Are sick ‘puppy mill’ dogs being disguised as rescues to sidestep new California law? – Daily News

on Nov10
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Delight Homan did not go to the Westminster Mall to get a puppy. No, no, no. But there she was, peering into a kennel in the mall’s CA Puppy store, face-to-face with the cutest little toy Chihuahua she ever laid eyes on.

“When I looked into his eyes, I swear, he smiled at me,” Homan said. “My heart went thump-thump-thump. He was mine, one way or another.”

Taquito Pepe was about 12 weeks old, purebred, cost $1,000 — and a rescue, according to the paperwork. Homan signed a contract on Sept. 25 and took “the love of my life” home to Seal Beach, but within two days he stopped eating and drinking. He wouldn’t poop or pee.

The next six weeks were a blur of veterinarian offices and emergency clinics, medications and hospitalizations, worry and heartache. Vet bills exceeded $15,000. Taquito had giardia, pneumonia, distemper, kennel cough and other ailments. “There was nothing on this dog that wasn’t sick,” Homan said.

At the same store, college students Kevyn Camacho and Robyn Whitman fell hard for Churro, a purebred dachshund. They paid $1,200 for him — almost half on credit at an annual percentage rate of 198.97% — but he soon began to vomit and pass bloody diarrhea. Churro had Parvo, kennel cough, distemper and various respiratory viruses. His vet care exceeded $14,000, but not even that could save him: One agonizing month after coming home, Churro was dead.

“He couldn’t breathe in the middle of the night and his body was too frail from fighting his diseases,” Whitman, of Huntington Beach, wrote in a heart-wrenching post on Yelp on Oct. 16. “I NEED you to know: our dog died from complications due to MANY preventable diseases.”

Throughout California, high-priced pet store “rescue” puppies are showing up in vets’ offices with diseases long associated with Midwestern commercial breeders, or “puppy mills,” according to vets, bereft owners and animal activists.

“I get that legitimate rescues do have outbreaks now and then,” said Amaris Franco, a critical-care veterinarian in Fountain Valley who has treated pet store puppies. “All these diseases are extremely infectious. But these dogs don’t look like rescue puppies — all purebreds, all young. I don’t know what rescue you’re getting all these young purebred puppies from.”

Joe Simmons, an emergency veterinarian in Huntington Beach, has treated several of these puppies as well. “There was one, 8 or 9 weeks old, malnourished, no vaccinations, distemper,” he said. “Any pup drinking its mom’s milk would get protection from mom. There’s a good chance, in these cases, the mothers aren’t vaccinated either.”

That sick pup’s owners paid $1,500 at the mall pet store, he said. The Southern California News Group documented some rescue puppies with mall-store sticker prices of nearly $4,000 each.

Adopting a dog from a public shelter usually tops out at $150 or so, and smaller rescues with higher overhead usually max out at about $350, Simmons said.

These animals aren’t true rescues at all, critics charge — they’re the tragic products of commercial breeders who are disguising themselves as nonprofits to skirt California’s new puppy mill ban, the first of its kind in the nation. The law took effect Jan. 1.

“This is a huge puppy-laundering scheme that is happening across the country,” said Mindi Callison, founder and executive director of Bailing Out Benji, a nonprofit devoted to battling puppy mill abuses. “This story goes a lot deeper than one or two stores.”

Cut the carnage

More than 100,000 animals are put to death in California’s public shelters every year, according to analyses of AB 485, the puppy mill ban. The idea was to reduce the carnage and find more homes for shelter pets.

“This bill … aims to limit the sales of animals in California that are from ‘puppy mills,’ ‘kitten factories’ or other commercial breeding facilities (especially those in other states) and to help ensure that available shelter animals are a source of animal sales,” said a legislative analysis of the bill.

“Puppy mills” is a term used for places where mother dogs are kept in small and squalid cages to give birth to a constant inventory of puppies for retail sale, according to animal activists. Their emphasis is on profits, not animal welfare, with dogs often lacking veterinary care, positive human interaction and enrichment.

“Most every pup sold in stores in America comes from this kind of suffering — or worse,” John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States told Rolling Stone in its 2017 expose, “The Dog Factory: Inside the Sickening World of Puppy Mills.” “If you buy a puppy from a pet store, this is what you’re paying for and nothing else: a dog raised in puppy-mill evil.”`

The Rolling Stone piece was cited by lawmakers as they debated AB 485. The bill was attacked by the American Kennel Club and others for painting all breeders with the same ugly brush, but it passed and was signed into law in 2017. Now California pet stores selling dogs, cats or rabbits may only sell animals that come from public shelters or nonprofit rescue groups, not from for-profit breeders or brokers.

But in that year between passage of the puppy mill ban and when it took effect, new rescue groups popped up in states like Missouri, Ohio and Iowa, records show. Those states have the heaviest concentration of puppy mills, according to the Humane Society of the United States and its annual list of The Horrible 100.

Where do they come from?

Taquito, Churro and a puppy that died from Mutts On Main/PuppySpace in Santa Ana’s MainPlace Mall all came to California via PetConnect Rescue in Joplin, Missouri, according to paperwork provided by the dogs’ owners.

PetConnect received nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service in 2018, the year after California’s ban passed and the year before it took effect. Its address belongs to a UPS store, and a clerk who answered the phone said there was no dog rescue at that location, and she could not say if PetConnect rented a mailbox from UPS.

The phone number PetConnect listed on state documents is perpetually busy. Emails to PetConnect were not returned. Two other rescues with similar names — PetConnect Rescue in Maryland and The Pet Connect in Kansas — have no affiliation with the Joplin group.

