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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on May 2nd, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 9 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 9

New law aims to thwart use of 'puppy mills,' but loopholes have made for slower progress than animal advocates hoped for

By KASEY BUBNASH

A few quiet conversations halted as Commissioner Leslie Kraut re-entered the Grover Beach courtroom with a coffee mug in hand. It had been a long morning for the courthouse staff. Since 8 a.m. on April 26, they’d been intently listening to the contrasting allegations—some backed, others seemingly baseless—strewn about by a number of enraged Central Coast residents, all of whom represented themselves in small claims court that morning.

Self-representation in a typical trial is rare, but in small claims court, it’s a requirement. The small claims system, by design, gives the general public an inexpensive opportunity to fight for whatever monetary justice they seek, so long as the reward they’re hoping to receive is $10,000 or less.

The same aspect that makes a small claims battle so affordable to fight, however, also leads to high-running emotions and generally “bad vibes,” illustrated that day by a never-ending stream of eye-rolling, gasping, head shaking, and “can you believe this guy?” looks shot between members of the audience.


BIG CLAIMS IN SMALL CLAIMS
From left to right: Animal Kingdom Pet Shop owners Michelle Crook, Adam Tipton, and disgruntled customer Jen Toste took their disagreements to small claims court on April 26. Toste filed a suit against Animal Kingdom for $10,000 in punitive damages after she purchased a dog from the store that was later diagnosed with a hereditary disease.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Kraut had patiently waded through it all that morning, and her next case would be no less charged. As she settled into her chair at the front of the wood-paneled, fluorescent lit room, she called up the representatives in the final case on her docket: Jen Toste vs. Micada Inc.—the company that owns Animal Kingdom Pet Shop, a chain of Central Coast pet stores that have recently been at the center of a controversy over animal rights and dog breeding.

Toste, an Arroyo Grande resident and former Animal Kingdom customer, is less than happy with the store’s services.

It’s been a little more than a year since Toste paid $1,800 for a goldendoodle puppy she fell in love with at Animal Kingdom in July 2018.

At the time, Toste didn’t know anything about so-called “puppy mills,” responsible breeding practices, or the debate over commercially bred pets, but she’d soon be forced to learn.

The puppy, Lola, had only been home for a few weeks when employees at a three-week dog training class called to tell Toste they’d noticed Lola limping. On day 10 of the training camp, the limping had become so severe that Lola was removed from the class. When Toste took Lola to the vet, the dog was diagnosed with bilateral hip dysplasia, a hereditary disease in which the hip joints develop incorrectly, causing the bones to grind and wear.

The news only worsened when Toste’s vet explained the severity of Lola’s situation.

“He said, ‘I’ve never seen it this bad in a dog this young,’” Toste said in court, “‘and I advise you to euthanize her. I don’t feel you have any surgical options at this point.’ He said, ‘If you like, there’s a specialty practice in town, or you can go down to Ventura, but you’re looking at a lot of care for her.’”

Since then, Toste has spent more than $10,000 on veterinary appointments, surgeries, and medications for Lola. Although Animal Kingdom’s owners have paid Toste more than $2,000 in medical reimbursement costs that are required by law, Toste claims that because Lola’s disease is preventable, she’s owed more.

Toste blames irresponsible breeding—which can lead to higher rates of disease in animals—for her dog’s health issues, and she claims that Animal Kingdom knowingly sells unhealthy pets to unwitting families solely to increase its profit margin.
Toste’s claims against Animal Kingdom number among many other such allegations, and her situation is like that of countless customers who’ve purchased pets online or in pet stores, only to find that their beloved furry friends are riddled with preventable illnesses or chronic diseases that can often be linked to irresponsible breeding practices.

Hers is the very situation that a new state law—which requires pet stores to obtain all dogs, cats, and rabbits from animal shelters or rescue groups—is attempting to address. The law went into effect on Jan. 1, and is an effort to decrease the demand for mass-bred animals while increasing adoption rates for the millions of already available shelter animals.

While some criticized the law’s passage as a government overreach that would make it more difficult for Californians to find pets that meet specific needs, animal advocacy organizations cheered it as a step toward dismantling the mass breeding industry, which they say is fraught with abuse.  

In the few months since its launch, loopholes have been discovered, enforcement has proven difficult, and shelters have reported little change in adoption rates, leading animal advocates to wonder whether the law is strong enough to affect the kinds of dramatic changes they’re hoping to see.

Breeding 101

Dave Swinson bought his first ever Australian shepherd decades ago, after he saw a gorgeous Aussie and its owner walking past at a dog show.

Swinson, who is now president of the Santa Maria Kennel Club, was eventually led to another all-Aussie dog show, where he met a breeder he was interested in buying from. Swinson, who has spent his life around dogs and their breeders, knew what questions to ask:

1) Have the parent dogs been tested for genetic diseases?

