WILSHIRE BLVD — Members of an animal rights group were the victims of sniper fire during a protest here Saturday and are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooter.

The Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) staged a protest in front of the Aquarium & Pet Center to protest the retailer’s alleged sale of “puppy mill” dogs, or purebred pups that have been bred in inhumane conditions. That’s when the shots rang out.

Three protesters were hit with what was later determined to be brass pellets fired from a high-powered air rifle. The protesters suffered minor injuries, said Sgt. Jay Trisler with the Santa Monica Police Department, which is asking for the public’s help in identifying the shooter.

Carole Raphaelle Davis, the West Coast director of CAPS, said several protesters gathered in the afternoon along the sidewalk in front of the pet store to shout, wave signs and warn those passing by about puppy mills and the stores that sell them.

“It was extremely unsettling that in the middle of this peaceful protest, violence erupted,” Davis said. “This was the first time violence has been a part of these protests and that is very frightening.”

Davis said the attack occurred at a time when there is a “highly charged atmosphere” when it comes to animal rights. The Santa Monica City Council recently voted in favor of banning cat declawing and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have put caps on the number of animals used in puppy mills, becoming the only governor in the six states where puppy mill legislation passed this year to override it with a veto. Jeffrey Prang, a City Councilman from West Hollywood, which has also banned cat declawing, is working on an ordinance to ban the re-selling of any pets except bred or rescued animals in that city.

Davis said employees with the Aquarium & Pet Center threatened the protesters and were seen laughing after the shots were fired.

The store’s owner, Scott Lee, said his employees were not involved in the attack and does not purchase animals from mills.

“We get ours from local breeders … ,” Lee said. “[The accusations are] not true.”

Lee has owned the pet store since 1985 and said he has a loyal customer base.

“I try my best to avoid problems,” he said.

The Humane Society of the United States said many dogs bred in mills have immediate health problems and can harbor genetic diseases that surface years later. There is a pledge available on the society’s Web site that pet stores can sign to show their opposition to the use of mills.

Mills are licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Anyone with information on the shooting is urged to contact the SMPD at (310) 458-8495.

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