LARGO — Carol Monkhouse has always loved English bulldogs. When she found Brutus at the Petland in Largo, she bonded immediately with the pup.
"He think's he's a lap dog and always has," said Monkhouse, 61. "Even now at 50 pounds he thinks he's a lap dog. He's my baby."
But shortly after bringing him home in September, Monkhouse discovered that Brutus had a genetic condition that prevents him from walking long distances. She took Brutus back to Petland, which returned him to the breeder and gave her a store credit. In the next four months, Monkhouse purchased two more dogs from Petland. Both got sick.
Last week, Monkhouse read a small article in the St. Petersburg Times about a class-action lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States on behalf of several customers who say they too purchased sick dogs from Petland.
"I just don't know," Monkhouse said. "I had sick puppies, and I spent a lot of money there."
In November, the Humane Society said that it had completed an eight-month investigation of Petland. It visited 21 Petland stores and 35 breeders and brokers who sold puppies to its stores. It reviewed records of an additional 322 breeders and tracked more than 17,000 individual puppies linked to 76 Petland stores.
"We found that Petland was one of the largest retail sellers of puppy mill dogs in the country," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president of litigation for the Humane Society. "After we broke that, that's when all the consumers started contacting us, telling us their stories."
Puppy mill dogs are those bred in large-scale operations, treated like commodities instead of pets, and who live their entire lives in cages, Lovvorn said.
The lawsuit against Petland Inc. was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix on behalf of five plaintiffs. None are from Florida.
The lawsuit contends that Petland used its 140 stores across the country to sell the "puppies to unsuspecting consumers" and that it has "orchestrated and executed a scheme to defraud consumers by manufacturing a fictitious market for puppy mill puppies."
The stores were "misrepresenting" the puppies as "the finest available" and from "professional and hobby breeders who have years of experience in raising quality family pets," court records said.
"They will tell people anything to sell them a puppy,'' Lovvorn said.
There are 20 Petland stores in Florida. Two are in the Tampa Bay area: Largo and Wesley Chapel.
The owner of Petland Largo did not return calls for this article. A call to Petland's Chillicothe, Ohio, national headquarters referred media inquiries to a statement on the company's Web site, which said it was "outraged and disappointed" at the lawsuit. The statement said that the Humane Society is a "radical animal rights group" that is using the legal action as an attempt to raise funding.
"This is a continuing public relations campaign to smear the good name of Petland and to increase HSUS donations by utilizing sensationalized media and legal attacks," the statement said.
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In September 2008, Monkhouse purchased Brutus for $2,995 plus tax. Four months later, Brutus lost the ability to walk the block or so to the dog park because his hind-leg knee caps would dislocate. Monkhouse took him back to Petland, which gave her store credit for $2,995 because it was deemed a genetic condition. She had six months to use the credit, and she had to give Brutus back.
"We had become so attached to him," Monkhouse said.
Monkhouse next used $1,300 of her credit to buy a Boston terrier from Petland. That dog, Daisy Mae, had parasites. Monkhouse gave her to a friend because she didn't bond with her. Daisy Mae was treated and is now doing fine.
"With $3,000 you either gotta get another dog or get store credit," Monkhouse said. "I couldn't buy enough dog food and other stuff in that store to make up that amount."
With $911 in store credit left after buying Daisy Mae and some supplies, Monkhouse purchased another English bulldog, Jazzy, on Jan. 23. She had to add another $2,300 to buy the dog.
"Three days later, I took her to the vet and she has giardia," Monkhouse said. "She has diarrhea like a water hose. I've had her for four months and I told the vet that she's not coming home until they get rid of this diarrhea."
Monkhouse knows who bred Brutus. She and Johanna Gooding in Illinois have had several conversations. To ensure that Brutus wasn't euthanized, Gooding gave him to Monkhouse.
Monkhouse picked him up this month in Tampa.
"My kennel is not a puppy mill, and I have not had any trouble with my puppies except with Brutus," said Gooding, a dog breeder for 23 years.
Gooding said she has 27 dogs that she breeds. She mostly sends English bulldogs to Florida.
Monkhouse is trying to find out as much as she possibly can about the lawsuit against Petland. She said when animals are purchased at such high cost and there is a warranty, one "shouldn't be forced to spend that kind of money in the same store."
"The people at Petland Largo have been nice to me, but it's the principle of the thing," Monkhouse said. "Their warranty says they don't give money back, but you paid in cash. If the puppies are sick, it's not the customer's fault."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.