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February 10, 1999

Animal Lovers Use 'Puppy Lemon Laws'
Against Stores That Sell Ailing Canines


POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. -- Nat Sladkin, holding his three-legged Chihuahua, Paco -- who is adorned with a thick gold necklace -- speaks over the racket of 100 or so variously pedigreed puppies in his store, Pet Depot. "They're the cutest things in the world," he says.

The 58-year-old Mr. Sladkin would seem the ideal person to trust when buying something of such innocent seduction. After all, he is president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Club in this coastal town of 15,000 residents. The business he owns with his wife, Paula, has been in the same downtown location for 16 years and sells more than 100 puppies a month.

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Nat Sladkin and his Chihuahua, Paco.

But some of his customers say Mr. Sladkin epitomizes the evils of pet stores that sell dogs. There are 39 complaints pending against him with the state Division of Consumer Affairs, most of them for allegedly retailing sick or disabled puppies. A handful of customers have been picketing the store to complain about their pets' poor health. And several years back, the state consumer agency shuttered Pet Depot for two days because of allegations about the sale of sick puppies, among other things; to settle that case, Mr. Sladkin, without admitting or denying any wrongdoing, agreed to follow a New Jersey Attorney General's Office order that he won't sell dogs he "knows or should know are unfit for purchase or clinically ill." Mr. Sladkin says consumers who complained simply weren't prepared for the responsibilities of caring for their puppies.

Of such troubles, Mr. Sladkin says, "It isn't usually the consumers, it's the damned Humane Societies, veterinarians and hobby breeders that try to give pet stores a bad name." Besides, he adds, people keep buying his puppies: "I haven't had to eat one yet," he says with a smile.

These days, that doggie in the window can all too often be a sick puppy. And pet stores, once viewed as warm-and-fuzzy places, are being lumped into the same buyer-beware category as car dealers and pawn shops.

Illness Abounds

Far from promoting the next generation of Westminster Kennel Club winners, which wound up its annual competition in New York Tuesday, some stores are peddling dogs prone to life-threatening respiratory woes or colon, kidney and bladder ailments that will make housebreaking impossible, veterinarians say. Other genetic maladies may not show up for years, such as hip displasia, which is often attributed to unscrupulous inbreeding; replacing the hip of, say, a golden retriever, commonly costs $3,000. The California Assembly Office of Research reported last year that 48% of the puppies in that state's pet stores are ill or incubating an illness when purchased.

In recent years, efforts to curb the problem were aimed at the hundreds of so-called puppy mills among the nation's 3,200 dog-breeding facilities. High-profile raids of these farms in turn triggered a string of new regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and 26 states aimed at forcing the facilities to uphold levels of health care, cleanliness and breeding requirements. But the attention hasn't slowed the sale of sick canines, largely because of lax enforcement of the puppy-mill laws and lobbying by pet-industry retailers.

Now, the nation's 10,000 pet stores that sell dogs are being viewed by many state legislators and pet-protection groups as puppy-mill accomplices to be held accountable. Over the past decade, at least seven states, including New Jersey, California and Florida, have adopted "puppy lemon laws" that generally allow consumers to return defective dogs.

Street-Level Regulation

Simply put, taking aim at pet stores is the latest twist in trying to regulate "faulty" products at street level when the manufacturers can't be stopped. Between 80% and 90% of the 125,000 or so puppies sold by stores each year come from large breeders, according to an estimate by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an estimate that pet-retail industry officials don't dispute.

"It just isn't possible to stop this tragedy without cutting off the market that many mills depend on: the stores themselves," says Alan Augustine, a dog-devout New Jersey assemblyman from Union who has received several complaints from constituents. Over coffee in a diner near his office, Mr. Augustine's eyes well up as he shows a picture of the late Scrumpy (short for Scrumptious), his mixed-breed "Benji style" pet of 12 years who died in 1997.

Mr. Augustine is making New Jersey the country's hottest pet-store battleground, with proposed legislation that would force stores to pay triple the vet bills for sick animals and either refund the full purchase price or provide free replacement animals to owners of any that die within a month. The bill also includes a 10-strikes-and-out provision to close stores for ringing up that many sales of unsound pups in a six-month period.

Pet-protection groups and puppy buyers, as well as U.S. Department of Agriculture breeding inspectors, are lining up behind Mr. Augustine's bill. Lisa Weisberg, vice president of government affairs at the ASPCA in New York, says, "It's time to make the store owners pay for what is in effect their partnership with puppy mills."

But Mike Maddox, attorney for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents 2,000 pet retailers, objects to the legislation, saying "When you're attempting to regulate what's being sold at the retail level, you're not addressing the breeding conditions that cause the problem."

Dog breeders -- many of them farmers whose hard times have prompted the addition of puppies as a cash crop -- are spread out across thousands of miles in the Midwest, Southeast and Middle Atlantic states. The Agriculture Department has a mere 72 inspectors to keep tabs on the thousands of breeders, and their duties also include about 4,800 other animal-related businesses, from circuses and zoos to airline pet-shipment operations. Pet stores are specifically exempt from the federal inspections under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.

