LARGO — Indra Jenkins didn’t plan to buy a puppy from a pet shop.
She had heard about puppy mills and irresponsible breeding practices. She had searched in shelters. But one day last winter she stopped into the Petland on Ulmerton Road "just to look." There, two wiggly puppies won her over with their small soft paws, wet noses and big eyes. Jenkins laid down thousands of dollars to take them home.
What the 51-year-old nurse didn’t realize was that the expenses were just beginning. Jenkins would spend thousands more on veterinarian bills, just barely saving the life of one of the dogs shortly after buying it in February.
"I’m embarrassed," she said. "I’m embarrassed I ever gave (Petland) the money that helps them stay in business."
Jenkins isn’t the only Petland customer calling out the chain after saying they unknowingly took home a sick puppy.
She is looking to join what lawyers are hoping will become a class-action lawsuit spurred by dozens of people who say they bought high-priced dogs from Petland that soon got sick or died.
The suit accuses Petland of racketeering and fraud that it says starts at the company’s headquarters and is carried out by its 77 franchise locations, like its store with the large window display in Largo.
"We’ve been hearing from a steady stream of customers," said Kelsey Eberly, staff attorney for the Animal Defense Fund, which brought the Georgia suit. "It’s a now familiar tale: customers being heartbroken, saddled with thousands of dollars in vet bills. .?.?. They’re coming from all across the country, but Florida has been a major focus."
The suit claims Petland defrauds customers by luring them to pay top dollar for pure-breed dogs likely to become sick because they come from high-volume puppy mills. The hook: The dogs have been certified twice by a veterinarian as healthy, which the suit calls a sham.
As a sweetener, the company offers a warranty, so long as customers use Petland-approved vets and the store’s dog food.
But many of those joining the suit say after paying a premium for their pets, the animals still fell ill or died. Many of them say they spent thousands of dollars to treat their dogs for illnesses that Petland veterinarians failed to diagnose.
The suit is brought by a woman in Georgia who claims her dog died while in the care of Petland-chosen vets.
Jenkins’ story doesn’t end with a dead dog, but she credits that to her intuition as a nurse and her decision to find a vet outside of Petland’s umbrella.
She spent $4,726 on her two dogs: a Yorkshire terrier, Oliver, and a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Nenanee. Each came with certificates that said they were healthy. The store said both were checked by vets twice, a chain policy. One checkup took place in the Midwest, where the dogs were bred, the other at the Largo store as Jenkins bought them.
Jenkins said the spaniel had a runny nose, but was told it was minor. As a precaution, she was told she would need to wait a couple of days to take him home. Jenkins said she was given antibiotics when she picked up the pup. She was still given certification of health, she said.
But when Nenanee got home, he was lethargic. He wouldn’t eat, Jenkins said. A Petland vet gave Jenkins the same antibiotic the dog had already taken. She asked if the dog could have pneumonia, which she said the vet brushed off. She wanted a second opinion — which meant going to a vet not in her Petland warranty.
"If I didn’t have a medical background that dog could have died in my house," she said.
Nenanee had to be treated in an animal hospital and given oxygen treatment for $4,021, Jenkins said. Veterinarians couldn’t promise her it would save the dog’s life, but Nenanee survived. When Oliver started coughing, Jenkins went straight to an outside vet.
Both dogs are thriving now, but Jenkins said her total out-of-pocket cost to buy the dogs and treat them was $8,747.92. She wanted the pet store to pay off the vet bills.
Another local family, the Ballinghoffs, got a Petland puppy at the Largo store, also last winter. It had a deformed foot that was hidden by the Shih Tzu’s fur. It was certified healthy by two vets and sold for $2,000. Jane Ballinghoff wanted at least half her money back, and to be able to keep her new family member.
Neither of the pet owners were offered what they thought was fair. Ballinghoff said after months of phone tag, the store offered her the cost of the X-ray that proved her dog’s foot was deformed: $340. Jenkins said the store tried to get her to sign a non-disclosure agreement to get the money, which she wouldn’t do.
Petland spokeswoman Elizabeth Kunzelman said the corporation doesn’t comment on pending ligation and did not respond to the allegations.
She did, however, speak to Jenkins’ and Ballinghoff’s dogs. Ballinghoff, she said, was offered $600 she chose not to take. Jenkins, she said, was not told to sign anything and can still get the "purchase price" back to her credit card.
"Petland Largo has been in Pinellas County for 34 years," Kunzelman said in a statement. "They are an independently owned and operated franchise that has remained in business by doing their best to take care of our animals and our customers."
Further, Kunzelman said the breeders from Iowa and Minnesota that supplied the Largo dogs are U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified. Petland, she said, requires that breeders are certified and have no violations on their records for the previous six years.
Getting that license is the lowest possible standard," said Eberly, the Animal Defense Fund attorney. "USDA licenses are not a guarantee a puppy breeder is not a puppy mill."
The Humane Society of the United States did a sweeping 2008 report on Petland, scrutinizing its puppy sources and requesting that it stop selling puppies.
Local governments across the country have passed laws barring pet stores from selling bred dogs to cut down on puppy mills. St. Petersburg has banned stores from selling puppies, while Hillsborough County this year passed a law banning new stores from selling bred puppies.
Jenkins said Petland’s employees made her feel like it was foolish to spend the money she did to save the dog, that she should have let him die.
"I should have never gone in the store," she said. "I knew better. It was a weak moment."
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.