A half dozen balls of fluff sat in the glass enclosure at ZooQuatic Pet Center in Christiansburg on Wednesday morning. The puppies pawed at the glass, all but saying, “Pick me.” They rolled on their backs, exposing soft, pink tummies primed for rubbing.

They were cute. They were fuzzy. They looked like the perfect thing to curl up with on the couch.

And they were for sale. Just $750 to $1,600, according to the clerk, and I could take one home.

I would love to have a dog, even if it would freak out the cats, but I know I cannot be a good parent to it. I’m away at the office all day. I travel. It wouldn’t be fair.

ZooQuatic only recently added puppies to its inventory, and the outrage from animal lovers has been swift. The howling grew louder after 167 dogs died in a recent fire at a Bland County kennel that, it turns out, did not have a required county permit.

Most breeders genuinely care about their animals, take superb care of them and want them to go to good homes where they will be loved. Unfortunately, there are exceptions.

Those exceptions operate “puppy mills.” They are deplorable places. I’m no vegan and no card-carrying member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but the conditions documented at some turn my stomach.

Breeders keep adult dogs alive simply to reproduce. Their offspring grow up in cages until they are big enough to ship off to a store. Conditions are often cramped and dirty. It’s like producing canine veal.

Yet they are regulated and legal. Sure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture could better inspect facilities, and the rules appear pretty lax, but as long as there is money to earn, puppy mills are not going away.

I can’t fault ZooQuatic for selling puppies from whatever legal source they obtain them. The store’s owners have decided it makes good business sense, so more power to them. I wish them well and will probably continue to buy crickets for my lizard there.

That does not mean consumers have to like it, though. Just as the store can legally choose to sell dogs, shoppers who disapprove can take their business elsewhere. There’s a puppy-free pet store down the street. The marketplace works that way. If puppy sales cannot make up for lost sales, ZooQuatic might change its mind.

People should also confront the real culprit in all this: the laws that allow puppy mills to exist. Lobby legislators and congressmen to improve standards for breeders and to provide better funding for USDA inspections.

Not that Virginia lawmakers appear likely to do anything. The House of Delegates this year could not even agree to stiffen penalties on illegal cock fighting. It will be fair to ask candidates in November’s election where they stand on such laws.

The most important thing people can do, however, is encourage dog-seekers to head to local animal shelters instead of retail outlets.

The puppies and full-grown dogs in places like the Humane Society of Montgomery County need good homes. The Humane Society has 25 to 35 dogs at any given time. There should not be a market for puppy mills with so many canines already available.

“If you’re looking for a puppy, you can always find one at a shelter,” the county Humane Society’s manager, Jamie Burton, said.

Nearly all of their dogs are already spayed or neutered. If they are not, new owners must agree to have it done. No one with a heart wants to kill these poor animals, and we don’t need them making more little balls of fluff that will one day be desperate for homes.

There are plenty of dog types from which to choose at shelters, including papered purebreds.

Not that purity should really matter. Unless one is a diehard, a mutt will loyally love a family just as well, perhaps better.

Shelters make good financial sense, too. The $750 to $1,600 at ZooQuatic will get a purebred puppy with all its shots. It even comes with a three-year guarantee against congenital diseases.

The Humane Society charges only $60 for an adoption. That includes similar up-to-date vaccinations. If the dog is not spayed or neutered already, the cost drops to $15, but taking care of the surgery will cost around $100 at local vets.

Alternatively, one can have the fixing done at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, which runs a teaching hospital at Virginia Tech for residents of the New River Valley. Their rates are competitive, and taking a pet there provides valuable training for student vets.

Either way, it is a bargain for unconditional love that did not come from a puppy mill.