Telegram & Gazette Staff
WEBSTER – After months of protests and public scrutiny in the media, a business that allegedly sold sick puppies has closed its doors, but the business owner is still allegedly selling puppies and was ordered to appear in Dudley District Court last week.
The Main Street storefront of Elite Puppies is empty. There are no more puppies running around in wood chips — only an empty, yellow mop bucket and desk were visible inside the vacant store last week.
Elite Puppies, which allegedly sold sick dogs to a number of unsuspecting families, is closed after an investigative story by the Telegram & Gazette in December 2014 exposing numerous violations and after weekly protests by animal advocates and angry customers, some whose dogs required thousands of dollars of medical care and others whose puppies had died shortly after purchase.
But for some families, the nightmare of watching their puppy suffer from illness or die is not over.
In Dudley District Court, eight suits were filed against Jennifer L. Gardner in the last five years, six of which were filed by families who purchased puppies from her business who allegedly became sick or died shortly after purchase.
In half those cases, the families were awarded damages and court fees. In the others, Ms. Gardner prevailed, primarily because under state regulations, pet stores are not required to reimburse customers for bills for veterinarian care.
Several civil-arrest warrants were issued for Ms. Gardner for noncompliance on the cases, the latest on Tuesday for a case involving a Sturbridge family. In that case, the state's Department of Agricultural Resources urged Ms. Gardner to refund the family but couldn’t order her to do so, because of a loophole in the law that says the customer must return the puppy to the store for a refund with a diagnosis from a vet.
In the Manzaros' case, that was not possible.
Darlene and James Manzaro bought a lab-mix pup from Elite Puppies in August 2013 for around $580 for their four kids. She was the family’s first pet. Within a few days, she became lethargic, Ms. Manzaro said. When Snuggy’s condition plummeted five days after the Manzaros brought her home, they brought her to their vet, who put her on oxygen and were told to take Snuggy straight to the ER at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, she said. Tufts kept the puppy overnight and sent her home, but she became increasingly ill, Ms. Manzaro said. Tufts told the Manzaros to bring Snuggy back as soon as possible.
“They said they still did not know why Snuggy was so ill and that he needed two to three days of inpatient care to await blood tests,” Ms. Manzaro said on the phone Friday. “They said it would cost an additional $2,000 to $3,000 and we had already spent $1,600 on our puppy.”
Tufts told the Manzaros they could not release Snuggy because she couldn't breathe outside an oxygen chamber and the only other option was to put her to sleep. They also suspected she had distemper and other illnesses, she said.
“We were devastated,” Ms. Manzaro said. “My daughter and son were 4 and 5 at the time and it was the first animal we had. They cried and cried.”
She said when she called Ms. Gardner, instead of being sympathetic, Ms. Gardner called her a puppy killer.
“I called her crying — I just wanted to hear that she was sorry,” she said. “Instead, I was yelled at by her. I had to hang up on her. I couldn’t believe it. I was beside myself.”
Ms. Manzaro said Ms. Gardner would not issue a refund because they did not bring the puppy back with a diagnosis from a vet.
In November, Ms. Gardner told the DAR she refunded them.
“You failed to provide a refund as instructed by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, and refused to notify us that you were instructed to provide relief,” Ms. Manzaro wrote in her court filing. “Instead you continued to say hurtful things and refuse to mediate. You told us we had to obtain a veterinary diagnosis. However, when Tufts refused to release the puppy, you still refused any relief. It is entrapment that you required us to take the puppy to the vet and then because the vet refused to release the puppy, you did not have to provide a refund … Our family was traumatized by this situation.”
The court found in the Manzaros’ favor in the amount of $1,714 — the cost of the puppy plus vet bills. However, Ms. Gardner failed to show up for several hearings. On Tuesday, the court ordered Ms. Gardner to appear.
Ms. Gardner declined requests for comment.
Ms. Manzaro said the couple intend to pursue the action to help other families avoid the heartbreak they went through.
According to the Worcester County Sheriff’s office that handles civil-arrest warrants, that could drag out for quite some time.
Deputy Sheriff Amy B. Cross said her office tries to get people with capiases issued against them to voluntarily comply. If they don’t, those seeking relief, such as the Manzaros, can pay $300 to the sheriff’s office or a constable to have them arrested and physically brought into court. But, they do not detain women and the jails are often too full to detain men, Ms. Cross said. Also, Dudley District Court only hears capias cases on Tuesdays.
“If we get the person to court, it doesn’t necessarily mean we get the money,” she said.
Still, Ms. Manzaro said the family will continue because they feel Ms. Gardner was heartless about the loss of Snuggy and disrespectful toward the court process.
“Besides the financial burden, it’s the heartbreak,” Ms. Manzaro said. “Because Elite Puppies had been there a long time, I assumed there wasn’t anything wrong with the business.”
Unbeknownst to the Manzaros, there were numerous complaints against Elite for years.
After submitting a public records request Oct. 9, 2014 in December the Telegram & Gazette was allowed to review more than 600 pages of records at the DAR on Elite Puppies from 2011 to 2014. Numerous customers (whose names were redacted by state employees) complained about puppies they purchased that were sick or became ill shortly after bringing them home. There were 67 complaints received by the DAR about Elite Puppies from 2007 to 2014 — the most of any pet store, according to the DAR.
In November 2014, the DAR filed its first administrative action against Ms. Gardner, fining her $2,000.
The DAR fined her $500 per dog, for offering three puppies with "obvious signs of an infectious disease"; and $500 for failing to maintain a record for the location of birth for a puppy.
Ms. Gardner denies the state's claims and is appealing the action.
Then on Dec. 15, she was fined another $500 for selling a puppy with obvious signs of disease, a DAR spokeswoman said.
Ms. Manzaro said if she knew about the complaints to the DAR, she wouldn’t have entered the pet store.
She and others who say they were victims of Ms. Gardner’s business practices fear she will open in a new location or just sell out of her home. According to the DAR, she has not applied for a license to open another pet store, and there is no new business application on file in the Webster town clerk’s office.
Under state regulations, Ms. Gardner can sell out of her home if the dogs she is breeding are pets. The DAR does not issue pet shop licenses to private residences.
If she is buying new dogs and there is a complaint, the DAR can check into it, the agency said.
The only other person who can look into complaints is Webster Animal Control Officer Michelle A. LaFleche, but Ms. Gardner has a court order against her barring her from entering Ms. Gardner’s property or saying anything about her or her business. Ms. Gardner is also trying to sue Ms. LaFleche along with several protesters.
A public records request by the Telegram & Gazette to review complaints filed with Ms. LaFleche about Elite Puppies was denied by Ms. LaFleche and the town's attorney.
One of Ms. Gardner’s neighbors who asked she not be identified, said she has seen box trucks with barking puppies inside pull up to Ms. Gardner’s home late Tuesday evenings. She said she has also seen random people leave her home with puppies.
Another neighbor, Elaine O’Donoghue, who fosters and rescues dogs for PAWS New England, alleges Ms. Gardner harassed and verbally abused her as she walked by with her dogs after she made complaints to the ACO about puppies at Ms. Gardner's home who were left out without shelter in frigid temperatures, rain and without water. There were also large bulldogs “beating up” on puppies in a small, fenced-in area in Ms. Gardner’s front yard, she said.
Ms. O’Donoghue said she now avoids passing by her home.
“She’s not going to stop selling dogs,” she said. “I’ve seen cars pull up in the evening at her house to pick up puppies. If she thought for a second what she was doing was OK, she wouldn’t be so defensive.”