Pet stores owned by an Arizona family have purchased hundreds of dogs from “puppy mill” breeders cited for health problems and are breaking state and federal regulations, according to animal-cruelty activists.
Former workers also have reported concerns about the welfare of the puppies destined for the mall pet shops, volunteers from Animal Wellness Action and Bailing Out Benji said.
The activists have shared documentation they said shows the scope of the problems with authorities and have called for an investigation.
“These pet store owners are fraudulently representing to customers they don’t procure dogs from puppy mills, but in fact they are getting dogs from high-volume, out-of-state breeders with direct violations of the Animal Welfare Act,” Lain Kahlstrom, the director of state affairs for Animal Wellness Action, said.
The Mineo family, which owns Puppies ‘N Love and Animal Kingdom pet stores, denied the allegations.
The company was unaware of the breeder health violations and works to ensure puppies are cared for before and after purchasing, spokesperson Sydney Cisco said.
“We are a family owned and operated company that believes in protecting a person’s right to purchase puppies that are healthy and socialized, coming only from compassionate and exceptional breeders,” Cisco said in a statement.
“We have been in the pet industry for over forty years and have advocated for the very laws that regulate the sale of puppies in our state. We believe in full transparency and disclosure.”
The pet stores are located at Arizona Mills in Tempe, Arrowhead Towne Center in Glendale, Paradise Valley Mall in Phoenix, SanTan Village in Gilbert and Tucson Mall in Tucson.
The Mineo family also operates CPI Inc., known as Companion Pets Inc., which owns the pet shops, and an umbrella company, Valley Pet Centers Inc.
Activists call for investigation
Nicole Galvan, the Arizona director of Bailing Out Benji, said former employees have come forward as whistleblowers, providing photos and company records of dogs who were sick and kept in unclean conditions.
The activists investigated potential violations of licensing, purchasing and selling rules through government websites, public records requests and visiting the pet shops, Galvan said.
Tempe Councilmember Lauren Kuby and Tucson Councilmember Steve Kozachik worked with the activists to provide documents to city officials.
“Our goal in sharing the results of our investigation … (is to) put an end to the illegal trafficking in puppies,” Kahlstrom and Galvan said in a letter to Tempe’s city attorney.
Tempe Detective Greg Bacon said police were looking into the allegations.
Allegation: Breeders cited for health problems
Arizona law prohibits pet stores from purchasing dogs from breeders who have directly violated federal pet-dealer regulations in the previous two years.
The Animal Kingdom and Puppies ‘N Love joint website says two employees work full time to research breeders and conduct twice-annual inspections of breeders to comply with the law.
The website says the pet stores also won’t purchase dogs from breeders who have been cited in the previous two years for indirect violations of federal rules, which are considered less serious, if the actions have any potential to harm an animal’s health or welfare.
“We pride ourselves on our rigorous standards,” Companion Pets Inc., the related pet-store company, states on its website.
But shipping records obtained from the Missouri Department of Agriculture paint a different picture, activists said.
The records show CPI Inc. imported hundreds of puppies from late 2017 to early 2020 from two Missouri breeders who received federal direct violations.
Sugarfork Kennels, owned by Ken and Abby Anderson, received a direct violation from the USDA in October 2017 for an emaciated female golden retriever, government documents show.
The dog’s “waist was extremely tucked and the ribs, spine and hip bones were very prominent,” the inspector wrote, while the gums were white, potentially signifying a “serious medical condition.” The inspector ordered the dog receive immediate medical treatment.
In the two years after the violation, from October 2017 to June 2019, CPI Inc. purchased more than 230 puppies from the Andersons, Missouri Department of Agriculture shipping records obtained by the activists show.
The breeder did not return requests for comment.
Wilbur Byler, of Contented Puppies Paradise, received a direct violation from the USDA in October 2019 for an untreated eye lesion in a female Yorkshire terrier named Dolly, according to government records.
The breeder had been placing dietary supplement drops in the dog’s eye for about 10 days, the inspector wrote. The drops were labeled for oral use and the product was not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease, the violation report said.
The inspector ordered the breeder to take the dog to a vet. “Eye problems can progress rapidly, can be painful and can result in a loss of vision,” the inspector wrote.
