New state regulation dogs puppy mills

Dogs in a puppy mill are shown in this undated photo./Humane Society of America

Escondido always has been a hot bed in the California puppy mill world, for whatever reason. A new state law that went into effect this year has rsulted in several puppy mill busts, but some puppy mill proprietors already have found loopholes to exploit.

Assembly Bill 485, which went into effect at the beginning of this year, requires pet stores to get their animals from a partnered shelter or rescue center in an effort to curb the sale of pets from so-called puppy mills and kitten factories that breed animals for sale en masse, often in inhumane conditions.

State Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, sponsored the bill and estimated the state spent $250 million to house and euthanize stray animals. Advocates for this bill said pet stores often ship expensive animals in from out-of-state puppy mills that wer not adequately regulated. They said many animals are raised in abusive situations designed to generate maximum profits, at the expense of the animals’ well-being.

Pet store owner, David Salinas, fought the legislation vigorously. He said commercial kennels are better regulated than the shelters, and banning his stores unfairly limits consumer choice.

But Salinas was forced out of the city of San Diego in 2013 by a municipal code amendment and out of Oceanside in 2015. Escondido is now the only city in North County that permits his store to operate.

Pet stores run around the law

That’s why some pet stores in the state are offering purebred “rescue” dogs selling for as much as $4,000, according to Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter John Woestendiek. He now writes and produces the popular dog website ohmidog.

That’s why more than a few customers who have sprung for a healthy young pup have found sick and diseased dogs on their hands.

And it’s why California’s puppy mill ban, the first statewide ban in the nation on selling dogs in pet stores, might need to go back to the drawing board.

The animals aren’t true rescues at all, critics charge. Instead they are the products of commercial breeders who are disguising themselves as nonprofits to skirt California’s puppy mill ban, the Orange County Register reported last week.

While shelter dogs usually carry adoption fees of a few hundred dollars, at most, price tags in pet stores are advertising purebred puppies for $1,000 and up.

The idea behind the law was to stop the influx of puppy mill pups, oftentimes sickly, into pet stores, allowing stores instead to peddle only rescue dogs.

Delight Homan and Taquito Pepe; lower, a rescue dog’s price tag at Mutts on Main/PuppySpace at MainPlace Mall./Mindy Schauer

Now, throughout California, high-priced “rescue” puppies purchased from pet stores are showing up in vets’ offices with diseases long associated with Midwestern commercial breeders, or puppy mills, according to vets, customers and animal activists.

Between the passage of the bill and the time it went into effect, newly-formed “rescue groups” popped up in states like Missouri, Ohio and Iowa, records show, the states with the highest concentrations of puppy mills — and many expect puppy mill owners are behind at least some of them.

“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.

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.

Meanwhile, Escondido’s June Swoon

The San Diego Humane Society Law Enforcement division conducted a one-day sweep of pet stores in June, and issued more than 100 citations for violations of a partial state ban on the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits.

Humane Law Enforcement officers issued 39 citations to Broadway Puppies and 38 to Bark Avenue, both located in Escondido, for failing to provide a documented agreement with a public or private animal shelter or rescue organization, according to Humane Society spokeswoman Dariel Walker. Officers also issued 25 citations to Pups & Pets in Santee for improper signage on the cages holding its available animals, she said.

A spokesman for Broadway Puppies, Mark Patterson, said the store “and its parent organization are faithfully following the letter of the law in this case and will be exonerated of these citations. Other pet stores in San Diego County have been subject to similar harassment by SDHS only to have the citations dismissed in court.”

Sharon Franco, owner of Pups & Pets issued FOX 5 a statement saying in part: “We were found to be in complete compliance other than not having tags up on animals that had just arrived. The tags were printed and available for their review, just had not been placed on each window yet. They came less than an hour of opening and my staff was busy weighing and deworming new puppies.”

Bark Avenue did not respond to questions about its 38 citations.

San Diego County’s Department of Animal Services ceded nearly all countywide animal-control duties in July 2018 to the Humane Society, save for unincorporated areas of the county that are served by the department’s shelters in Carlsbad and Bonita.

“My advice is beware,” said Humane Law Enforcement Officer Allen Villasenor. “As a brand-new law takes effect, people will use different methods to try to circumvent the law and at this point it’s our job to make sure everything is in compliance. … I always suggest looking into shelters first, go to the adoption agencies first and see if you can find the right fit for your family there.”

Residents can report possible violations of the state pet sale laws by calling the Humane Society’s Law Enforcement division at 619-299-7012.

Documents obtained by Woestendiek 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.

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.”

Kevyn Camacho holds Churro shortly before he died in October./Kevyn Camacho

In California, a lawsuit was filed in March by The Animal Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the Volar Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and nonprofit Bailing Out Benji, charging that Rescue Pets Iowa, Bark Adoptions in Menifee and Animal Kingdom Pet Shops in San Luis Obispo County are conducting a similar 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.

The Register’s reporting found multiple customers that ended up with sick dogs. Two of them were purchased at Westminster Mall and one, who 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 as a rescue 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, the Register reported.

Delight Homan saw Taquito Pepe, a miniature Chihuahua inside the store and have to have him. She paid $1,000. Within two days the dog stopped eating, drinking and voiding. In the next six weeks she faced about $15,000 in veterinary fees. Taquito now seems to be recovering.

At the same store, college students Kevyn Camacho and Robyn Whitman took home Churro, a purebred dachshund. They paid $1,200 for him 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. One month after coming home, Churro died.

Closing up the loopholes in the law has proven difficult.

“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.”

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