2) What conditions are the puppies and parents being raised in?

3) Has this breeder been licensed, and is its operation listed on the American Kennel Club site?

This particular breeder checked off all the boxes, and after meeting the breeding dogs, checking out the breeder’s property, and answering a number of questions himself, Swinson eventually purchased an Aussie. That was in the late ’90s, and Swinson said he and that breeder are still friends.

Toste, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to get ahold of Lola’s breeder over the phone. The breeder runs an operation in Missouri, and Toste claims she was only given information on Lola’s birthplace after purchasing her.

That’s not a good sign, according to Swinson.

“When you get a dog from a responsible breeder,” Swinson said, “they’re your friend for the life of the dog.”

He also added that Missouri, in the dog world, “is like puppy mill central.” The state has had the highest rate of known operating puppy mills for the past six years, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

Potential buyers should always visit a breeder’s home, Swinson said, to meet the parent dogs, see the conditions they’re being raised in, and discuss at length what kinds of testing and research should be done into the parents’ DNA and family lineage. And genetic testing must be done, he said.

Genetic and health pre-screenings are widely considered best practice by a number of animal organizations, including the American Kennel Club, an organization that works to advance the breeding and exhibiting of purebred dogs. The Kennel Club states on its website that genetic tests play a “huge role” in producing the healthiest possible puppies by alerting breeders to diseases lurking in a parent dog’s DNA.

Nearly all reputable breeders screen their potential parent animals for hereditary diseases, Swinson said, and animals that test positive as carriers shouldn’t be used in the breeding process.

While diseases like Lola’s can be worsened by environmental factors, they can also be easily prevented through these careful breeding practices, according to the Kennel Club.

There are hundreds of screening options, but they can be costly, and Swinson said most mass breeders skimp on health care to max out profits.

The DNA tests Swinson runs on his dogs cost about $60 each, and he said X-rays on hips and legs usually run for about $300. Then there are the costs of spaying and neutering, eye checks, chip installments, etc. It’s expensive to raise a dog right, and Swinson said most reputable breeders actually lose money on their sales. 

“If you decide to breed a dog,” he said, “you’re not in it for the money. You’re looking to better the breed.”


PUPPY PROBLEMS
Like many puppies on display at Animal Kingdom’s Santa Maria location in the Town Center mall, this Havanese/cocker spaniel blend was being sold for more than $1,500 and was acquired from Bark Adoptions Rescue, according to the information posted in the upper right corner of the window.
PHOTO BY KASEY BUBNASH

Swinson said the Santa Maria Kennel Club’s mission, like the American Kennel Club’s, is to advance the purebred dog. That makes it a natural enemy of puppy mills.

Still, Swinson opposes California’s new state law banning pet stores from selling commercially bred dogs. The Santa Maria Kennel Club hasn’t taken a stance on the law, but Swinson said that in his opinion, it’s “just flat out wrong.”

While he’s all for shelter pets finding homes, those animals can be risky to adopt, and buyers can never be entirely sure what kind of temperament or behavioral tendencies they’ll bring with them.

Plus, Swinson said he’s not convinced the new law is succeeding, or that it ever will, in reducing the demand for puppy mill dogs. The sheer accessibility of commercially bred puppies combined with the massive profit puppy mills make, he said, make it a nearly impossible problem to fix. Anyone can search for any breed at any age on Google, and a number of breeders with those very puppies readily available will instantly pop up. They’re on Craigslist, at swap meets, and in pet stores.

Has anything changed?

On April 15, Animal Kingdom Pet Shop announced via Facebook that after selling two remaining dogs, it would no longer carry puppies in its stores, which are located in Santa Maria, Grover Beach, and Pismo Beach. In the post, the store cited California’s new restrictions on pet store sourcing as the chief reason behind its decision.

“There is a very limited availability of pets who are an appropriate size and health condition to come into our stores,” the post reads. “The supply of puppies has been up and down, which has been difficult.”

Animal Kingdom’s owners declined to comment further in a Facebook message to the Sun on April 23.

Dozens of Central Coast residents responded to the post, showing an outpouring of support for the store and its years of providing opportunities for locals to pick out their own puppies.

Kay Hawkins Shishido, an Arroyo Grande resident, wrote that she and her family have enjoyed stopping in at Animal Kingdom stores to visit the cuddly pups on display. Her daughter loved working there as a teen, Shishido wrote, and she and her son bought puppies there years ago, both of which she said are healthy dogs to this day.

San Luis Obispo resident Amanda Tanner, shared photos of her dog, Gizmo, which she purchased from the store five years ago. In the photo, Gizmo is wearing a birthday hat and almost looks to be smiling.

The announcement closely followed an explosive debate over the pet store chain’s sourcing of puppies.

