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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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Staff put up glass barriers, attempting to isolate the sick puppies from the healthy ones. In the most recent outbreak, this February, one barrier fell and crushed a puppy.

Employees said they'll never forget the smell: a nauseous perfume of black mold, blood, diarrhea and the sickly-sweet stench of parvovirus.

THE HUMAN COST: In 2019, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody opened a class action lawsuit against Petland Waterford Lakes for allegedly selling customers sick puppies and engaging in predatory lending practices.

Her investigation revealed that out of the 19 puppies mentioned in complaints, six died from contagious illnesses or genetic disorders soon after being sold; six were determined to be unfit for purchase by licensed veterinarians; five had congenital or hereditary issues, and three were not the presented breed or breed quality. New families received puppies that had canine parvovirus, canine coronavirus, giardia, coccidia, bacterial pneumonia and intestinal deformities, not to mention some with eye defects, lung deformities, as well as congenital and hereditary disorders including eye defects, blindness, different-sized lungs, hip dysplasia, and heart and esophagus issues.

The lawsuit claimed that Ben and Geoff Hoofnagle, the owners of Petland Waterford Lakes, formulated, directed, controlled, had the authority to control, and directly participated in unfair and deceptive acts and practice. The brothers lured misinformed buyers in, said the suit, with "a scheme to misrepresent" their puppies as high-quality and healthy while in fact sourcing them from puppy mills. By adding unwanted goods and services to the puppies' bills, the complaint continued, the brothers charged customers thousands of dollars for puppies for which they paid as little as $225.

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According to the lawsuit, the "extras" included things like vitamins, skin and coat conditioner, an AKC Prime Warranty and ID Chip enrollment, training pads, stain and odor remover, dental chews, chew deterrent spray, tearless puppy shampoo, water bottles, "poochie bells," heartbeat pillows, crates, bowls, treats, toys, leashes, collars, dog beds, flea and tick meds, and various service packages. The complaint states, "The defendants required the consumer to buy the above described additional unwanted goods and services with the puppy."

For customers who couldn't afford all that upfront, the store offered financing through a store credit card. Employees told Orlando Weekly that the financing options, while they looked standard, often led customers to pay accrued interest on their entire purchase, even if they only had one small payment left. Petland Waterford Lakes didn't tell customers their credit would get dinged when an employee checked if they were eligible for financing options. Consumers received conflicting warranty and return policies, and when they attempted to use the store's warranty or get reimbursed for veterinary costs, the owners refused to pay fully or denied requests entirely.

Employees told Orlando Weekly the Hoofnagles were not concerned when they first heard about the lawsuit; they laughed. The brothers did not respond for requests to comment after multiple messages to their personal numbers and calls to the Petland store on various days spanning several weeks.

When asked broadly about allegations against the Waterford Lakes store, Elizabeth Kunzelman, Petland's director of public affairs, said the company cannot respond to "hypotheticals." The testimonies in the summer Orange County Commissioners' hearing, she said, held a "multitude of false accusations and incorrect statements disguised as 'facts.'"

"For more than 50 years, Petland has a proud history of matching the right pet with the right customer," she wrote in an email. "Animal welfare is our number one priority and we take all credible claims seriously. If any store fails to operate within our animal welfare expectations, Petland is on record of having responded accordingly."

When asked for examples of times the store has responded to animal welfare discrepancies, Kunzelman did not respond. Similarly, Kunzelman did not respond when asked about more direct examples of possible health and animal welfare violations within the Waterford Lakes location.

Odin's owner sued Petland for his medical bills. - PHOTO COURTESY ALEXA ABITABILO
  • photo courtesy Alexa Abitabilo
  • Odin's owner sued Petland for his medical bills.

'ONE GIRL AGAINST PETLAND': In 2015, when Alexa Abitabilo decided to sue the business, legal counsel warned her: "Just so you know, you're going up against a big corporation. You're just one girl against Petland; that's like suing Target."

