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KPIX Investigates Petco

5 Investigates: Animal Abuse and Animal Neglect Petco

Hank Plante, KPIX, 09/23-24/02


5 Investigates: Are Pets Abused at Petco?

Petco is the largest pet store chain in the country -- with 590 stores nationwide.

But being big doesn't necessarily mean better care for the animals. Our 5 Investigates unit looked into the treatment of animals at Petco.

We talked to people who said they bought a sick guinea pig from Petco in the El Paso de Saratoga Shopping Center in San Jose, and found four sick lovebirds from the Redwood City store. One was Romeo. He died from beak and feather, a slow, debilitating disease that vets liken to AIDS.

"I buried Romeo in my backyard," said Anita Simoni. "I cried my heart out when he died."

"It takes only a few moments to bond with a pet," said veterinarian Pat Latas. "People who lose these animals -- whose animals die because they're ill -- are devastated."

Latas specialized in birds and reptiles. She says she's been aware of problems at Petco stores in the South Bay since the mid-1990s.

"I became interested in the problems that were arising at Petco because private clients brought me animals purchased from those stores who were desperately ill," Latas said.

We wanted to find out how big a problem sick animals are at Petco stores. So a 5 Investigates producer and photographer went shopping armed with hidden cameras. We visited three South Bay Petco stores and one on the Peninsula at least three times over a period of several weeks.

We bought a lovebird at the Petco on Meridian Avenue in San Jose. When we asked if we'd chosen the correct food, the clerk approved. But that was the wrong advice, according to veterinarian Munir Kureshi, and might have contributed to the animal's obesity.

"The seed ... is about the same as what we consider a hamburger and pizza and a milkshake," Kureshi said. "It is not a balanced diet."

What's more, the vet said, the bird Petco sold us had a minor infection and was mutilated.

"On his right food, he has two toenails missing," he said.

Kureshi says that means the animal will live the rest of his life with sensitive, painful toes.

But the bird was not the only unhealthy animal we saw at Petco stores. In fact, time after time, on visit after visit, we found animals that were sick or living in conditions that can make them sick.

One Anole lizard was so thin that a vet who happened to see him in the store told us that he'd likely die within a day. There were fish on sale, but buyer beware. Nearly every tank we saw had dead fish, sometimes bare skeletons. Fish from tanks with dead fish may be contaminated. Baby guinea pigs are normally very active, but we saw one that wasn't moving.

We went back the next morning to buy the guinea pig and take it to a vet. We were too late. He had died the night before.

Our hidden cameras also captured living conditions that cause disease -- like cages filled with feces, birdseed left on cage bottoms so long the seeds had sprouted, and frogs crowded in soiled water.

"Their skin is very permeable," said Latas. "Bacteria can easily go from the bath water with feces into their system."

We saw turtles eating from bowls filled with feces, filthy drinking water, and animals with no water at all. We showed our tape to Latas.

"I think the animals have inadequate care," she said. "I think it could be easily remedied."

We also showed our tape to a team from Petco. Sally Stork is Vice President of Operations on the West Coast.

"Certainly I'm surprised by some of the problems we've reviewed on these tapes," Stork said. "I plan to take action immediately."

Still, Stork insists that the kinds of problems we saw repeatedly are exceptions.

"These shots are not typical of Petco," she said. "These are not things I see on my store visitations... We are a successful company, and our customers truly do love us."

Maybe some customers do, but not Tiffany King, who bought Max the guinea pig.

"He should have been healthy," she said. "He should have been sold as a healthy animal."

Anita Simoni feels the same way, after she was unable to save Romeo from beak and feather disease.

"He was very sweet," she said. "He didn't deserve what he got."

King said, "I'm just really angry. I don't think they should sell the sick animals. I don't think they should be treated the way they are there."

Petco has no full-time vet on staff at any of its stores. They use consulting vets in different regions, and they did pick up some of the vet bills for the sick animals. The bird we bought has been adopted, and is doing fine.

5 Investigates: Animal Neglect Allegations at Petco

Some former employees of Bay Area Petco stores say animals there are neglected and even abused.