After the state’s pet store regulations went into effect on Jan. 1, Vandenberg Village resident Christine Collier noticed that Animal Kingdom was still selling puppies for upwards of $1,500—shelter dogs usually go for a few hundred. Collier, founder of animal advocacy group No More Pet Store Puppies 805, looked into the store’s sourcing shelter, “Bark Adoptions Rescue,” and found that the organization is being investigated by counties across California.

In San Diego, stores that listed Bark Adoptions as a sourcing shelter were fined hundreds of dollars per pet after an investigation concluded that the “shelter” hadn’t received nonprofit status and was likely a front for mass breeders hoping to get their animals into stores.

San Luis Obispo County Animal Services found similar issues with the dogs from Bark Adoptions available at Animal Kingdom, but Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson said the store was able to provide proof that Bark Adoptions has received 501c3 tax exemption status.

“Our determination is that Animal Kingdom is compliant with the letter of the law,” Anderson said.

On March 5, animal rights groups Bailing out Benji and Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Bark Adoptions and Animal Kingdom, claiming the businesses are circumventing the new state law by selling commercially purebred puppies labeled as rescues. Three days later, Toste filed her suit against Animal Kingdom in small claims court.

While Collier, Toste, and other animal advocates consider Animal Kingdom’s decision to stop selling puppies a win, some say the true goal of the law is not being reached.

Sean Hawkins is the executive director of the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society, a nonprofit that takes in and adopts out pets that Santa Barbara County and other shelters don’t have room for. Hawkins said 65 percent of the Humane Society’s pets are transfers from other shelters, animals that would’ve otherwise been euthanized.

The Humane Society has a 98 percent “live release rate,” meaning nearly all the animals that come into the shelter leave with new owners. It’s a number that Hawkins and his staff are proud of, but it’s not easy work.

About 1,400 animals come through the shelter each year, Hawkins said, and nearly 100 are adopted out every month. Those numbers haven’t changed since the new state law was signed in October 2017 or since it became effective in January. The circumstances haven’t changed either.

Many of the Humane Society’s pets are animals like Lola, Hawkins said, purchased at Animal Kingdom or from backyard breeders for thousands of dollars and plagued with health issues. Bone deformities, eye problems, skin infections, respiratory problems, hearing issues—Hawkins said he’s seen it all.

Lola, however, is extremely lucky to have owners willing and able to pay for the treatment, he said. Most families can’t afford it, and Hawkins said those pets end up in his shelter. The Humane Society then covers the costs of the animals’ medical needs and faces the burden of adopting them out again.

It’s a cycle that he said could be prevented by putting an end to commercial breeding entirely. While the new law is encouraging, he doesn’t think it’s enough.
“It’s not working so far,” Hawkins said.

Part of the law’s intent is to encourage cooperative partnerships between shelters and pet stores. That’s the kind of relationship the Humane Society has had with Petco for years, in which Petco makes space for a few of the shelter’s adoptable pets, and customers walking through the store can visit and adopt. Shelter staff carry out the adoptions and the pets are only in the stores temporarily, Hawkins said.

Petco partners with thousands of local animal welfare groups across the country to host adoptions in its stores every day, according to a statement the store wrote to the Sun. The store helps to find homes for more than 400,000 adoptable animals each year.

The Humane Society has reached out to Animal Kingdom in an effort to establish a similar relationship, but Hawkins said the owners haven’t responded.

“The offer is on the table,” he said. “We would love to create a program where we could get our shelter pets adopted in a local retail store.”


THE END OF AN ERA
Animal Kingdom Pet Shop announced on April 15 that it would no longer be selling puppies. While local animal rights activists celebrated the decision, several other Central Coast residents took to Facebook to mourn the end of the store’s puppy sales.
SCREENSHOT FROM FACEBOOK

Animal Kingdom has not approached the county’s shelters to put those available pets in its stores either, according to Stacy Silva, community outreach coordinator for Santa Barbara County Animal Services. Animal Services is charged with enforcing the new law and inspecting Animal Kingdom, and while Silva said her department is aware of alleged issues with Animal Kingdom’s sourcing, various loopholes make it difficult to truly enforce the regulations.

She’s heard of stores doing things like giving away a free rabbit with a rabbit starter kit, which usually includes a cage, food, and other items. In that case, Silva said the store isn’t technically selling an animal—it’s selling a rabbit starter kit—so the rabbit doesn’t really have to come from a shelter.
    Alleged fake shelters are becoming more common, too, and she said because stores are no longer required to disclose an animal’s breeder information—just the source the store used to get the animal—“there’s no real way” to confirm that those organizations are legitimate.

A battle worth fighting

It wasn’t necessarily looking good for Toste at her trial in small claims court on April 26.

