DOWNERS GROVE – Growing up, Jonathan Berning and his older brother, Justin, used to hang out at their father’s pet stores. They often helped out with small tasks here and there such as watching over the animals, caring for them and cleaning out their kennels.
For Jonathan, seeing people pile up in his family’s pet stores around the holidays is still one of his fondest memories. In fact, that single memory embodies Happiness is Pets, which has grown into five locations across the Chicago area in the past three decades. In DuPage County, Happiness is Pets has locations in Lombard and Naperville.
Jonathan said the store’s name was inspired by an old cartoon, “Happiness is ...” and his father thought it was a no-brainer to put two and two together.
“It was just like happiness is pets,” Jonathan said.
But the fate of one of the Bernings’ pet stores now lies in the hands of the Downers Grove Village Council. Since October, village commissioners have considered a proposed ordinance that would only allow the retail sale of dogs, cats and rabbits obtained from an animal rescue organization, animal care facility or humane society.
The Village Council is expected to vote on the ordinance at its March 5 meeting.
Until then, all Jonathan and Justin can do is wait.
Happiness is Pets’ puppies come from licensed commercial breeders, a major criticism of many area residents, animal activists and community leaders.
“No reputable breeder will have their animals sold in a pet store,” said DuPage County Board Member Brian Krajewski, who also serves as chairman of the board’s animal services committee. “So, there is no argument.”
The ordinance puts Happiness is Pets in Downers Grove in jeopardy – unless the Berning brothers decide to change their business model and comply with the ruling. If not, they will be forced to close.
Although Happiness is Pets has called Downers Grove home for nearly 20 years, Jonathan and Justin moved their business to a new storefront on Ogden Avenue in July 2018.
“It’s pretty terrifying,” Jonathan said about the thought of closing shop.
The local ordinance is an extension of Senate Bill 2280, which bans the retail sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in DuPage and Will counties. Krajewski and former state Rep. David Olsen have been at the forefront of the conversation with the hope of saving animals from cruelty. Olsen is now a candidate for mayor of Downers Grove.
If approved, the ordinance aims to protect dogs, cats and rabbits from abuse and neglect. It prevents them from being raised in unsanitary, mill-like conditions that could lead them to develop health and behavioral issues, according to the ordinance.
“They say if we eliminate pet stores, we eliminate puppy mills,” Jonathan said. “There’s just no connection. All it’s going to do is shut down local business – and you’re still going to have [puppy mills].”
While Jonathan maintained that his Indiana-based breeders are licensed by the USDA, he and Justin hold them to an even higher standard to ensure their puppies’ health and well-being. That includes more opportunity to exercise and play, grooming services and veterinary check-ups, they said.
And when it comes to choosing who to work with, Justin follows his own guidelines. He said he can usually tell just by a phone call if he wants to take the next step and meet the breeder in person.
If the breeder is single and does not have a family, that person is off the list. If the individual shows Justin even the slightest hesitation when asked why he or she wants to become a breeder, that person is no longer considered.
“I want them to have a family,” said Justin, who pays weekly visits to his breeders. “I want them to have kids. I want this to be a family adventure for them where they do it together.”
At Happiness is Pets, dog owners are given a four-year warranty after buying their puppies. That means if a puppy is diagnosed with a life-threatening congenital defect by a veterinarian within four years of the dog’s birth date and Happiness is Pets is notified within that time period, the puppy will be replaced. Jonathan said that warranty exceeds the state of Illinois’, which only accounts for one year.
The warranty, however, only applies to pet stores, not breeders, which ultimately leaves owners and their dogs in danger.
“You’re going to have these consumers that get those puppies, [and] they’re going to be completely unprotected in the event something does happen to them,” Jonathan said.
And where will consumers go if pet stores are closed?
“You’re going to divert them to a black market,” Jonathan said. “You’re going to remove the only regulated source for puppies, which is pet stores, and you’re to drive them to online sales, you know, Craigslist, stuff like that.”
As for teaming up with area animal shelters or rescue organizations, Jonathan put it simply.
“They don’t need me,” he said, noting the system and method they have in place. Also, his facilities can only caters to puppies, not dogs of different sizes. His kennels are not big enough for older animals.
Krystle King, the Bernings’ veterinarian, shared most of Jonathan’s sentiments. King has been practicing veterinary medicine since 2012 and has owned her practice in Indiana for the past three years.
As a vet, she is aware of the “horror stories” that many people such as Krajewski have heard or seen about puppy mills. In fact, King witnessed them herself and became weary and skeptical of working with breeders in general.
Through her colleagues, she knew changes to the industry had been made. So, she went to see them for herself.
“Most kennels I go to are bright, well-lit, [have] good ventilation [and] tiled floors,” she said, noting how different those are from the “dark, cramped” ones that people think of. “I mean, it’s stainless steel bars, but the cages are very open. Some play music in there or have some type of scented candle or diffuser. I mean, it’s all very nice.”
For the Bernings, King visits their list of breeders and performs routine puppy exams. She also partners with local animal shelters in the area. King said she works with “everyone across the board” and has a professional and personal understanding that allows her to label herself as “not totally pro-breeder or anti.”
“The real problem lies that people have such a strong opinion without doing their research and realizing that if you do close down these stores, what’s the after-effect?” she asked.
“I think a lot of people think ‘closed pet store’ – easy answer.” she continued. “Go to your shelters. Adopt. Everything is fine. But I don’t think that’s how things would work.”
For the Bernings, the fight to not only save their family’s store but to prove their reputation have been the toughest part of their journey. It has stripped away from their hard work and created a cloud of doubt, anxiety and worry of what is to come, they said.
“It’s not just a livelihood,” Justin said. “It’s a way of life. What would I do? This is what I’m really good at – what I really enjoy. What else would I do?”