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Sick puppies: Petland Waterford Lakes has a history of selling unhealthy, even dying, dogs

Even after a lawsuit from the state and a ban from the county, there's no guarantee the suffering will end.

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HIDDEN IN THE BACK ROOM, a puppy's body shuddered on the cool metal lid of a washing machine. The shih tzu was only a few weeks old. It almost looked like a stuffed animal with soft fur and a cute, squashed snout. It was prime puppy-selling age. But it was too skinny. Too weak. Too sick. Shih tzus are already prone to breathing problems — a side effect of centuries of inbreeding — but this one struggled to squeeze air into lungs the size of a baby's fist.

The kennel technicians guessed it had an upper respiratory infection, but nothing was listed on its signed health certificate. Whatever out-of-state breeder it had come from clearly didn't care for it. And now, only days after arriving at the Petland in Orlando's Waterford Lakes, the shih tzu puppy was dying. It didn't yet have a name.

Five kennel technicians tried to keep the puppy alive. A more experienced tech put her lips on the puppy's snout: Blow. Pump. Blow. Pump. Blow. Pump.

It was too late for CPR; the tiny shih tzu needed a veterinarian. But the owners of the store didn't like sending their puppies off-site unless absolutely necessary, former employees said. An older kennel technician pushed a new hire out of the room. The young woman, a mid-20s Orlandoan, hurried home from the store, images of the puppy's crumpled body burning her eyelids.

The next day, the shih tzu was gone. The new employee approached the kennel manager. "What happened to the puppy?" she asked, scared she would hear that it died.

It went to the vet, the kennel tech replied. She shouldn't worry: "This is not common here."

The puppy never came back to the store.

Over the next five years she spent working there, the young woman realized that her first day was emblematic of her entire Petland experience. She had naively thought the store she worked in would be a wholesome place where animals, staff and customers were all happy. Today, after arrest threats, harassment, racism and trauma-based insomnia, she thinks she was very wrong indeed.

Odin. - PHOTO COURTESY ALEXA ABITABILO
  • photo courtesy Alexa Abitabilo
  • Odin.

MIDSUMMER 2021: The Orange County Board of Commissioners sat on the dais before a color-coded crowd, wearing red T-shirts emblazoned "Save Our Pet Stores" or yellow ones reading "Vote Yes for Puppies!" The open session was in its fifth hour, and Mayor Jerry Demings already looked tired. The real debate — the one that had dozens of attendees overflowing into the lobby — was about to begin.

The ordinance, first brought to the commission in 2018, would prohibit the retail sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in pet stores in Orange County. According to research from the Humane Society of the United States' Stop Puppy Mills campaign, there are 10,000 dog breeding facilities in the U.S. Less than a fourth of those are licensed by the USDA and therefore subject to (arguably too limited) regulations. Over 200,000 dogs are kept in these facilities for the sole purpose of breeding, and every year, over 2.5 million puppies are sold from licensed and unlicensed facilities. Similar operations exist for both kittens and rabbits.

In 2020, Humane Society undercover investigations revealed that of the eight commercial pet stores in Orange County, five imported over 2,000 puppies and kittens from 16 different mills. Within the same year, 149 complaints were made about Orange County commercial pet sellers between the Better Business Bureau, Orange County Animal Services, the Humane Society and Yelp reviews. Almost 60 percent of complaints regarded sick pets. In 19, the pets died.

If the ordinance passed that summer day, stores would have a one-year grace period to cease the sale of the prohibited animals. To ensure they met health and safety standards, stores would be required to present documentation for the source of each puppy sold. If the ordinance failed, the status quo would continue.

"I will open this up for public comment at this time," Demings said. "Mr. Raasch, do we have any speakers?"

"Mayor, we have 53 speaker cards today," the planning administrator replied, "some of which are receiving time from other members of the audience." Demings peered at him over his glasses, mouth a straight line. Two minutes per speaker then.

One by one, the yellow- and red-shirted attendees pleaded with commissioners.

Pet store owners and a few of their employees argued that the ban would effectively shut down their regulated businesses, lead to the proliferation of unregulated backyard breeders and ensure even more suffering for the animals everyone wants to protect. None of the red-shirts had seen any evidence that their respective pet stores source dogs from puppy mills, they said, and all insisted their goal was making families happy.

