An Arizona court has cleared the way for 10 pet parents, who purchased sick animals from notorious puppy mill sellers despite assurances to the contrary, to continue their battle against online dog marketplace PuppyFind. This is just the latest in our offensive against deceptive online puppy mill sellers, which promise healthy, humanely treated dogs to pet lovers but peddle dogs mainly sourced from puppy mills.
The consumers in this case were heartbroken upon discovering they had purchased animals who’d been in an unhealthy environment and came to them sick. The amended complaint filed in February by the Arizona law firm Burch & Cracchiolo with assistance from the HSUS legal team, alleges that PuppyFind misled the consumers into believing they were buying from reputable breeders by falsely inflating seller ratings and cherry-picking uniformly positive reviews about these breeders. In reality, the puppies the plaintiffs received came from George and Tabitha Doyle, who have a long history of consumer complaints on the sale of sick puppies. Ms. Doyle has been convicted of 47 counts of animal cruelty. The Doyles are also among several breeders featured in The HSUS’s 2017 Horrible Hundred report, which highlights problem puppy mills around the country. (Yesterday, I wrote about how consumers now don’t even have the option on a go-forward basis to consult a USDA database to check inspection records, after the federal agency took down all reports in February based on a phony concern about privacy.)
In fact, many of the puppy mills that have been featured in our Horrible Hundred report have routinely advertised on PuppyFind.com, including Tonya Lewis (aka Tonya’s Tiny Companions), located in East Dublin, Georgia, who authorities charged with 20 counts of animal cruelty after several sick dogs and puppies were found at Lewis’ property, and Patti West (who operates under the business name of Lorrains Yorkies) of Meigs, Georgia, who state inspectors found was housing dogs in such inhumane conditions that they had to wear gas masks for the inspection. Despite their record of poor care for their animals, many of these sellers have primarily high ratings and positive reviews on PuppyFind. That’s just another part of the deception built around this online promoter of puppy mills.
PuppyFind claimed that since the reviews come from website users, the website itself is immune from liability under the federal Communications Decency Act. But PuppyFind deletes negative reviews about sellers, and the lawsuit alleges they do so for the purpose of supporting artificially high ratings. HSUS attorney Kim Ockene argued before the court that a website cannot be entirely immune from perpetuating consumer fraud, which is exactly what we believe is involved in this case.
Despite this victory in the Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona, the fight is far from over. PuppyFind has already indicated that it will seek an appeal. Our legal team, with assistance of counsel at Burch & Cracchiolo, will continue to defend against PuppyFind’s attempts to stop consumers from getting justice for themselves and their sick puppies.
This isn’t the first time we’ve linked slick websites to terrible puppy mills. Our investigation of Purebred Breeders LLC (now called Puppy Spot) was featured on the Today Show in 2011, after we reported that the site had approximately 800 different web urls, and misled consumers into thinking they were buying from small, local breeders; instead, many consumers ended up with sick puppies from questionable sellers. Our concern about unregulated online puppy sellers was the main reason we pressed the Obama administration to finalize the retail pet stores rule in 2013. The rule requires puppy sellers who ship animals sight unseen to pet buyers to follow the same USDA regulations as those who sell to pet stores — but too often the rule is not enforced, allowing hundreds of the country’s worst puppy mills to operate in the shadows of the law.
This case is also a reminder about why all of us, as pet lovers, need to be ever so vigilant about deceptive advertising in the retail pet industry. Here at The HSUS, we hear every day from unhappy consumers who purchased puppies online only to discover their beloved pets are sick. Click here for more information on how to find a responsible breeder or adopt a homeless animal from a shelter or rescue group. If you have purchased a sick or ill-treated puppy please report it by filling out our Puppy Buyer Complaint Form.