A Champion of Animal Rights

Posted on 16 December 2011

by Karl Grossman

He started in high school working to protect animals, and as Jon Cooper ends his tenure as a Suffolk County legislator, that’s been a major legacy.

A Cooper measure creating the nation’s first “rating program” for pet stores was enacted last month. Mr. Cooper wanted more: a county law clamping down on “puppy mills,” substandard, dog-breeding facilities that send puppies to Suffolk.

“My original proposal was to ban the sale of puppies from these puppy mills in pet stores here,” he noted last week. But, he was told, state authority “pre-empted” the county from such legislation. This, he said, is despite prohibitions aimed at “puppy mills” in localities all over the nation.

“So I came up with the idea for a rating system to use the free market to steer people to responsible breeders.”

A “Puppy and Dog Protection Rating Program” is to be set up, administered by a “Pet Store Rating Board.” Among its members will be representatives of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, and the county’s consumer affairs commissioner.

It’s a voluntary program in which pet stores in Suffolk that sell puppies would post the ratings they receive from the board. The ratings will also be on the county’s website.

The criteria for the ratings include whether the store is deemed to be obtaining puppies “from humane breeders … whether the store provides accurate documentation of health certificates … how many sick or dead puppies were returned to the store in the past year.”

The plan will “assist pet-buyers and also reward pet stores which take the time and effort necessary to ensure their animals are sourced only from responsible breeders,” he says.

Not being able to go as far as wanted in protecting animals isn’t new for Mr. Cooper. When a three-year old dog named Zephyr was crushed to death by a steel leghold trap while hiking with his owner, Gail Murphy of Sag Harbor, in the Long Pond Greenbelt in Bridgehampton in 2006, he sought to have “inhumane trapping methods” banned in Suffolk.

Suffolk County was told that the state pre-empted such legislation. Mr. Cooper had to settle for a ban on the use of steel leghold traps on county property. He pointed to the power of the hunting lobby in Albany as causing a protective stance on such traps.

Still, in pushing for animal rights, Mr. Cooper was able to gain passage of a county law last year that established a county online registry with the names of persons convicted of animal abuse crimes. It’s the first such “Animal Abuse Offenders Registry” in the U.S. This month it was amended to provide that the names of offenders remain on the list for 10 instead of the original five years. A Cooper measure passed this year requires that pet stores “check the names of potential animal purchasers” against this registry and not sell to them.

Earlier Cooper bills include a “Safe Pets and Families Program” that has the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals set up shelters for pets of domestic violence victims, and a “Disaster Animal Rescue Plan” for pet shelters to be established during emergencies.

Mr. Cooper, of Lloyd Harbor, says his interest in animals goes back to being “raised in a home known as the ‘neighborhood zoo.’ Every time people found a stray dog or cat, my parents took it in. Our house was considered a safe refuge for animals. Also, my sister and I had rabbits, hamsters, chameleons, mice, birds.”

In high school, he launched the “Syosset Save Our Seals Society” challenging the slaughter of baby seals in Canada. And as a student at Duke University, he formed the National Committee for Humane Trapping to outlaw steel leghold traps.

Because of term limits precluding a Suffolk legislator from serving more than six consecutive two-year terms, he’s out after 12 years at year’s end.

But he has made political connections far beyond Suffolk having been the 2008 Long Island campaign chair for Barak Obama. He has developed a close relationship with the president. Indeed, he was with him at several functions in recent weeks, one at The White House.

A federal position is a possibility if Mr. Cooper wants it.

If he decides to do that, he could be in a position to develop policy to help animals that is not “pre-empted” by a higher level of government.

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