Puppies get sick, "like babies," Petland corporate representative Elizabeth Kunzelman said, but they get vet checks and there's a Puppy Lemon Law in Florida. With thousands of shelter dogs euthanized every year, other speakers questioned, are shelters really any better than commercial pet stores?

But animal activists and shelter and rescue employees begged commissioners to consider morality instead of economics. They told stories of sick puppies, unsocialized pets and female dogs who were impregnated every time they went into heat. Besides, the yellow-shirts asked, why couldn't the pet stores move to a food and service-based model, like most other major chains?

No matter which way the vote went, the speakers made clear that this issue was personal. Someone was sure to be unhappy.

Commissioner Emily Bonilla, an animal advocate who had been attacked for her pro-ban position before the hearing, suggested that pet stores had donated to certain commissioners' campaigns and attempted to "control and manipulate" the whole process. (Mayor Demings, she told Orlando Weekly later, is backed by the Southern Group, a political consulting company that also lobbies for Petland.)

Across the dais, Commissioner Nicole Wilson informed the room that the USDA, which regulates puppy mills, is grossly understaffed and doesn't have the ability to enforce regulations the way pet stores suggest they do. While the Orange County Commission can't make laws on puppy mills in Missouri, "any criminal enterprise is only fueled by a supply and demand," she said, "and if we are ... allowing a place for them to be shipped and to be distributed, then we're a part of that."

The roll call vote came down to a tie-breaker.

Commissioner Bonilla: Yes. Commissioner Wilson: Yes. Commissioner Christine Moore: No. Commissioner Mayra Uribe: Yes. Commissioner Victoria Siplin: No. Mayor Demings: No. Commissioner Maribel Gomez Cordero wasn't sure.

"This is hard for me, and I know you know why," she said. "This is a bad decision now that I'm in."

"We do have work-force training for your cousins to try to find alternative work," Bonilla said quietly from the side.

"Stop, stop," Siplin jumped in, "don't insult people." Gomez Cordero nodded, jaw tight.

"It's aye or no," Demings said.

"Yes."

After hours of deliberation, the motion had passed. The sale of dogs, cats and rabbits was no longer allowed within Orange County. After a one-year grace period, pet stores in county lines would have to change their business model or close.

To those opposed to pet stores, including the young woman from the beginning of our story and some of her Petland colleagues, the ban was a win, but not a cure-all. Hours of emotional testimony had just barely convinced seven county officials to pass the ordinance. Who would believe them if they exposed what happened behind closed doors?

Alexa Abitabilo and her Petland-purchased puppy, Odin. - PHOTO COURTESY ALEXA ABITABILO
  • photo courtesy Alexa Abitabilo
  • Alexa Abitabilo and her Petland-purchased puppy, Odin.

PETLAND'S BUSINESS SEEMS MAGICAL: healthy dogs from safe breeders, pristine animal welfare, growing families who cuddle new furry friends. But behind the curtain, water leaks out of broken plumbing, and black mold festers in the employees-only bathroom. Ceilings checkerboarded with missing tiles reveal faulty ventilation for months without attention. Puppies crowd unsanitary kennels, and maggots squirm at the bottom of long-expired dog treats.

Every week, puppies arrive in boiling-hot metal trucks, bulk-ordered for a discount like Costco canned goods.

John Goodman, an investigator with the Humane Society, said they found that almost all puppies in commercial puppy stores like Petland come from commercial dog breeders, colloquially known as "puppy mills."

A commercial breeder, by USDA standards, has five or more breeding female dogs and sells to customers sight unseen, meaning they either sell online, to brokers who deal with pet stores or to pet stores directly. But it's never just five. Usually, Goodman said, mills average around 70 dogs, but there are several with hundreds of dogs, a few in Kansas with thousands. These bigger operations thrive in states like Missouri, Indiana, Kansas, Iowa and Arkansas that have limited local regulation.

The Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the USDA, requires commercial breeders to meet minimum standards of care, and while some states do have more regulation, "minimum" is the operative word there.

