Reports of dismal conditions at a Roseville pet store have the city aiming toward a ban on the retail sale of animals from commercial breeders.

Animal welfare activists say that would be a first for Minnesota, and a big symbolic moment as they seek to bring public attention to the realities behind the once-innocent world of “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?”

Owners buying from breeders defend the practice as a legitimate option, and say they fear that a single city’s ban could send shock waves well beyond its borders and threaten their livelihoods as well.

A store at the HarMar Mall claims it was unfairly maligned by sensationalized accounts of what a government inspector found there earlier this year. Talk of a “dead baby hedgehog rotting in a cage,” the owner said, refers to a dime-sized offspring missed in a cleanup after an animal abandoned her litter.

Roseville City Council members say they would not lightly move to eliminate the business model of a long-standing retailer in their city, which includes some of the busiest shopping districts in the metro area. But they add that the complaints stretch back further than just this year.

“There is potential for a long-term business to no longer be here,” said Mayor Dan Roe. “But we still have to do what’s best for the community.”

Pet stores increasingly have moved away from the “puppy mill” model and toward helping customers connect with rescue animals instead, said Ann Olson, executive director of Animal Folks Minnesota. But she believes as many as half a dozen stores statewide still sell animals from breeders, she said.

Kathy Mock, chief government affairs and community engagement officer for the Animal Humane Society, said she’s not aware of a move like the one Roseville is contemplating being taken in Minnesota. But it has happened in roughly 200 cities nationally, she said.

Roseville has four pet stores, but only one uses commercial breeders. While an ordinance hasn’t yet been drafted, the tenor of City Hall discussions of the issue in recent months is one of determination to push for change — so much so that City Attorney Mark Gaughan has cautioned the council against the pitfalls of creating criminal penalties.

“When you do that,” he told council members last week, “you are pursuing taking away someone’s liberties and you are held to the highest standard of proof in the world.” Meanwhile, he said, a busy court will “put that case at the bottom of its docket.”

‘Handwriting on the wall’

The action stems from an April visit by a federal animal inspector to the HarMar PetShop, which resulted in a June headline in the weekly newspaper City Pages that spoke of “Sick dogs, hamsters missing eyes, and a decomposing hedgehog.”

Gary Papineau, the store’s owner, has given city officials a point-by-point response, noting that one pet in question was his own and not for sale, and that a blind hamster was otherwise OK and the kind of pet he often gives to kids for free.

“Most of the official issues had to do with rodents,” he said Friday, “yet the issue with the city has become so-called ‘puppy mills,’ which is an unfair concept. I stand by all the kennels I work with.”

The coverage led city officials to consider their role in oversight, especially since, as Council Member Lisa Laliberte told her colleagues in September, informal complaints about the business had been voiced before.

Most Roseville council members are pet owners, and last week they came down firmly on the side of a rescue animal option as the only acceptable one, partly given the limits on their ability to do inspections.

Said Council Member Tammy McGehee: “I want to terminate puppy mills coming into the city and assist Mr. Papineau in rounding the corner toward having a successful business” using rescue animals.

Papineau said he isn’t sure if he would in fact close down and move elsewhere. “Changing my business model could be another option. No ordinance has been passed yet, but clearly the handwriting is on the wall,” he said.

Either move, he said, would come with a touch of resentment.

“You have stores in this city selling clothes made by little kids overseas,” Papineau said, “and no one is talking about banning them. But pets are close to people’s hearts and I know that’s the way it is — they’re close to my heart too, and I have hundreds of happy customers over many years.”