NEW YORK—Elena Zakharova bought her puppy, a Brussels Griffon, for $1,650 in 2011. She named the puppy Umka after a polar bear character from a Russian cartoon.
Brussels Griffons are a toy dog breed. When Umka began to grow bigger than what a Brussels Griffon is supposed to be, Zakharova began to grow suspicious. She called up Raising Rover, the store where she bought the puppy, and requested paperwork for Umka’s origin.
Zakharova’s requests went unanswered. Jeffrey Silverstein, the owner of Raising Rover, eventually sold the store and opened another one upstate called Barking Babies.
Frustrated, Zakharova contacted the state Department of Agriculture and Markets (DAM), which regulates pet stores. A representative from the department contacted Raising Rover only to find out that the owner has changed the name of the business and moved. DAM contacted Zakharova to let her know there is not much that can be done since the store had obtained a new license.
Umka wasn’t only much bigger than her so-called breed, but also began to have multiple health problems as time went on. Her hips grew wrong and the bones had to be shaved off by a veterinarian.
Zakharova suspected that Umka’s most likely origin was a puppy mill rather than a professional breeder. And Umka is not alone: thousands of puppies are brought into the city on a regular basis on trucks from puppy mills across the country.
Puppy mills are high-volume dog breeding operations that are characterized by poor and inhumane conditions. Female dogs are often made to have dozens of litters of puppies. The animals usually live malnourished and unwashed. Umka was likely washed before being put for sale. She looked like a Brussels Griffon puppy by all accounts, but given all of her defects, she is far from what $1,650 should buy.
Zakharova did not give up when the DAM refused to fine the ex-owners of Raising Rover or revoke their new license at Barking Babies. She teamed up with Susan Chana Lask, an attorney, to sue DAM.
The lawsuit was filed at the Albany County Supreme Court on May 8th. It alleges that the DAM neglected to carry out its duties in failing to fine the pet store. The lawsuit claims that Zakharova pays state taxes which fund the DAM, and that she has the right to expect the department to carry out its duties.
The DAM is funded by state taxes. Its budget in 2011–12 was $166 million. According to Lask, $117,000 of that budget is used to fund the division responsible for regulating pet stores. The division has one inspector state-wide covering 267 licensed pet stores. And there are many more unlicensed pet stores, Lask said.
Puppy mills are not technically illegal, but it is illegal to mistreat animals. The state has multiple laws protecting animal welfare.
Puppy mills will not stop operating if the judge rules in Zakharova’s favor, but Lask intends to set a precedent and alert the DAM that more claims similar to Zakharova’s could be filed.
There are 13 states that already have puppy mills bills targeted at curbing animal abuses. Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia passed such laws in 2008, and 10 other states followed in 2009.
A puppy mill bill that was passed in 2010 in Missouri was challenged by dog breeders and other farmers in the state. Missouri is home to the Hunte Corporation, the largest distributor and wholesaler of puppies in the United States.
“Dogs are sentient beings,” said Lask, who traced her own dog back to Hunte Corp. more than a decade ago. “The purpose of this is to stop the killing and make a point of it.”
According to Lask, defective puppies from puppy mills often end up being brought to shelters when their owners are unable to shoulder the unexpected veterinarian bills. The majority of these dogs are then put to death. The Humane Society estimates that animal shelters in the United States care for 6 to 8 million dogs per year, of which 3 to 4 million are euthanized.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched an animal protection initiative on May 1. The measures include monitoring pet stores and pursuing civil and criminal prosecutions where appropriate.
“Fighting animal cruelty is both a consumer protection issue and a public safety issue,” Schneiderman stated in a press release.