In January 2020, roughly three months after the violation, CPI Inc. purchased 10 puppies from Byler, according to Missouri Department of Agriculture shipping records obtained by the activists.
A woman who answered Byler’s phone and declined to give her name said the breeder does not sell puppies to pet stores and had never heard of CPI Inc. or Animal Kingdom.
Cisco, the pet store representative, said the breeder violations occurred after the USDA removed or heavily redacted animal welfare inspection reports on its website in 2017, citing privacy concerns.
The records weren’t fully restored online until this year, though some were available through a public records request.
The pet store company lamented the USDA’s decision at the time but promised to dig into breeders’ history regardless.
“We continue to scrutinize inspection reports on our breeders and make them available in our stores,” owner Frank Mineo Jr. said in a 2017 news release. “We work very closely with our breeders and we are proud of them, but we still request copies of all inspection reports dating back two years before we buy any pet from any breeder.”
Although Sugarfork Kennels and Byler signed agreements to provide all inspection reports to CPI Inc. upon request, the breeders failed to disclose the violations, Cisco said.
Byler has been placed on the company’s “do not buy” list, Cisco said.
The pet stores halted purchases from Sugarfork Kennels in December 2018 after the company learned of the health violation and resumed business after the mandated two-year waiting period expired and the company had inspected the breeder’s kennels, Cisco said.
However, records provided by the activists show CPI Inc. purchased a puppy from the Andersons in June 2019, less than two years following the violation, after the breeder canceled the Sugarfork Kennels license and opened a new one under the name Arrow Valley.
Allegation: Cages missing breeder information
Arizona law requires pet stores to share the name of the breeder, the breeder license number and the USDA website on each animal’s cage, online sale posting and brochure so customers can research breeders.
Animal Kingdom pledges on its website to follow the law by posting “the first/last name of the breeder(s), the state in which they breed and their U.S.D.A. license number on each puppy kennel.”
When activists visited Animal Kingdom and Puppies ‘N Love stores, they took photos of cages missing breeder names, as well as screenshots of missing breeder names and incorrect breeder license numbers on the website.
The pet shops have protocols in place for labeling kennels, in addition to maintaining a breeder book in each store and a breeder gallery online, Cisco said.
Allegation: Unlicensed animal handling
The pet store businesses are not licensed or inspected by the federal government, according to USDA records, when they should be, the activists said.
The company said it consulted with the USDA and learned it did not need licenses.
The USDA requires “intermediate handler” licenses for anyone “taking custody of regulated animals in connection with transporting them on public carriers … (including) boarding kennels that take responsibility for shipping animals or receiving them after or during shipment” and anyone “engaged in any business in which he receives custody of animals in connection with their transportation in commerce.”
CPI Inc. received shipments of hundreds of dogs at a facility in north Phoenix, which is not a retail pet shop, according to Missouri Department of Agriculture shipping records.
The dogs are stored at the location before being distributed to shops, according to former employees. That means the company is an intermediate handler, activists said.
Cisco argued the company does not store puppies at the facility. Dogs are shipped there for rest and veterinary care before being delivered to pet shops, she said.
“All animals … may need some time to adjust after a period of travel and CPI is prepared to provide any care that a puppy may need,” Cisco said. “Every puppy, regardless of its health when it arrives at CPI, must be seen by a licensed veterinarian for a thorough evaluation, given vaccinations as needed, and is issued a written veterinarian examination statement.”
A license for “exhibitors” is required by the USDA for “anyone who uses regulated animals to promote or advertise goods and services … even if you do promotions with only a single animal.” The agency says retail stores are not exempt from exhibitor licensing, for example, “if you take animals outside the store for teaching or promotion.”
Social-media postings as recently as February show pet store employees taking puppies on promotional visits, activists said.
“There’s nothing like the joy of cuddling a puppy to brighten your day,” said a Puppies ‘N Love post on Instagram on Feb. 21, with a photo of an older woman in a wheelchair holding a fluffy white dog. “That’s why we visit Phoenix Nursing Home and others twice a month to spread the puppy love.”
An Animal Kingdom Facebook post on Feb. 28 showed college students cradling puppies.
