Customers take legal action with the help of CAPS, which continues to protest HIP stores and collect consumer complaints
CHICAGO, Ill. – A class action lawsuit was filed against Chicago area-based Happiness is Pets (HIP) on Valentine's Day. The story is unfolding quickly as more customers have come forward with complaints of sick puppies since the first cases of distemper were reported last month. With the help of the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS), six unsatisfied customers, so far, have decided to seek legal action against HIP's and store owner Ron Berning's deceptive and fraudulent practices.
The puppies sold at all five of the Happiness is Pets stores come from Midwest puppy mills - commercial breeding establishments that mass-produce puppies for resale to pet shops. CAPS has investigated some of these substandard USDA-licensed facilities before and the majority engaged in inhumane practices that violated Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations.
These puppies receive inadequate or sometimes no veterinary care, and typically live in filthy crowded cages with often dirty or insufficient water. Mothers are bred at every heat cycle. These puppies can carry a host of health problems that range from genetic ailments due to inbreeding and poor screening of parents to more severe and easily preventable viral diseases, like canine distemper.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jane Clifford, claims the puppy she purchased from the HIP store in Arlington Heights showed signs of illness right away. Just one month after her purchase, the sick puppy required emergency room medical care. The dog was diagnosed with kennel cough, urinary tract infection, ear infection, breathing problems and general malaise. HIP typically buys directly from breeders (USDA “A” license) or brokers (USDA “B” license) who also breed and then transports them in their own truck to the stores. In this instance, HIP bought directly from a facility in Iowa that just brokers puppies.
Clifford’s paperwork had the breeder’s name but only the USDA license number and a post office box address for the broker. She was confused by this information and erroneously thought the broker had bred her puppy. CAPS examined her paperwork and explained the information. The October 2011 USDA inspection report for the Iowa breeder, who had 81 adults and 47 puppies, had three pages of violations. The inspection report cited a Pug with green crusty material around the eyes and Dog #163 with a mass the size of a baseball in the area of the right mammary gland.
The puppy belonging to plaintiff Stephanie Castillo was diagnosed with microvascular dysplasia, a disease passed on from one or both parents. According to the paperwork given to her by the HIP in Oak Lawn (now closed), the Iowa breeder, who had 90 adult dogs and 124 puppies at her USDA inspection in May 2011, was the same breeder linked to at least one of the distemper cases.
Bryan Phillips - who initially took his story to the media and was featured in several local news segments - bought his puppy at the Naperville store and has repeatedly spent thousands of dollars in veterinary care. Berning claimed that it was "an extremely isolated incident" and in turn blamed the outbreak on "a potential customer's own dog. Puppies get distemper because they don’t have passive immunity from their mothers. They are not safe from viral diseases, such as distemper until they receive the entire series of vaccinations. This means that the breeders supplying puppies to HIP are not properly vaccinating the mother dogs. Phillip’s dog came from the same breeder in Iowa that supplied Castillo’s puppy.
The stores purposely provide little information about the breeders and brokers, even to paying customers like Jessica Kernan - another plaintiff in the lawsuit. HIP in Arlington Heights refused to give Jessica any additional facts, even though she demanded more information about the breeder several times after her puppy was diagnosed with kennel cough and loss of appetite. The Iowa breeder for Kernan’s puppy had 110 adults and 24 puppies at the USDA inspection in October 2011. The June 2010 inspection report for this breeder stated that the feed pans had wet rain soaked feed with standing water in the receptacles.
Lissett Dzieglio and Mark Jillich purchased their puppy at the Naperville store. Within days, the puppy started showing pneumonia symptoms and was subsequently diagnosed with distemper. The June 2011 USDA inspection report for their puppy’s Missouri breeder, who had 93 adults and 30 puppies, had four pages of violations, including a Rottweiler with a swollen ear flap that was the size of a ping pong ball that that the licensee was unaware of and for which he had not consulted a veterinarian.
Founded by President Deborah Howard in 1992, the Companion Animal Protection Society (CAPS) is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to protecting companion animals from cruelty in pet shops and puppy mills. CAPS actively addresses the abuse and suffering of pet shop and puppy mill dogs through investigations, education, media relations, legislative involvement, puppy mill dog rescues, consumer assistance and pet industry employee relations.