Walk in the door of Pet World and there's no question what season it is: You can buy a treat-filled stocking for your pooch or have your bunny's photo taken on "Santa Paws" lap.
But one thing you can't buy for the holidays is an animal.
The in-store cat shelter may be festooned with red bows and green garlands, but it shuts down 10 days before Christmas. Even sales of small creatures like birds and hamsters are forbidden as surprise gifts for loved ones.
Policies only a Scrooge would love?
Not really. At a time of the year when most stores make the bulk of their annual revenues, Pet World here on Route 9 is putting pet ethics over profits.
A small but growing number of pet stores nationwide are shunning the puppy-in-a-package approach to Christmas. They are following the advice of animal welfare and rescue groups that caution against selling or adopting pets during the holidays.
"People are running in 20 different directions, and on Christmas day, the new animal gets pushed to the side with 20 other presents," says Marie Antobenedetto, Pet World assistant manager. A new pet is a "member of the family," she says, and not everyone has time to appreciate this fact amid the bustle of festivities.
One survey shows that up to half of the pets sold or adopted during the holidays are returned or taken to a shelter.
Whatever takes away from an animal's proper and careful introduction into a family only increases the chance that the pet will be rejected, say animal rescue groups. If so, it will likely end up in an animal shelter, and perhaps be destroyed.
One shouldn't assume that the recipient of a gift pet is willing or able to make a long-term commitment to that animal, Ms. Antobenedetto says. Aunt Jill says she wants a cat, but will Uncle Fred mind cat hairs on his favorite chair - or shelling out money for a cage, neutering, food, and vet care for 10 to 20 years?
Few stores are as radical as Pet World. Yet, even the national chain superstore, PetsMart, is supporting - up to a point - the call for restraint. Each store hosts a "Love-A-Pet Adoption Center," which is run by a local animal shelter or rescue group. PetsMart encourages, but does not require, those groups not to display animals for adoption close to Christmas.
"Dogs and cats should not be given as gifts, because we want [potential owners] to think about their adoptions," says Stacie DeGennaro, program manager of PetsMart Charities, which oversees the adoption centers. "Otherwise, it just ends up with more animals being giving back to the shelters, which is something we don't want."
Unlike Pet World, however, PetsMart will sell small animals as gifts during Christmas season. Small animals have a shorter life span and are "not quite the commitment" of a dog or cat, Ms. DeGennaro says. Also, she contends, there's not an overpopulation problem with the small and furries.
Those who run shelters attest to an influx of unwanted animals after the gift-giving season. "We always get calls after the holidays from people who receive animals as Christmas gifts," says Holly Bukes of Dreampower Animal Rescue Foundation, in Colorado Springs, Colo. "We see a similar thing happen with rabbits after Easter."
But rejection can also happen further down the road in a pet's life. "As a puppy grows up, people discover it's no longer as cute and costs a lot of money to take care of," explains Robert Blizard at the Human Society of the United States, in Washington. Such rejection of animals, along with irresponsible breeding practices, is contributing to a pet overpopulation problem, he says. The society estimates that 8 million to 12 million dogs and cats enter animal shelters annually; half of that total are euthanized each year.
"There's still this romantic notion of putting a kitten in the stocking or a puppy in a box with a big bow on it and watching the kids' eyes light up," says Stephanie Frommer, project coordinator for shelters at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "But it teaches them that animals are objects that can be impulsively acquired."
A Christmas hiatus on pet-giving, however, needn't spoil the fun of pet ownership. Many shelters sell gift certificates. If parents want to get their child a cat, for instance, Ms. Antobenedetto suggests they purchase a collar, wrap it up, and place it under the Christmas tree. After the holiday hubbub dies down, the whole family should come in and the child can pick out his or her own pet.
At Pet World, all household members are required to be present, and a detailed adoption contract is then signed. "We're not just here to sell a product, but to educate people to make them understand these are breathing, living creatures and they should be treated that way."