"She called me into her office and told me that I was to put the 14 turtles into the freezer to kill them," Chandra Case said.

Case worked for Bay Area Petco stores for seven years. She says the final straw was in 2000, when her manager at the Redwood City store insisted that she kill sick animals by freezing them to death instead of treating them.

"I was very upset," Case said. "They're cold-blooded reptiles. That would be the most cruel way to kill a cold-blooded reptile."

"That is absolutely unacceptable," said Sally Stork, Vice President for Petco's West Coast operations, when told of the allegations. "If that were ever brought to our attention, we would immediately investigate and take appropriate action up to, and including, termination."

But the issue of freezing animals has been brought to their attention before. In 1997, South Bay veterinarian Pat Latas wrote Petco headquarters, saying she had learned that their corporate policy for euthanizing animals was "refrigeration then freezing." What's more, written statements by former employees are included in a lawsuit San Francisco filed last June against Petco stores in the city. One reads, "Animals are put in the freezer daily, so Petco won't have to pay for the vet to euthanize them." Another employee wrote that he had, "been told to put dying animals in the freezer."

Dr. Latas specializes in birds and reptiles.

"It's considered absolutely inhumane to freeze an animal as a form of euthanasia," she said. "The animal is conscious. It is painful. It is not considered a comfortable way to die."

But vet bills are expensive, and cut into profits. Danilla Mehta worked with Chandra Case at the Petco in Redwood City.

"I didn't get any animal care training during the eight months I was there," Mehta said.

"There would be nothing about how to identify a sick animal," Case said. "Or even how to go about taking care of a sick animal."

Metha left Petco in 1998. Case left in 2000. Petco's Sally Stork says today, her employees get plenty of training.

"We actually have an award-winning program that we provide our associates," said Stork. "We start them out on a 90-day program, taking them through animal care."

A 5 Investigates producer and photographer took hidden cameras into Petco stores to find out what kind of care that training meant for the animals. We visited four Petcos on the Peninsula and in the South Bay at least three times.

Over and over, we noticed animals that were obviously sick or in distress. We noticed, but Petco employees apparently did not.

In one case, we saw a tortoise at the Petco on Meridian Avenue in San Jose. It was in its water bowl, but the sides of the bowl were too steep for the animal to crawl out. We showed the tape to Dr. Latas.

"Soaking in water for an extended period of time can lead to infections," she said. "Also, [there's] the stress of being trapped in a near-drowning situation."

We brought the situation to the attention of a Petco employee. But a few days later, the bowl was still there, and a tortoise was once again stuck, struggling to get out. We also saw fish deprived of oxygen because no air was being pumped into the tanks.

At a Petco in Sunnyvale, an employee told us the store was on its best behavior because of the San Francisco lawsuits.

"We try to take really good care of everybody," he said. "Especially with the spotlight being as it is."

The employee spent a lot of time talking to us about a bird called a sun conure, but he never noticed that the bird had no water.

A frog at the Petco in the El Paseo de Saratoga shopping center in San Jose was obviously in distress. We asked a Petco employee about it.

"He's croaked," she said. "He's real sick. I don't know what to do with him... Our reptile person didn't show up today so none of the animals got done."

That apparently meant that none of the cages were cleaned, and none of the animals were fed or watered.

The employee we spoke to gave the frog some water, but after she left, the animal flopped back onto his back. We showed our video to a Petco team that included veterinary consultant Judy St. Leger.

"If you're saying, 'Hey you guys, you need to be policing these things,' we are," St. Leger said. "But if something fails in the chain of command, we're happy to respond when you raise issues."

Petco is also in trouble in Nevada, where the state has filed criminal charges against two stores for mistreatment of animals. Meantime, Petco says it is fixing the problems we uncovered.


Petco Settles Suit Alleging Abuse, Overcharging, May 27, 2004
Petco has agreed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a consumer protection lawsuit alleging abuse and overcharging. The company admits no wrongdoing, but will pay more than $800,000. The suit alleged that Petco overcharged customers for advertised sale items and cared for animals improperly. A quarter of the settlement will pay to install new pricing equipment in stores across the state.

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