"You can keep a dog in a cage that's only six inches longer than her body for her life," Goodman said. "She might stand on wire flooring with her paws never touching a blade of grass." Breeders can stack cages one on top of another, creating teetering towers of crates to maximize barn space. Ammonia from puppy urine circulates through the air. Female dogs will breed every time they go into heat, for six or seven years, and then be discarded. Though breeders are supposed to give their animals veterinary care, Goodman said his investigations often find deficiencies in that area.

Few disagree that puppy mills are inhumane, but no store will admit to buying from them. Petland displays binders in each playroom to show customers they use reputable breeders, but former employees said the pictures are a fairytale. Franchise owners only visit breeders for a short period of time on a corporate trip, former employees said.

According to former employees and Humane Society research, Petland Waterford Lakes buys from breeders that don't appear in the picture books. Some are JAKS Puppies, an Iowa puppy broker that created shell rescues to illegally transfer hundreds of puppies; Blue Ribbon Puppies, an Indiana mill linked to a major multi-drug resistant disease outbreak; and KNE Kennels, an Iowa mill where investigators found fire piles of dog bones.

While some of the more expensive breeds, like French bulldogs, are sold for around $700, former employees said the store purchased most of their puppies for around $200. The lower the cost, the larger the profit — Economics 101, applied to man's best friend.

Crammed into the back of a truck, the puppies cross state lines through middlemen like Puppy Travelers, a conglomerate of regional USDA-licensed pet transportation companies. In 2015, nine puppies died after overheating in one of Puppy Travelers' trucks, as the company had no employee overseeing the animals when the vehicle's air conditioning malfunctioned. Three years later, Lee County Animal Services seized 24 puppies as they were dropped off at a Fort Myers Petland after investigators found 127 puppies "crowded in cages full of feces and urine without any water."

Petland Waterford Lakes still uses Pet Travelers, as well as JAKS Puppies' transportation affiliate, JPC Transport, employees said.

When puppies arrive, many have missing toes or green pus clouding eyes red with infection. Others have scabby, unraveling, haphazard stitches, sharp rib cages poking through flea-ridden fur, even blistering cigarette burns. Some puppies' pedigrees list inbred parents — an aunt who's also a grandmother, a father who's also a brother. Some have no documentation at all.

There are too many animals to fit in the store's retail enclosures. There are 24 windows customers can see, each with three to five puppies. But there are more cages in the back, holding puppies who are too young or too sick for customers to buy. Employees said the store usually has over 150 dogs at one time.

Most puppies don't see the sun after the day they enter the store. Only bigger dogs get an occasional stroll with the kennel techs. Inside their glass cages, their hips and legs often grow weak from lack of exercise. When customers play with them, their bursting excitement at their momentary freedom gets mistaken for hyperactivity. Families don't want to buy needy, unsocialized dogs.

When vets come in each week, they have one to two minutes with each puppy in the store. There's too much ground to cover. Employees say the owners sometimes question the vets' medical opinions.

When a customer went to the register, they would receive the puppy's pedigree (if it existed), its vet-signed health certificates and information on how to care for its specific breed. Missing: documentation of any off-site veterinary care. In Orange County, health certificates and rabies documentation are the only documentation required.

Diseases in kennels are common and deadly — from kennel cough to campylobacter, giardia and parvovirus. All require quarantine and veterinary care, both things employees said the owners of the Waterford Lakes store resisted or hesitated to do.

In 2019, a campylobacter outbreak spread through the Southeast, ripping through commercial pet sellers. Hundreds of puppies and dozens of humans contracted it, including six Petland Waterford Lakes employees.

The same year, parvovirus — a disease so contagious and damaging that veterinarians recommend never selling a dog that has contracted it — crept through the kennel. Puppies slept all day as the disease spread through their bodies, leaving them lethargic shells. Their stool became black tar, followed by red blood. Then the puppies stopped eating. Upon losing their appetite, some puppies went to the vet, who confirmed their illness. But there wasn't enough room to quarantine them at the store.

The outbreaks occurred repeatedly, employees said.

Content warning: the next page contains images that some may find upsetting.

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