By Jill Ryther and Marc Robinson
Most of us consider our animals to be beloved family members, truly priceless in our hearts and minds. Yet, to our state and local officials — many of whom we elect — these family members are no more valuable than mere property (like a table or a couch) when harmed or killed.
This fiction is forced upon all of us through the legal system. It has led to all kinds of institutionalized disregard for the health and safety of animals and the emotional well-being of the people who love them.
Take, for example, the chasm of discrepancy between what PetSmartÂ (theÂ global “pet” company you may believe is pro animal welfare)Â says and what they do.
TheirÂ ownÂ Code of Ethics & Integrity handbookÂ says: “Our vision: we love pets, and we believe pets make us better people. PetSmart will be the trusted partner to pet parents and pets in every moment of their lives.” The handbook goes on to list PetSmart’s values as “do the right thing; accountability; customer-focused; rigor; and transparency.”
Sadly, this is mostly marketing hyperbole; more fiction than fact.
PetSmartÂ often does not do the right thing; does not provide rigorous enough training; does not sustain customer-focus throughout their control over a family’s animal; does not practice transparency; andÂ aggressivelyÂ avoids accountability. Yet, living up to their articulated standardsÂ is notÂ so difficult to accomplish, and PetSmart could follow the example set by many smaller and more modern grooming salons.
For example, grooming animals with sharp tools, and sometimes using restraints, can be dangerous work. PetSmart could institute more rigor, and show more genuine care for customers, by requiring their groomers to be licensed, not merely certified as having passed a PetSmart training program (which is of dubious quality).Â Many smallerÂ salons require licensing, andÂ PetSmart could easily makeÂ licensingÂ their standard practice, too. In addition, they could easily install well-placed video cameras to fully record their groomers, day care, and boarding workers for quality control purposes,Â or rather have grooming and services done in the open, like other smaller salons.
In short, PetSmart should be leading the way — or at least not lagging behind — in customer service, quality control, and rigorously protecting the health and safety of the animals entrusted to their care. WithÂ its resources, PetSmart could instead be an innovator.
As part of its investigation into dog deaths during or shortly after groomings at PetSmart, NJ Advance Media documented 47 total cases, including nine in New Jersey, since 2008. That’s a hardly definitive accounting of deaths, however, because groomers are under no obligation to publicly disclose them.
PetSmartÂ fiercely defends its safety record and has not admitted wrongdoing in any of the cases. (Read the company’s full response here.)
In our experience as animal law practitioners, PetSmart has been nearly the antithesis of accountability. Consider justÂ our twoÂ mostÂ recentÂ cases,Â whichÂ we broughtÂ to PetSmart’s attentionÂ in hopes of resolving the matterÂ without a lawsuit. The first case involvedÂ a war veteran, Thomas Cunningham, and his beloved English bulldog, Trinity, who had received thousands of dollars of service dog training.
Cunningham brought Trinity in for grooming, but she left in severe distress and died on the way to the hospital. PetSmart claims Cunningham was fully at fault, because their policy is to not take animals on the day they receive vaccinations.Â The vaccination was nasal (not a shot),Â andÂ the doctor’s opinion was that it was too mild to have been a contributing factor. When we asked where this policy was written, we were told it was mentioned when he arrived. PetSmart also claimed that because Trinity was overweight (not obese), her poor health had to have been a cause of death. As of now, PetSmart accepts no responsibility.
In another case, Demetra Lee brought her two dogs for several nights of boarding to PetsHotel, owned by PetSmart. She cut her vacation short afterÂ being toldÂ herÂ dog’sÂ eye had come out of the socket due to some unknown blunt force trauma (the eye later had to be removed). Lee received multiple conflicting stories from PetsHotel employees about the incident. We questioned why PetSmart believes their terribly poor supervisionÂ and lack of video surveillanceÂ relieves them of liability, but we have yet to receive an answer.
Since, we, as an animalÂ advocacyÂ law firm, place a higher priority on justice for animals and their caregivers than on mere monetary settlements, our hope is that companies like PetSmart will learn to accept responsibility for their actions and work in good faith to learn from mistakes.Â Â
Jill Ryther is a Los Angeles attorney and the founder/managing partner of Ryther Law Group, a Southern California firm focused on animal legal defense.Â
Marc Robinson is a New York-licensed attorney, working in Los Angeles for Ryther Law Group as a non-attorney. He is also the executive director of the firm’s nonprofit group, Expand Animal Rights Now.