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Speaking out for the dogs

Pam Sordyl pickets a pet store despite the snow. Photo provided (click for larger version)
February 23, 2011 - With a business degree and 10 years with General Motors, Pam Sordyl of Independence Township had no experience with activism before 2007.

"I wanted to go on one of those vacations where you go work on a farm that sounded cool," said Sordyl, 40. "I found one in Michigan."

The farm was also an animal-advocacy group, and ran a sanctuary for animals. They advocated against factory farming and other practices.

Their message hit home for Sordyl.

"I wanted to get involved, but not with farm animals," she said. "I thought I'd start with dogs."

In 2007, she signed up to participate in a protest against puppy mills, commercial kennels designed to maximize breeding.

"It was exciting," she said. "I thought, 'what am I doing out here on the road with a sign? Is it effective? Is it reaching people?' But I felt the need to do something."

Her next step in 2008 was to form her own group, Puppy Mill Awareness, using the website meetup.com.

"Meetup is a website to get people together, share information, and discuss issues," she said. "It's similar to Facebook. You can use it to get together for a wine tasting, anything. I used it for this."

Now with 369 members, the group protests at dozens of pet stores across the area, lobbies local and state government, produces and distributes leaflets, writes letters, and shares stories to get the word out.

"It's so rewarding," she said. "I feel I have an impact on the welfare of animals. We can't rescue every dog, but we can try make things better for many dogs."

As the group's leader, she had to learn how to talk to the media, especially television news.

"When we started, I had everyone else talk to the TV reporters," she said. "But last year, I started talking to them. I rehearsed a lot, and then they used the part where I stuttered."

She was more relaxed the second time, she said.

"It turned out nicely," she said. "It takes practice. I have to educate myself with the facts do my homework."

Her reseach showed several puppy store owners had no experience in the pet business.

"Unfortunately, with the economy, businesses go downhill and people open puppy shops with no background in selling dogs," she said. "They're not breeders."

Their efforts helped shut down an Australian Shepherd breeder near Lansing for poor living conditions for dogs, with a sentence of two years probation; pet store in Ingham County, owner sentenced to two years probation with ban on animals; Westland pet store after five months of protests every Saturday; backyard puppy mill in Mt. Morris for selling sick dogs; and a dog flipper in Macomb, sentenced to 20 months in jail.

They know they can't close every puppy-mill supplied store, so they also work to educate the public.

"It's cool to protest, but it should be the last resort the goal isn't to close the shops, it's to stop them from selling puppies," she said. "Educating the public is the most effective way to create change and improve the lives of millions of breeding dogs in commercial kennels."

They created a Michigan Kennel Study with the Humane Society of the United States, Michigan Pet Store Hall of Shame Watch List, and sick dog checklist and complaint form.

"The big concern is where the dogs come from the conditions for breeding dogs, the mothers," she said. "There are no Michigan puppy lemon laws to protect consumers, but there are many things that can be done."

Pet stores take advantage of people, especially those offering mixed breed "designer dogs."

"The dog could have a lot of problems," she said. "There are so many dogs in shelters, and cheaper too. It feels good to rescue a dog I don't know why anyone would pay $1,200 and not even have papers."

The group also participated in Humane Lobby Day in Lansing, Disaster Animal Response Training with HSUS in Huron Valley, Puppy Mill Awareness Day Protest at Genesee Valley Mall in Flint, and other events.

Lobbying efforts focus on bills recently introduced in Lansing to license and regulate large-scale commercial breeding in Michigan. The proposals would limit breeders to 50 intact dogs, and set standards including veterinary care, no wire floors, rest between breeding cycles, and regular exercise.

She and her husband, Patrick Portell, moved to Clarkston from Flint about four years ago.

"He's very supportive of my work he loves animals," she said.

They have three dogs, Marty, a foster dog from Huron Valley Humane Society, Leroy Brown, a stray found on side of road, and Maggie, rescued at the farm.

For more information, check www.meetup.com/puppymillawareness.

Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.
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