How much did dog attack liability have to do with it?
PHOENIX, Arizona––Almost a year of wondering what the December 14, 2014 sale of PetSmart would mean to PetSmart Charities came to an abrupt end on November 4, 2015, when the entire PetSmart Charities staff got the boot.
Incorporated in 1994 /as an independent 501(c)(3) public charity, but functioning since inception as a nonprofit subsidiary of the PetSmart pet supply retail store chain, PetSmart Charities has reportedly distributed more than $165 million raised from customers to animal welfare organizations, including $51 million in 2014.
PetSmart Charities has also facilitated more than five million dog and cat adoptions through in-store Luv-A-Pet adoption boutiques which rehomed animals brought by local shelters and shelterless rescues.
But the Luv-A-Pet adoption program may have become more of a liability than an asset in the eyes of the new PetSmart corporate management.
Seven of the 11 members of the PetSmart Charities board of directors are associated either with the PetSmart company or with investment funds holding an ownership stake in the PetSmart retail chain of more than 1,400 stores in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico.
External indications are that PetSmart and PetSmart Charities issued record payouts in 2015 to victims of dog attacks associated with the Luv-A-Pet program. Notably, 30th District Court Judge Bob Brotherton of Wichita Falls, Texas in July 2015 finalized a $495,000 payout to the family of Isabella Quintana, age 4 when she was mauled by a Rottweiler during an Adopt-A-Dog event inside a PetSmart store on June 29, 2013 and was LifeFlighted from the premises.
Toward the end of the summer of 2015 some PetSmart stores quietly closed their Luv-A-Pet boutiques, sometimes for “renovation,” and ended arrangements with longtime “adoption partner” animal charities.
The shoe drops
“As part of a restructuring of its operations and programs, Phoenix-based PetSmart Charities Inc. is laying off its entire workforce of 37 employees,” wrote Phoenix Business Journal senior reporter Angela Gonzales.
Among the laid off personnel best known to the humane community were PetSmart Charities executive director Jan Wilkins, cat program manager Bryan Kortis, who earlier founded Neighborhood Cats of New York City, and director of grants and field initiatives Julie White, who was previously the Seattle-area representative for the Best Friends Animal Society.
PetSmart director of corporate communications Michelle Friedman told Gonzales in a prepared statement that PetSmart Charities “will continue to donate money to animal welfare efforts. And those 37 workers will get the opportunity to apply for 34 newly created positions with different roles and responsibilities,” Gonzales wrote. “Those who decide not to apply or are not offered a position will receive severance benefits, Friedman said.”
Why the layoffs?
Friedman offered few specifics as to why the whole PetSmart Charities staff was laid off at once.
“We recently conducted an extensive review of the PetSmart Charities organization and benchmarked against best-in-class nonprofits, with the goal of maximizing the impact of every donor dollar,” Friedman told Gonzales.
Friedman did not respond to a November 5, 2015 inquiry from ANIMALS 24-7.
Asked ANIMALS 24-7, “Does this have anything to do with the multiple liability cases brought against PetSmart, PetSmart Charities, and PetSmart adoption partners in recent years as result of dog attacks?”
“I haven’t been part of any of the restructuring discussions, so don’t really know what the motivations are,” Kortis told ANIMALS 24-7. “I don’t believe any specific programs or incidents were driving factors.”
But costly and embarrassing dog attack cases involving PetSmart recurred throughout the first 11 months under the new ownership.
Several of them, though, involved not the Luv-A-Pet adoption centers but rather the PetSmart policy of allowing dogs to come inside stores with their people.
PetSmart requires dogs to be leashed, and tries to discourage customers from bringing aggressive dogs into stores.
Bully breed policy
In addition, since 2007, “PetSmart’s policy is to not allow bully breeds, or any mix of, or any pets that exhibit aggressive behaviors to participate in our Doggie Day Camp off-leash group play activities,” according to the PetSmart public relations web site.