Documents obtained from the Missouri Department of Agriculture by Bailing Out Benji show that, earlier this year, PetConnect sent puppies, by truck, to many California puppy stores, including the Fancy Puppy in Corona; Villaggio,Town Puppies and Hello Puppies in Temecula; Palm Desert Puppies in Palm Desert; as well as to several puppy stores in San Diego County and a private pet dealer in Lake Elsinore.

The forms have fields to list vaccination dates, but no vaccinations were recorded for any of the puppies.

Veterinarian Fred Jay signed these “small animal health certificates” beneath the words “I have inspected the animals described hereon and find them to be free from visible signs of infectious, contagious or communicable disease.” Jay did not return calls for comment.

So where does PetConnect get puppies?

Another document, obtained by Bailing out Benji from the Iowa Department of Land Stewardship, shows PetConnect got puppies from Rescue Pets Iowa — a group sued by the Iowa attorney general as part of a national puppy-laundering ring masquerading puppy-mill pups as rescue animals and selling them for as much as $3,600 each.

“Some are creatively attempting to thwart anti-puppy mill initiatives and consumer protection laws by engaging in the practice of ‘puppy laundering’ … the purposeful masking of the genuine source of merchandise puppies from consumers and law enforcement,” the attorney general’s suit says.

“Actors may obscure the source of puppies by transferring them from different persons and entities at least once, prior to final transfer to the entity that ultimately sells them to consumers. Obscuring the source of merchandise puppies deceptively preempts  consumers’ concerns about buying dogs bred within puppy mills. Puppy laundering therefore inherently entails uninformed purchases by consumers, and unavoidable injuries stemming from lying to consumers — overtly or by deliberate omission — about the source of puppy merchandise.”

Puppy laundering also entails the unfair, fraudulent usage of nonprofit entities to circumvent local and state laws.

“California’s statewide ban on the sale of puppy mills dogs went into effect January 1, 2019, yet defendants continue to ship their ‘rescue’ dogs to California using sham entities,” the suit says.

Golden State

Rescue Pets Iowa is targeted in another lawsuit — this one in California.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the Volar Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and nonprofit Bailing Out Benji, filed suit in March, charging that Rescue Pets Iowa, Bark Adoptions in Menifee and Animal Kingdom Pet Shops in San Luis Obispo County put a local face on the national scheme.

Bark Adoptions incorporated in November 2018, just weeks before the puppy mill ban kicked in, and “the vast majority of animals that Bark Adoptions purports to ‘rescue’ are 8-week-old designer and purebred puppies from the very same puppy mills that have supplied California stores like Animal Kingdom in the past,” the suit says.

Animal Kingdom and other pet stores sell these puppies for more than $2,000 — far more than the $250 or less that animal rescue organizations typically charge as an adoption fee for stray and abandoned dogs, the suit says.

“Unfortunately, stores all over California are still selling 8-12-week-old purebred or designer dog puppies for thousands of dollars apiece,” said Callison of Bailing Out Benji.

Callison’s nonprofit is spending a lot of time and money on government documents tracking these puppies, she said, but the work is vital. “Attempts to circumvent these laws will not go unchallenged,” she said.

The targets of the lawsuits in San Luis Obispo and Iowa have asked the courts to throw the suits out, without success.

What can be done?

Some say the problems lurk within the new puppy mill ban itself.

“It’s a well-intentioned law, maybe rushed through without weighing fully all the potential consequences,” said Eric Anderson, animal services manager for San Luis Obispo County.

His department inspected the pet shops named in the Bailing Out Benji lawsuit, confirmed that puppies were sourced from a 501(c)(3) nonprofit — and discovered there was little more it could do.

“It’s not very difficult to obtain 501 status and create a shell nonprofit to pass these animals through and comply with the law,” Anderson said. “That insulates them from any enforcement action we could take.”

The lawsuit seems to have done more to stop puppy sales than Animal Control could — the shops have apparently gone out of business. Lawmakers might consider reworking the law to favor local rescue groups with brick-and-mortar operations, he said.

Judie Mancuso, president of Social Compassion in Legislation and sponsor of the law, sees it differently. She doesn’t want California to turn its back on real rescues from out of state. When natural disasters displace animals in other parts of the country, those animals should be able to find forever homes here, she said.

The real problem, Mancuso said, is the failure of local animal control agencies to enforce the new ban. “The law has everything they need to shut these places down,” she said. “They just have to do their jobs.”

If puppies are from out of state and pet stores are selling them for thousands of dollars, those are all the red flags officials need to move forward, make stores abide by the law or take away their permit to sell animals, Mancuso said.

Officials in Los Angeles and Orange County said they haven’t had complaints related to puppy laundering, and owners are confused about exactly where to lodge complaints. People should start by calling their local police department, which can route them to their local animal control agency.

Since SCNG began reporting this story, the CA Puppy store in Westminster Mall closed down. It’s unclear how owners stuck with thousands of dollars worth of vet bills will proceed.

Camacho and Whitman of Huntington Beach are still wrecked by the loss of Churro. When their puppy was in emergency care, struggling for his life with tubes snaking from his body, they confronted the store — and were given a check to cover a fraction of the vet bills, told that an identical dog would be put on hold for them, and asked to take down their bad review of CA Puppy on Yelp.

“Callous. Horrible,” Whitman said.

The Homans’ story promises a happier ending. After $15,000 worth of veterinary care, Taquito Pepe is clearly on the mend. He scampers across the Homans’ wooden floor and slides like a skater, narrowly avoiding collision with a chair leg. He leaps into Delight Homan’s arms and snuggles into her neck, shivering in puppy ecstasy.

“That dog and I bonded like crazy,” Homan said. “If someone would have said, ‘You can take this dog, but it’s going to cost you $15,000 to keep him alive,’ I still would have done it.” She paused. “But I wouldn’t have told my husband.”

If you have bought a puppy in California lately, please tell us about your experience here. 

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