IRVINE — Jim Gardner had a good reason for wearing a head-to-toe dog suit to City Hall on Tuesday night.

His furry alter ego, "Big Dog," and other animal activists turned out en masse to the public hearing of an animal welfare ordinance that bans the retail sale of cats and dogs in Irvine and also bans rodeos and circuses featuring exotic animals.

"In normal street clothes, I'm one of 100 in the audience," Gardner said Wednesday. "There's no impact. Sitting there as a dog helps bring forward the impact of the issue to the council members. Rather than being an amorphous issue, here is the issue: Cats and dogs dying and [being] treated badly within city limits."

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause when the ordinance passed with a 4-1 vote. Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway dissented.

Although Gardner did not speak before the council — removing the floppy-eared costume head would have meant breaking character — he said the arguments presented by more than 50 other activists were well-stated.

"It's just a win for animals all around," resident Wendy Fears, one of a small local group who helped organize supporters of the ban, said after the vote. "I'm just real proud of Irvine for standing up against animal abuse."

Lalloway worried that the proposed ordinance may move pet sales to the Internet and "import a pet problem, rather than stop it."

"Today, tonight, we are here to deal with a problem that simply does not exist," Lalloway said. "We do not have any mass-breeding facilities here in Irvine. We have one pet store, Russo's, which will not be selling dogs and cats after next year."

In August, the Newport Beach-based Irvine Co., which owns the Irvine Spectrum Center, where Russo's Pet Experience operates, announced that it would not renew the store's lease when it expires in October 2012. The firm also declined to renew Russo's lease at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

The city also does not host circuses featuring wild animals or hold rodeos, Lalloway said.

While existing animal-welfare laws should be enforced, new legislation in the city should "focus on putting people back to work, not on a problem that does not exist," he said.

Retail sales of animals are banned under the ordinance, but cat and dog adoptions are still allowed. The ordinance will also not affect petting zoos, reptile shows, or pony and camel rides at fairs, according to a staff report.

"The reason that we need to make these laws is that the public is duped," Fears said. "Every pet store will tell you that they get their dogs from responsible breeders, but the truth is that responsible breeders would never sell to a pet store."

However, Fears, who volunteers with multiple animal-rights groups, said that activists will now start looking toward other cities to adopt similar ordinances.

"This is just the first step in a process," Fears said. "People are starting to be become aware of how horrible a puppy mill is."

Speakers against the ordinance pleaded with council members to assist in preserving more than 100 years of rodeo tradition.

"Irvine didn't have a rodeo, but we are disappointed and mindful of the fact that other cities might follow their lead for lack of understanding of the positive influence it has on kids," Tracey Scott, a California High School Rodeo Assn. (CHSRA) spokeswoman, said Thursday.

Youth learns sportsmanship, leadership and responsibility through competitions and taking care of their own livestock, she said.

The CHSRA has more than 600 members, including about a dozen who are Orange County residents.

At all events members follow strict safety regulations to ensure animal welfare and log any animal injuries, which are extremely rare, she said.

"Rodeo is a tradition and a heritage that we want to protect and pass along to next generation," Scott said.

sarah.peters@latimes.com

Twitter: @speters01