The policy pertains to “Pit Bull Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, American Bulldogs, or mixed breeds that have the appearance or characteristics of one of these breeds.”
But the PetSmart policy statement adds that, “Bully breeds are welcome in our grooming salons, training areas, PetsHotels, and stores in general.”
This has led to some of the most publicized attacks occurring on PetSmart premises.
Attacks on premises
Just three weeks after the sale was announced, for instance, media throughout the Detroit area distributed security camera images of a man who fled the PetSmart store in Southfield, Michigan in a black Mercedes, after his pit bull attacked customer James Jenkins.
In August 2015 a pit bull attack on a Great Dane at the PetSmart store in Newnan, Georgia made headlines. Great Dane owner Mitchell Philpott was bitten while trying to break up the fight, and reportedly told pit bull owner Susan Peterson to “Get your dog. I’m going to shoot it.”
The Philpott/Peterson incident occurred at the same store where PetSmart customer Craig Emory Hayes on August 11, 2014 fatally stabbed a pit bull named Clara who was taken outside to avoid the altercation, but slipped her collar and ran back inside to attack Hayes’ dog.
Recounted Sarah Fay Campbell of the Newnan Times-Herald, “Hayes and his 11-year-old terrier Lexie were at the Banfield Animal Hospital inside PetSmart. A pit bull mix named Clara, who was there for a Newnan-Coweta Humane Society adoption event, escaped from her handler and ran up to Lexie, biting her on the ear. Hayes called for help and tried to separate the dogs, and when he was unsuccessful, began stabbing Clara.”
Clara was euthanized afterward by the Newnan-Coweta Humane Society, due to the combination of her previous attack history––she had attacked other dogs at least twice before––with the severity of her injuries.
Pit bull advocates nationwide petitioned for Hayes to be prosecuted, but the Coweta County Grand Jury on November 13, 2014 refused to issue an indictment.
Eight attacks in eight years
The Newnan incident was at least the eighth pit bull attack at a PetSmart store in as many years, along with the Rottweiler attack on Isabella Quintana, to attract media notice.
Five of the pit bull attacks in PetSmart stores resulted in the deaths of other customers’ dogs; three resulted in human injuries.
In one case, in Gainesville, Georgia in February 2013, a PetSmart customer’s pit bull mauled a six-year-old inside the store. The customer and his companion then fled the store. Witness James Weber tried to stand in front of their vehicle to prevent their escape.
“They were entering their vehicle. The passenger pointed a gun through the windshield at me and told me to get out of the way. The driver actually tried to run me down in the parking lot to get away,” Weber told Tom Regan of Channel 2 Action News.
But while PetSmart stores in general may have become a magnet for dog attack incidents and liability claims, the in-store Luv-A-Pet adoption boutiques in particular invite in large numbers of animals of largely unknown and potentially problematic background, sometimes brought by problematic people and charities.
Brynn Grimley of the Tacoma News Tribune on December 13, 2014 spotlighted the possible risks in examining the case of just one of the tens of thousands of individual animal rescuers who rehome animals through PetSmart stores––and spotlighted, as well, an alleged lack of PetSmart scrutiny of adoption partners.
“Three dogs that attacked and killed other animals last summer were all placed from the Lakewood (Washington) PetSmart,” all by Diana Van Dusen of P.U.R.R.R. Rescue, reported Grimley.
“In good standing”
While Van Dusen was later excluded from rehoming dogs through the Lakewood store, Grimley continued, “Van Dusen continues to adopt out animals at the PetSmart store in Lacey. In fact, she could continue to distribute them at the Lakewood store if not for lack of a city business license. As far as PetSmart Charities is concerned, Van Dusen is a reputable animal rescuer. Tia McCracken, PetSmart Charities western region adoption program manager, said Van Dusen ‘is in good standing with our adoption partnership,’” even though she has a long history of infractions of animal control ordinances.
