulldogs — and a national controversy over her business model of selling dogs that come from commercial breeders.

Pet stores like Smith’s that deal in dogs and cats are a dying breed, closing one by one from St. Paul and Roseville to Shakopee amid the rise in online pet sales and mounting animal welfare concerns.

The states of California and Maryland and more than 280 cities are cracking down on such stores, including three cities in Minnesota that have enacted pet retail bans in the past two years.

Though now free of pet shops, St. Paul adopted its own ordinance in December, joining Eden Prairie and Roseville. Smith was there, the lone voice defending businesses like hers as they fade away.

On this day it’s Tuesday, which means the protesters aren’t in the parking lot corner where they have stood with signs on Sunday after Sunday over the past year.

The all-female staff at Four Paws and a Tail knows to call mall security if there’s trouble, and Smith is no stranger to police calls, threats and ugly encounters. There are those who say her store props up an ugly industry.

But Smith says the business she’s run successfully for decades speaks for itself.

Mounting concerns

Animal welfare groups say there’s good reason why brick-and-mortar pet shops are in steady decline, describing them as the face for puppy and kitten mills.

Such mass breeding facilities, they argue, jeopardize animals and consumers alike, with animals often suffering from excessive breeding and confinement and families left to grieve over sickly pets.

Bans like the one in St. Paul are meant to encourage stores to host adoption events with animal shelters and rescues instead. “It is an ordinance that reflects our values as a city,” St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker said at the public hearing. “We are a caring city. We are a humane city.”

Therein lies the rub for pet shop owners like Smith, 56, who bristle at the idea that all pet stores are a pipeline for inhumane practices.

“We love dogs, and we love what we do,” she said. “The last thing we want to do is be underhanded or sneaky.”

Both sides point to federal and state safeguards in place but disagree on whether they work. Minnesota doesn’t license pet stores, but certain laws offer consumers recourse if a pet store puppy gets sick. Federal and state licenses and inspections instead focus on the commercial dog and cat breeders that supply the stores.

Animal welfare groups say such oversight still commonly fails to protect animals. Claims by shop owners that they do not buy from bad breeders can be tough to confirm. Privacy provisions, for instance, shield the state’s Board of Animal Health inspection reports from public view.

But those in the pet industry insist that dog and cat retail bans remove from the market one of the most regulated sources of pets.

“There are internet and rogue operators out there,” said Josh Jones of the Virginia-based trade association Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. “These bans drive the sale of these purebred animals underground where there are no regulations.”

Animal welfare advocates advise families looking for a certain breed to go directly to a breeder for a pet and use firsthand observations to root out the good from the bad.

“A reputable breeder would not sell through pet stores,” said Ann Olson, founder and executive director of Animal Folks, a Minnesota-based animal protection organization. “A reputable breeder wants to know who the person is who is taking in that animal.”

‘Problem after problem’

Some shop owners have cut ties with dog kennels and cat breeders without prodding from City Hall.

Angel Duratti, owner of Angel’s Pet World in Hudson and River Falls, Wis., “went humane” in 2010, getting out of puppy sales and partnering with rescue groups for adoption events instead.

It was a decision born of sick puppies, sky-high vets’ bills and shifting scruples.

Duratti sold her first pups in 2004, using a breeder recommended by Four Paws and a Tail, she said. It went smoothly at first.

Then, she said, illnesses hit in what felt like a deluge of kennel cough, genetic problems and parvo outbreaks. The store’s last batch of dogs in 2010 survived only through feeding tube nourishment and exacting care at Duratti’s home, she said.

“It was problem after problem,” she said. Then came the decision: “Personally and morally, we can’t do this anymore.”

Duratti announced her change of heart with a full-page ad in the newspaper, “scared to death” of the public reaction. The risk paid off, she said, as she’s watched her customer base grow since.

A satisfying job

Smith’s shop in Blaine often stirs to life by 7 a.m. The store, a Northtown fixture since the 1970s, was a blur of floppy ears and clicking paws Tuesday as puppies careened from one corner to another during their pre-opening romp. Young workers swapped out shredded newsprint lining the kennels, swept floors and lit a pumpkin spice pet odor candle.

“I have my reservations about how a lot of the pet stores are run myself,” Smith said. “That’s why we don’t do it that way.”

As Siberian huskies scampered near her feet, Smith spoke of the pains she takes to do right by her conscience and her customers. Around midmorning, she handed a Bichon frise covered in soft curls to a young woman who had lost her father and the family dog a month ago.

“It’s a really satisfying job some days,” Smith said.

And the breeders?

She declined to say who they are, citing concerns about harassment from the same kind of critics who’ve threatened to steal her dogs and torch her shop. But it’s information that the store discloses on a given puppy at the time of purchase, she said.

A third of her sales, she said, are fueled by repeats and referrals. Customers include mall staffers and Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan, who said there’s no current effort to enact a pet retail ban in Blaine or bring public pressure against the shop where he bought a poodle named Nipper some 20 years ago.

“If there’s something wrong, I’d hear about it,” he said.

In St. Paul last month, Smith was the first speaker at the public hearing about the city’s proposed ban, and the only opponent. About a dozen supporters of the ordinance came after her, including rescue groups, veterinarians and a woman clutching a framed photo of a scared white dog she adopted from a puppy mill.

“I definitely do not think that pet stores are the bad guys,” Council Member Noecker said at the meeting. “I think puppy mills and kitten mills are the bad guys, and that is who this ordinance is targeting.”