When I was young and stupid, I took a job in the small animal department of PJ’s Pet Store at Yorkdale Shopping Centre. I was really excited about earning extra pocket change and, even more than that, playing with cuddly animals all day long. Now, as someone older and wiser, I recall with disgust all the reasons I should have run screaming from that job. Like that, during my interview, I was told their motto was “The customer comes first” (translation: the animals come second). Like that, during the hot summer months, the guinea pigs and ferrets languished in poorly ventilated cages. Like that, during Easter, I was encouraged to push bunny sales, as though they were a type of candy or greeting card and not living things.
So I’m not surprised that news of the closing of PJ’s Pet Stores at the Promenade (above) and Yorkdale has been met by rejoicing from animals lovers (even as it will undoubtedly be missed by the families who flock there on weekends like it’s some kind of poor man’s zoo). But any “Hooray! PJ’s is out of business!” parties are probably premature.
There are numerous PJ’s still open and new locations in Markham and Vaughan, and the Canadian-owned chain is absolutely not going under, according to PJ’s spokesperson Stacey Halliday. “The fact is we’ve opened six stores this year and closed two,” says Halliday. “The closings just happened to be close together, in two high-profile malls, all while the economy continues to struggle.” The Promenade location is already papered up, and the Yorkdale location is set to close in March; Halliday says that the company chose not to renew their lease at the Promenade store and that Yorkdale is turning the currently PJ’s-occupied corner of the mall into a “high-end fashion corner” (perhaps Holt’s is expanding?), but that there are talks to reopen in Yorkdale sometime in the future.
Over the last four years PJ’s has expanded on their previous business model, opening nine “express” stores (seven in Ontario alone) that sell pet supplies and small animals but no dogs or cats. But Halliday notes this doesn’t necessarily mean a shift away from selling animals, as plans to open more superstores (yuck) are in the works. It’s the superstores that have most earned the company its reputation: in March 2002, two Yorkdale employees were charged with eight counts of animal cruelty by the Ontario SPCA, and PJ’s reluctance to say how they get their hands on puppies to sell has prompted protests claiming that they get them from puppy mills. Halliday denies that that’s the case—she told Torontoist that PJ’s works with a select group of breeders (though she didn’t give further specifics). “We’ve been operating for forty years, and we are a responsible company that is recognized by PIJAC,” an association that acts on behalf of the pet industry. “We obviously wouldn’t be recognized by them if we were using puppy mills.”
Ian McConachie, senior communicator for the Toronto Humane Society, says the THS has never investigated PJ’s as the pet stores stores are out of their jurisdiction, but notes that the Society is aware of complaints. “They’re not clear on where they get their puppies, never have been. When you ask where they get their puppies from, they are evasive and not willing to be straightforward. Sometimes their records are incomplete.” “A reputable breeder,” McConachie says, “would likely never sell dogs to a pet store anyway. It’s cheapest for pet stores to get their dogs from puppy mills, because they are treated like a commodity and not a living thing. But if they’re moving away from selling dogs and cats, then we think that is a step in the right direction. And if customers are moving away from purchasing animals from pet stores, then we’re very pleased to hear that.” So if you want to live the dream of one day seeing all PJ’s stores shut down for good, take his advice and get a pet from a shelter or qualified breeder instead or make like the Obamas and adopt a rescue dog.
Photos by David Fleischer/Torontoist.