Despite her heart-wrenching story about Lola—including a detailed description of the various surgeries the dog had been through and would still need, the thousands of dollars in medical bills, and the distress her dog and family had suffered through the treatment process—Animal Kingdom’s owners appear to have the law on their side.

After Lola was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, Toste contacted Animal Kingdom owner Adam Tipton and his business associate and fiancée, Michelle Crook. They confirmed the diagnosis with their own vet, and immediately followed the guidelines outlined by California’s health and safety code.

Under state law, if a pet is diagnosed with a congenital or hereditary disease within one year of its purchase, the dog is considered unfit for sale. The pet dealer must then allow the buyer to choose one of the following: return the dog for a full refund of the purchase price and reimbursement for the dog’s treatment fees in an amount not to exceed the original purchase price; exchange the dog for a dog of equivalent value and receive reimbursement for medical fees not to exceed the original purchase price; or, if the purchaser chooses to keep the unwell dog, provide reimbursement for reasonable medical fees for the dog in an amount not to exceed 150 percent of the original purchase price.

Toste chose the third option, and Tipton paid Toste a total of nearly $3,000 in reimbursement for Lola’s medical bills. Toste took the check, deposited it, and it cleared.

“She was given the option to return the dog before any additional medical bills were incurred,” Tipton said, “and she elected to keep the dog and receive the 150 percent.”

The commissioner repeatedly asked Toste why she thought Tipton and Animal Kingdom owed her more and asked for evidence that showed the store owners had done something that would require them to pay further punitive damages.

“What’s your authority to then collect additional remedy?” The commissioner asked Toste in court. “Because these are your remedies outlined by statute. And I think everybody understands the anguish that you’ve gone through. So are you alleging pain and suffering?

Are you alleging fraud? Duress, in terms of purchasing this dog?”

Toste answered with, “all of the above.”

When the commissioner again asked for evidence, Toste alleged that Tipton and Crook have purposely purchased puppies, including Lola, from poor breeders, then knowingly passed off unhealthy dogs to families for profit.

Toste claims she wasn’t able to see Lola’s breeder information until after she had already purchased the dog, and what she found was shocking. Lola was bred by Kathy Brown, who runs a breeding operation called Peaceful Acres Kennel in Missouri. Toste said in court that through a quick online search, she found a Missouri Department of Agriculture inspection from 2011 that listed a number of code violations found at Brown’s kennel.

The inspection report states that Brown had 230 adult and 116 young dogs on site during that inspection, and that portions of dog houses were chewed up, facilities were dirty and dilapidated, outdoor pens were filled with standing water, feeders were caked with wet dog food, and some pens housed three dogs each, where they were not able to sit or stand in a normal position.

When Toste brought her findings up with Crook, Toste said in court that Crook brushed it off as internet misinformation. Later, Toste filed a Public Records Act request with the state of Missouri, and received that same inspection report from 2011, confirming its findings, and several others. 

She claims the owners should, and probably did, know the breeder was unethical, and that those practices can lead to unhealthy dogs like Lola.

But Crook said she always researches the breeders Animal Kingdom uses, and since that 2011 inspection, Peaceful Acres has had a clean bill of health.

That’s true, according to Missouri Department of Agriculture inspection reports. Although in 2018 the kennel still had 179 adult dogs on site, it hasn’t incurred a single violation since it corrected the issues found in 2011.

Crook said those inspection reports are important to Animal Kingdom because as an operation based in California, “we can’t physically go check out any breeder that we would potentially be buying a puppy from.”

“The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] does have standards as far as cleanliness and care and housing and that type of stuff,” Crook told the commissioner. “So her being 100 percent clear on those for four years seemed like a clear indicator that she was obviously above board.”

Crook also said that before Lola was sold, she was checked out by three separate vets as part of routine new-puppy checkups Animal Kingdom does, and they didn’t notice any issues at the time. And despite the year warranty on all pets sold at Animal Kingdom, Crook said she doesn’t have many customers coming back with complaints like Toste’s.

Dogs from Lola’s breeder have never had problems with hip dysplasia before, she said.

“We weren’t seeing any issues, so there was no reason for us to believe that we were sending out a puppy that would have any issues,” Crook said. “We were quite shocked when we got the phone call.”

After the hearing, as Tipton and Crook darted for the exit, Toste and a few supporters gathered outside the courthouse to discuss the case. Toste was relieved the whole thing would be over soon—she’ll know in about a month whether she won—and said that even if Tipton and Crook win, she’s glad she tried.

Like many potential pet owners, she was completely naive when she bought Lola and didn’t have any of the facts she has now. Win or lose, Toste said Animal Kingdom can’t take that important information away from her, and she plans to continue spreading it.

“I’ve learned a valuable lesson,” Toste said, “I’ve raised awareness in my community, and I’ve put a neon light on what they’ve been doing.”

Contact Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.








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