“The city first learned of P.U.R.R.R. Rescue in 2008,” Grimley wrote, “when it discovered Van Dusen had converted the back of her house to accommodate 22 cats, more than the city’s allowed five licensed animals in a residential area. The city gave her time to find homes for the animals. Over the years, Lakewood animal control returned to her home for barking complaints, reports of aggressive dogs, and dogs breaking through a fence. She has been cited for having too many animals on her property and for failure to license animals, according to animal control reports.”
Van Dusen was sued on August 29, 2014, Grimley continued, for $7,900 in boarding fees allegedly owed to the Peninsula Pet Lodge of Olalla, Washington. The Peninsula Pet Lodge housed 13 pit bulls and a German shepherd mix earlier in the year. The plaintiffs contended that “All showed signs of neglect, were emaciated, malnourished and in need of flea and worm medication,” Grimley summarized. Van Dusen disputed the health complaints, but acknowledged that the dogs needed baths.
Jerky & rawhide treats
PetSmart ran into additional liability issues after the U.S. Food & Drug Administration reportedly received more than 4,800 complaints of dogs and cats becoming ill after eating Chinese-made jerky and rawhide treats. As of mid-2014 the treats had allegedly killed more than 1,000 dogs since 2007.
PetSmart and rival Petco both pledged in May 2014 to stop selling the treats. Petco finally did in January 2015, but PetSmart continued to stock them for another two months.
The suspect treats were barely off the market before the H3N2 canine influenza virus, first identified in China and South Korea, was detected in the U.S. “after several dogs at PetSmart boarding facilities got sick. The company temporarily closed three Chicago-area locations to be disinfected,” CBS News reported on April 5, 2015.
The H3N2 outbreak spread throughout the eastern U.S. during the next four months, temporarily closing shelters, veterinary clinics, and boarding kennels where cases were detected. The outbreak was never definitively linked to Luv-A-Pet adoption boutiques, but several of the shelters involved were Luv-A-Pet adoption partners, and the PetSmart store in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, Ohio was temporarily closed in July 2015 for a 72-hour disinfection treatment after “several confirmed cases of canine influenza” occurred among dogs who had been inside the building.
Outbreaks of the avian disease psittacosis have been an ongoing concern for PetSmart at least since September 2006, when Amanda de la Garza of Corpus Christi allegedly bought an infected cockatiel from a PetSmart store. Her father Joe de la Garza, 63, died from psittacosis sixteen days later; Amanda de la Garza was hospitalized for six weeks, spending some of that time in a coma.
The de la Garza family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against PetSmart in June 2008.
Meanwhile, responding to an apparently unrelated psittacosis outbreak discovered in December 2007, PetSmart had by February 2008 suspended bird sales at 950 stores in 47 states.
Psittacosis recurred at a PetSmart store in Odessa, Texas, in June 2014. Parakeet sales were suspended at 511 stories before that outbreak was deemed fully controlled.
20 years old
PetSmart founders Jim and Janice Dougherty formed PetSmart Charities in 1995, nine years after they started the PetSmart store chain and began donating retail space to animal shelters and rescue groups to rehome dogs and cats.
Initially PetSmart Charities only managed the PetSmart Charities Adoption Centers. Soon, however, PetSmart cashiers began encouraging customers to add a dollar or more to their orders to fund PetSmart Charities projects, including disaster relief, spay/neuter projects, and other grants to animal shelters and rescues.
At peak, in 2014, PetSmart Charities helped to facilitate about 470,000 dog and cat adoptions, and about 285,000 spay/neuter surgeries, along with making about $34 million a year in grants to approximately 2,800 other animal charities.
The largest project funded by PetSmart Charities in recent years may have been Pets for Life, providing veterinary care and services to underserved neighborhoods in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia since 2011, under management by the Humane Society of the U.S.
Having invested about $1 million a year in Pets for Life in 2013 and 2014, PetSmart Charities expanded the program to five more cities in 2015.
The future of PetSmart Charities involvement in Pets for Life is now unclear.