You just don't sue companies that have advisors and legal teams and resources, they said. But Abitabilo had to, for Odin.

She visited the store and played with him for two months before he was moved to a sale section for old dogs. "You're the only one who plays with him, you know," an employee told her, and her heart broke.

She convinced her mom to let her buy the brown miniature dachshund that walked with a wiggle in his little butt. She signed his vaccine disclosures and feeding guidelines at the register, and an employee slipped the documents into a folder, quietly adding a few pages Abitabilo didn't sign. While Odin's cute booty-wiggle caught Abitabilo's eye, it was actually a sign of what was wrong with him.

Odin, the vet told her later, had a genetic mutation that made his legs shaped like C's instead of L's. His mom had likely been overbred. If they didn't watch his weight, he could have problems with his back.

How could I not have known this, Abitabilo wondered? When she searched back through his paperwork, she found the mystery documents. They were his prior medical records — genetic abnormalities in the hips and pattern baldness, it said. She had signed a document of Odin's clean bill of health at purchase, but the one noting his problems was blank.

She tried calling the store, and they would field her calls. She resorted to calling from friend's numbers. Employees gave her excuses and then directed her to the company's dispute manager, Pawsitive Solutions. They set a mediation date, which then-19-year-old Abitabilo had to attend alone. They couldn't reach an agreement.

"I'll see you in court," she said, leaving the suited adults in the room.

She filed a lawsuit to get reimbursement for the cost of Odin and his veterinary expenses. The day before they went to trial, Abitabilo got a message. Petland wanted to settle.

"We really don't want this to go to court," Pawsitive Solutions told her. "Do you want to make this go away?"

So she did. The case was dismissed, but "only because they paid me off."

It's possible there were other complaints that settled before ever reaching court. Employees said the Hoofnagles seemed unconcerned.

THROUGHOUT THESE LEGAL BATTLES, the Hoofnagles have still required their employees to represent them at public hearings or sign off on customer settlements. In company group chats, staff took flak for not collecting enough petition signatures to oppose the ban. And during the hearing proceedings, staff were on the clock while endorsing the store's good qualities — in other words, paid to testify.

Most employees who work at Petland use it as their primary form of income, employees said. While the kennel techs make minimum wage, the pet counselors, those who sell puppies, make commission. It can be good money, especially when a puppy is sold for $4,000. But anyone who doesn't absolutely need to work there, one former female employee said, is gone in a month. And when they leave, it follows them.

On bad nights, when the store closed and the moon rose, the Hoofnagles weren't the ones staying after hours without pay. Their employees took sick puppies home with them whenever they could; one said she must have fostered hundreds of dogs overnight during her time at the Waterford Lakes Petland store. Who else would administer medicine every four hours or calm a puppy's shaky breathing?

All of the women feared that if they told others what they've gone through — what current employees are still going through — somehow, the owners would retaliate. Still, they'd rather live with that fear than stay silent.

In some ways, the red-shirts were right. It's been months since the ban of commercial pet sales, and not much has changed.

Employees still live with insomnia and traumatizing mental images. And the Hoofnagles, despite the state's lawsuit, despite the county vote and despite customer testimony, are still in business. In fact, they've teamed up with Petland Orlando South and Breeder's Pick — two more Orlando pet stores that source from puppy mills — to appeal the county ban.

None of the employees Orlando Weekly spoke to, former or current, believe the Hoofnagles should ever operate a business with animals again. Yet, when the grace period is over, they have little doubt the brothers will pack up shop and move their business over county lines. Without a statewide law banning commercial pet sales, there's nothing to stop them.

Editor’s note: Orlando Weekly's reporter spoke to four former Petland employees on background for this article. Each provided documentation of their experiences working for the store, and Orlando Weekly received over 50 photographs documenting aspects of animal management and employee treatment. The store owners, Ben and Geoff Hoofnagle, did not respond for comment after multiple messages and calls to their personal and work phone numbers. A representative for their corporate branch also did not respond for comment when asked about specific allegations against the store.

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