“Downtown ASU students got to take a break from midterms,” it read. “We love to introduce our pups to people and watch the joy that ensues.”
The pet stores do not need to have exhibitor licenses, Cisco said, because employees do not charge a fee or bring more than eight animals to an event.
The USDA says an exhibitor license is not required for “any person who maintains a total of eight or fewer pet animals … for exhibition… This exemption does not extend to any person acting in concert with others where they collectively maintain a total of more than eight of these animals for exhibition, regardless of possession and/or ownership.”
A 2018 visit to ASU featured at least 15 puppies, according to a Facebook video.
Allegation: Poor condition of kennels
Animal Kingdom’s website says the company transports puppies in safe, temperature-controlled vans with a veterinary assistant on board plus food, water and toys and that puppies receive veterinary checks before and after arrival.
“We have been working with the same group of veterinarians for more than 20 years and we trust and respect each of our doctors, so you can too,” the website says.
Activists say former employees provided photos and documents indicating puppies with myriad health problems were shipped to the north Phoenix facility and kept in poor conditions.
The photos show dogs with swollen gums, eye problems, hair loss, skin lesions, fleas, parasites and a distended belly.
Photos from a former employee of a company log book include notes like: “Most of them are coughing. … They’re all from the ‘sick shipment.’”
Former employees documented cages that were too small or damaged, medications stored haphazardly, feces left in food bowls, vomit left in kennels and shipping cages without water, the activists said.
One employee told an activist by text message that dogs with red, swollen eyes had waited days or weeks for treatment, according to a screenshot.
Alicia Perez, an animal care technician who worked at Animal Kingdom at Arizona Mills for six months in 2017, told The Republic some shipments of puppies would arrive with filthy cages and diseases, like parvovirus, fleas and ticks, while other dogs had nails so long they curled under.
Perez was expected to inject dogs with vaccines and medicine without training, she said. And she worried about puppies kept in cages with no exercise.
“It got to the point I was coming home and freaking out. ‘What am I supposed to do? How can I help them if the owners don’t care?'” Perez, 25, of Gilbert, said. “I felt so stressed because I couldn’t do nothing for them. … Emotionally it was so draining.”
When she questioned a manager about dogs arriving in bad condition, she said she was told it was common for puppies to get sick, and her hours were cut. Perez quit soon after, she said.
She warned people to double check breeders before purchasing and stay away from pet stores.
“These are precious lives that are just money to these people, and it should never be that way,” Perez said. “When you buy a dog from a place like that, you’re encouraging it to keep happening and more lives to potentially be lost.”
In the “rare” event a puppy is sick when it arrives, the pet store company either sends the puppy back to the breeder for treatment or takes the dog to a local animal hospital, Cisco said.
Puppies are housed in appropriately sized kennels, which are cleaned multiple times a day, and are given time to play with other puppies at both the central facility and pet shops, Cisco said.
In response to Perez’s allegations, the company said employees are never allowed to treat puppies without training.
“We issued this specific employee a written warning for poor job performance and she resigned that day,” Cisco said.
Arizona law too weak, activists say
For years, animal activists have tried to curb pet stores in Arizona from buying animals from “puppy mills.”
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a supporter of the activists, said the state doesn’t regulate pet stores tightly enough and existing rules are difficult to enforce.
“It’s my hope that law enforcement will take a serious look at the evidence that’s been amassed in this investigation” by the nonprofits, he said in a statement.
Phoenix, Tempe and Tucson tried to join more than 350 local governments and three states in banning pet stores from selling commercially bred dogs. Pet shops in those places must work instead with animal shelters and rescue organizations.
The Mineo family told state and local officials at the time that banning reputable commercial breeders from Arizona pet shops would cause customers to seek out irresponsible, unlicensed breeders online.
The Arizona Legislature quashed the local bans in 2016 and passed a law allowing pet stores to sell from commercial breeders as long as they were licensed, in good standing with the USDA and disclosed to customers before a sale.
Galvan, of Bailing Out Benji, said the investigation shows even that law hasn’t been followed.
“Not only has this law been incredibly difficult to get enforced, but it obviously didn’t deter these pet stores from getting puppies from puppy mills who commit egregious levels of abuse to the animals which they make money off of,” Galvan said.
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