Dan Digiacomo knows the pet store business. He’s been in it for nearly four decades. Dan is the owner of Russo’s Pet Experience, which has been a fixture for decades in the Fashion Island retail center.
In an exclusive interview with the Newport Beach Independent last week, Digiacomo, who also operates a separate Russo’s store in the Irvine Spectrum Center, spoke extensively about his business and the decision last week by the Irvine Company to ban the sale of dogs and cats in its retail centers.
Digiacomo said he was blind-sided by the decision not to renew the leases on his stores when they expire, and believes Irvine Company senior executives, including Chairman Donald Bren, bowed to direct pressure from animal rights activists who have been trying to drive him and other pet stores out of business for years.
The Irvine Company last week acknowledged it had decided to quit leasing at its retail centers to stores that sell dogs or cats, “effective immediately.”
Irvine Company spokesperson Erin Freeman said this week that the company’s decision came as it was in discussion with Irvine city officials about a proposed city ordinance to ban the sale of dogs and cats.
“This process has included extensive dialogue among interested parties,” Freeman said. “As part of that process, the Irvine Company has decided to phase out the sale of dogs and cats from its neighborhood, community and regional retail centers. The Company’s decision is based on retail trends and what is in the best interest of our retail centers, business owners and shoppers.”
Digiacomo said this week he was “shocked and taken aback” by the Irvine Company’s decision.
Digiacomo claimed the Irvine Company had supported him until very recently, including relocating his store at Fashion Island earlier this year to a much larger space in the center. According to Digiacomo, part of the cost of relocating and building his new store to expand his retail sale of dogs and cats and other animals was paid for by the Irvine Company itself.
Asked about this, Freeman said, “Construction of Russo’s new FI store began long before the City of Irvine started its process of evaluating retail sales of dogs and cats.”
Digiacomo says in meetings with company and city officials over the past year, the Irvine Company had supported his business against attacks by animal rights activists. He believes the company did an about-face after extensive lobbying and threats of stepped-up public protests by the animal rights activists.
An internal Irvine Company letter obtained by the Independent, dated April 5, 2011, from the senior general manager of the Irvine Spectrum Center informs two Irvine Company senior vice presidents, Michael LeBlanc and Russ Lowe, that “Russo’s Pets at Irvine Spectrum Center has provided a very popular service to Irvine residents since 2002. Their policies and procedures are subject to California law and are strictly monitored and enforced. There is no evidence that puppies are procured from an illegitimate source or that they are mistreated … We intend to renew said lease.”
Three months later, in July, LeBlanc later sent a letter to city officials saying the company had decided to ban the sale of dogs and cats at its retail properties. Informed sources familiar with the process as it took place, say the company’s “understanding” of the issue “evolved” throughout the process and resulted in the change in policy.
Digiacomo says he had the Irvine Company’s support until letters supporting the proposed sales ban began flooding in to Bren and other senior executives this summer. Digiacomo claims that threat of controversy prompted the Irvine Company to withdraw its previous support of his pet store business.
The Independent has obtained some of those letters and they clearly show that animal rights activists and advocacy groups sought to convince Bren and senior Irvine Company executives that they faced a public-relations choice.
Gail Lewis, a local Irvine resident and animal rights activist, wrote to Bren, “I am sure you are aware there are ongoing demonstrations at Russo’s every week end … Do you really want the public to think that you support puppy mills? I think not. Please do not try to stop the Mayor and City Council from banning the sale of puppy mill dogs. It would do more for Irvine Co’s public image to embrace the change.”
Digiacomo says the commercial breeders he buys his puppies and kittens from are not puppy mills and that they care for and treat their dogs humanely. He provided the Independent with extensive information he says he previously provided the Irvine Company about the breeders he buys his dog and cats from.
The Independent has reviewed that information directly, and in it Digiacomo says, “Russo Spectrum Pets does not support “’puppy mills.’ We feel that they are a blight on the pet industry. … We trust our breeders and stand behind our kennels.”
Digiacomo says he personally has visited the kennels he buys from and they are “clean, well established family run businesses that care about the animals they sell.”
When asked if Bren had personally been involved in the decision, Digiacomo said he didn’t know directly, but that “Mr. Bren does not like negative PR.”
Whether Digiacomo plans to continue running a pet store selling dog and cats in Newport Beach or elsewhere once his lease runs out at Fashion Island, Digiacomo says he’s keeping all his options open.
In the meantime he’s been collecting signatures on a petition for months from customers opposed to the proposed ban on dog and cat sales in Irvine. He says he has hundreds of signatures he plan to present to the Irvine City Council that show that the general public does not support the proposed ban that would close his Irvine pet store for good.