The states, too, have been largely ineffective in cutting down on breeder abuses because of the same budgetary and manpower factors that constrain the federal inspection effort.

What usually happens, then, is that federal and state inspectors find themselves reacting to the occasional report about extreme conditions. "One thing they are good at is solving the atrocious problems, like frozen puppies in the snow," says Holly Hazard, executive director of the Doris Day Animal League in Washington, a nonprofit group that campaigns against pet abuse.

'A Pocketbook Issue'

With the New Jersey legislation, animal lovers hope to gain control of the situation by taking aim at the bottom line, hitting pet-store owners where it hurts. "We're going to make this a pocketbook issue at the retail level and start winning for a change," says Rose Marie "Bunny" Riddick, an animal-rights activist who lives in nearby Brick Township.

Excluding exotic birds and reptiles, which sell in lower volume, puppies are the most profitable items in the pet store. Store owners typically buy the dogs from large-scale breeders for prices between $35 and $75, depending on the breed, and the markup is routinely eight to 10 times that. Thus, a cuddly white miniature poodle that wholesales for $50 from a barnyard pen in Missouri could retail for $500 in New Jersey.

"Pet stores that have to pay triple damages on a $500 puppy are going to start forcing their suppliers to deliver higher-quality products," says Mr. Augustine, the New Jersey assemblyman.

Defective dogs returned to pet stores are likely to meet a sad end, however. That is because their value drops fast after the age of 12 weeks to almost nothing at four months. Many are then sold to research laboratories or given to animal shelters.

The End of the Line

Purebred dogs account for 25% of all canines turning up at such shelters in recent years, according to a joint study in 1995 by the ASPCA and other pet groups. At that rate, about 750,000 purebreds are being given up each year, a number equal to about 60% of those being registered annually with the American Kennel Club in New York.

"The shelter is too often where the puppy pipeline ends," says Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist at the ASPCA in New York. "Along the way, there is the brief highlight in the store window where someone stops and says, 'Isn't that adorable?'"

Mr. Maddox of the pet store trade group argues that store owners have a strong business incentive for selling the healthiest puppies they can. "Stores obviously try to sell the best puppies they can, because when dogs are brought back, it costs them time and money," he says.

Amateur "hobby breeders," who raise their favorite kinds of pups in their homes, sell about three times as many puppies as pet stores do. By and large, the high numbers of health problems don't seem to show up in these dogs. Yet many shoppers continue to go to pet stores because "you usually can't just walk into a hobby breeder's home and get what you want right then and there," Mr. Zawistowski says. "When you're all ready for a puppy, there's nothing as deflating as being told, 'I'll have one for you in two months.' We're a convenience society, and puppies are usually an impulse purchase."

Appealing Merchandise

Indeed, that impulse strikes often in Mr. Sladkin's store. Toward the back of the packed narrow aisles, neatly stacked metal cages hold row after row of cocker spaniels, German shepherds and dachshunds. In another area, larger pens, each lined with clean newspaper, hold several dogs at a time. Mr. Sladkin, a former auto-repair-shop owner, has an excellent track record with the county health department.

Asked if he buys from puppy mills, Mr. Sladkin demurs, "What's a puppy mill? I buy from licensed breeders." (All dog breeders with at least four breeding females must obtain a federal license, which costs anywhere from $75 to several-hundred dollars depending on the size of the operation. Once they get the license, breeders are subject to surprise inspection at any time.)

Into Mr. Sladkin's shop in October 1997 walked Cathy Passaretti, looking for a Yorkshire terrier. "Suddenly there he was, sitting in front of us with those big brown eyes. My three-year-old daughter was tugging me, begging for this puppy." So the Sayreville, N.J., housewife paid $525 in cash for the dog, appropriately named Chance. "Plus, we bought the leash, the ball and the most expensive dog food -- which he never touched."

Chance quickly developed bladder, colon and kidney problems that Mrs. Passaretti says resulted in "bloody runs all over the floor. He smelled like a corpse all the time."

Canine Colitis

Finally, after eight months, $600 in vet bills and a diagnosis of canine colitis, Mrs. Passaretti sued Mr. Sladkin in Ocean County Court and won a refund judgment that he still hasn't paid. A hearing regarding the nonpayment is scheduled for May. Mrs. Passaretti eventually found an elderly couple who agreed to adopt Chance, even though his illness continues and he also faces extensive dental work to remove an impacted set of teeth.

Mr. Sladkin won't discuss the matter, citing the pending litigation. Imperfect dogs, he argues, can still make good pets. As an example, he holds up Paco, the seven-year-old Chihuahua that he bought from a breeder even though it was born missing one leg. "Paco isn't any less lovable because of his problem."

And he fumes about Mrs. Passaretti's vet, who signed a certificate that Chance had been "unfit for sale." "Some of these veterinarians will sign anything for a pet owner who has just decided a puppy is too much trouble," he says, noting that he has his own vet visit the store several times a week. "If illness after illness develops after my vet examines the dog, that's life. You can't foretell these things."

Adds Mr. Sladkin: "It's a good thing some people can't take their babies back to the hospital just because they get sick, or a lot of parents probably wouldn't keep their own kids."

copyright Wall Street Journal
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