BLAINE, Minn. — Kristin Smith feels like the last dog standing.

Her store is the only one left in Minnesota that sells puppies — at a time when demand for puppies is soaring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What people want is small, non-shedding, family-friendly dogs,” said Smith, over the yips and yelps inside Four Paws and a Tail in Blaine. “And they want puppies.”

Her customers know the retail puppy business may be at the end of the line. “It’s tragic,” said Bob Espeseth, of Mounds View, who bought a “Yorkie chon” (Yorkshire terrier/bichon frise mix) puppy from Smith.

The business across the state has been shut down largely by animal-welfare protesters and local regulations. St. Paul, Eden Prairie and Roseville have banned pet-store puppies.

The problem, according to the Humane Society of the United States, is that most pet-store dogs come from puppy mills, defined as “an inhumane high-volume dog-breeding facility that churns out puppies for profit.”

The protests against puppy mills have been successful by focusing not on the dog breeders, but on pet stores. In fact, it’s been so successful that there’s only one place left for protesters to go — Smith’s small pet store.

They gather on Sundays on a nearby corner. A posting on the website meetup.com for a Minnesota Animal Rights Meet-up shows protesters carrying signs saying, “Boycott Four Paws and a Tail” and “Puppy mill dogs sold at Northtown Mall.”

Never, said Smith.

“These are puppies from good kennels, all licensed and inspected,” she said. “What could be better?”

Mall manager Paula Mueller said the protesters did not check to see if the store, indeed, buys dogs from puppy mills.

Smith visits her breeders regularly, and says can vouch for their reputations. She won’t reveal the names of those breeders, for fear they will be hit by protesters. But she does tell buyers of a puppy where it came from.

Smith’s customers say they are bothered by the fact that they could still buy a puppy from puppy mill, or any of the estimated 10,000 breeders nationwide. But they could not buy the same dog, from the same breeder, through a pet store — except for Smith’s store.

On a recent morning, a line of customers waited to get into the shop.

They entered the happiest tail-waggingest place in the state. Over the yelps, another sound grew, the two-toned “Aw-www!” of someone encountering serious cuteness: “Oh …” “Aw, cute!” “Hey, cutie!”

They seemed undeterred by the price tags of $1,500 to $3,500 per pooch.

As she sidestepped a boy apparently glued to the rat terrier cage, Smith said that the COVID-isolated customers come from across the metro area. “We are serving 3 million people,” said Smith.

“People are working from home. Their kids are home. Sometimes people are just lonely,” she said.

Puppies are essential in times of the pandemic, said mall manager Mueller, who bought a beagle puppy at the store. “Puppies keep you sane. For me, they are ad-hoc psychologists,” she said.

Behind her, Smith let out the signature sound –“Aw!” She was gazing at the “teddy bear” puppies — half shih tzu, half bichon frise, all adorable.

“Look at these puppies,” she beamed. “They speak for themselves.”

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