Pets shops in SLO County running ‘puppy laundering operation,’ lawsuit says

A pet store with locations in San Luis Obispo County is being accused of selling pure-bred puppies acquired from so-called “puppy mills,” in violation of a recent state law, according to a lawsuit filed by an animal rights group.

Animal Kingdom Pet Shop, which has locations in Pismo Beach, Grover Beach and Santa Maria, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit alongside Bark Adoptions, an alleged animal rescue nonprofit, and an Iowa animal shelter accused of circumventing laws prohibiting the brick-and-mortar sale of privately bred animals.

Lawsuits represent just one side of the story, and the businesses have not filed responses in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Adam Tipton of Arroyo Grande, who California business records list as the agent of service for Animal Kingdom Pet Shop, declined to comment on the allegations when reached by phone Wednesday, citing the pending lawsuit.

A case management conference for the lawsuit is scheduled for July.

‘Pretty serious questions’

The complaint was filed March 5 by the nonprofit dog advocacy group Bailing Out Benji and by attorneys for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and seeks court intervention in the operation of the businesses.

According to the complaint, Animal Kingdom is involved in a “puppy laundering operation,” selling dogs ill-gotten from less-than-reputable breeders who do not follow animal welfare and other guidelines. The lawsuit defines so-called “puppy mills” as “places where mother dogs are kept in small and squalid cages to give birth to a constant inventory of puppies for retail sale.”

A state law passed two years ago that went into effect at the beginning of this year requires storefront pet shops to acquire their dogs, cats and rabbits from nonprofit animal shelters or rescue groups.

The law has led to the hasty formation of nonprofits across the state claiming to be rescue organizations in recent months, Eric Anderson, San Luis Obispo County’s Director of Animal Services, said by phone Wednesday.

Bark Adoptions, the nonprofit named in the lawsuit as allegedly doing business with Animal Kingdom, is not currently registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, according to the database GuideStar.

“Bark Adoptions masquerades as a nonprofit animal rescue organization even though it actually acquires purebred and designer puppies that are only a few weeks old from puppy mills, including (co-defendant) Rescue Pets Iowa Corp., and then conveys those puppies to pet stores for profit, including (Animal Kingdom),” the lawsuit reads.

Difficult to determine legitimacy

According to state records, Bark Adoptions registered itself as a corporation on Nov. 30, 2018, about a month before the law went into effect, and the earliest posts on its Facebook page were made Dec. 15. Animal Kingdom has been in business since 2002.

The lawsuit states that to satisfy its long-standing business model of getting its dogs through “mills,” it now “obtains the same puppy dogs through a sham rescue operation, Bark Adoptions, who in turn obtains the puppies from puppy mills like Iowa Pets in what amounts to a puppy laundering scheme.”

The lawsuit states that volunteer members of Bailing Out Benji have been visiting small pet stores across the state to educate owners of the puppy mill ban and ensure compliance with the new law. The local lawsuit arose from such a visit by the group, it says.

The lawsuit was also filed after an investigation by KSBY-TV found that Bark Adoptions acquired its dogs from Iowa Pets for supply to at least one local store.

Anderson, the county’s animal services director, said the owners of Animal Kingdom and Bark Adoptions have provided the county with documentation the agency requested related to its businesses and the nonprofit.

Anderson said that while well-intentioned in reducing the harmful effects of puppy mills, the new law also created loopholes that makes it difficult to discern whether nonprofit rescues are legitimate, and law allows for newly formed nonprofits to operate while their 501(c)(3) paperwork is being processed, as long as it appears they are operating under the provisions of laws guiding nonprofits.

Though he said “it appears there are some pretty serious questions about the legitimacy” of Bark Adoptions, Anderson said the county is still reviewing the entities’ records.

Should the county find violations, it could fine the businesses up to $500 per animal, he said.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.