Activists Target Yelm Pet Seller

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Local activists are taking to Facebook to criticize a local business that sells animals.

A Facebook group protesting Mindy’s Paws and Claws, a Yelm pet-grooming business that sells puppies and kittens, is rife with accusations, including that the puppies come from mills, animals are mistreated, and that dead animals were thrown away in a dumpster — accusations owner Mindy Kuenzi said aren’t true.

The Nisqually Valley News spoke with five ex-employees of Paws and Claws who backed up some of the accusations. Three went on the record and two asked to be kept anonymous, citing fear of repercussions by Kuenzi.

The accusations were initially posted on a Facebook page called “Adopt Don’t Shop Washington” by a Thurston County woman who stopped by Paws and Claws. The woman goes by the name Ginger Hawke on Facebook, but asked that her real name not be used. She also cited fear of repercussions by Kuenzi.

The post garnered so much attention that Hawke and Yelm resident John Blevins started a new Facebook group called “Boycott Paws & Claws Yelm, WA,” aiming to stop the sale of puppies and kittens at the store.

Hawke said she’s always been interested in animal welfare and currently volunteers with different animal rescue organizations, and considers herself an anti-puppy-mill activist.

Hawke said she happened to drive by Paws and Claws a couple months ago while volunteering in Yelm and saw the businesses’ sign advertising puppies for sale.

“I saw that they were selling puppies and kittens and advertising it quite proudly so I just went in to check it out and check on the welfare of the animals and stuff in there,” she said.

The animals’ cages were clean and the animals themselves didn’t seem to be in poor health, she said. It was the number of different breeds she saw that gave her concerns about where the puppies were coming from.

“I had concerns because of the amount of different breeds that they are advertising,” she said. “Like, constantly it’s always changing, so that’s a big red flag whether or not they’re getting their puppies from puppy mills.

“I would just like it if she would stop selling puppies,” Hawke said. “I have nothing against her (Kuenzi) personally. I didn’t even know who the owner of the store was before I posted that (the initial Facebook post). I just personally don’t think it should even be legal to sell puppies like that, because nearly 99 percent — at least that’s the figure I’ve seen before — of store puppies come from puppy mills. Because there’s really no other way to supply it. Reputable breeders don’t sell their puppies to puppy mills.”

Kuenzi, who said she has been in the pet-grooming business for 21 years, takes issue with the accusations leveled against her online.

When asked if any of the puppies sold at her store ever come from puppy mills, she said, “Never.” The store sometimes goes as long as a month without animals for sale because there’s no supplier, Kuenzi said.

The idea to sell animals started because people would leave animals at the store’s door, she said.

“It became to where people were saying, ‘Hey, will you help us sell our puppies?’” she said. “We said, ‘Oh, sure, that’s a great idea.’ So we started adopting them and then of course I still help animals that need help.”

Several employees said they had either picked up puppies from puppy mills at Kuenzi’s request, or suspected Kuenzi had purchased puppies from less-than-reputable breeders.

Rebecca Chipman said she worked for Paws and Claws from February through early May 2013. She said she had concerns about the animals the business sold.

“She (Kuenzi) would buy these puppies from out of state, and then they would all get sick,” she said.

She said Kuenzi and her husband would travel as far away as Oregon and Idaho to pick up puppies, and would then sell them for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the breed.

Felicia Isborn, who quit working at Paws and Claws last July, said Kuenzi has purchased puppies from puppy mills. She said most of the kittens are dropped off by people, but that about 50 percent of the puppies come from mills.

One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said she personally was asked by Kuenzi to pick puppies up from two puppy mills — one in the Graham area and one in Roy.

The Graham location had about 30 dogs in the house, she said. She said she called Kuenzi and asked her if she really wanted puppies from there. She said Kuenzi insisted she buy them. The puppies were bought for around $65 a piece, and Kuenzi sold them for about $650, she said. The employee said Kuenzi usually bought puppies from Craigslist ads.

Another employee who asked to remain anonymous said she was sent to a trailer with another employee to pick up a puppy.

“The conditions were horrible; there was poop everywhere,” she said.

Her companion called Kuenzi to tell her it was a “puppy mill situation,” she said.

“Mindy said, ‘I don’t care.’ She said, ‘They’re purebred chihuahuas. Get three of them and bring them back.’ So we got three of them even though she was aware of the conditions.”

She said she and another employee informed Kuenzi pug puppies they’d picked up had bloody diarrhea and were possibly infected with parvovirus.

“The next day they were in the shop,” she said. “Didn’t inform any of the customers of the health of the pugs, but she sold them for a few hundred dollars as purebreds.”

Kuenzi is adamant she has done no wrong.

“All of these puppies are from our local community,” Kuenzi said. “And yes, I have traveled as far as the coast to go get a litter of puppies from somebody who, like, she had them and then her husband passed away and she really needed help.”

She said she and her husband have driven as far away as Oregon City to pick up puppies that needed to be adopted.

When Paws and Claws adopts pets out, people are required to fill out a form that states the dog cannot be resold or given to the pound — if an emergency comes up, the store will take the animal back, Kuenzi said.

“Even if it’s 4 or 5 years old, we’ll re-home it,” she said. “The point of that is to keep the animals out of the shelter. The allegations are that we flip puppies. That’s exactly why our contract is the way it is, so that puppies cannot be flipped.”

Employees also expressed concerns about sanitation.

Chipman said she remembers Kuenzi obtaining six labradoodles — a labrador and poodle mix — at about 6 or 7 weeks old. Two of them grew to be about 14 weeks old, and they were so big their backs touched the top of the kennel, she said.

“Every morning I’d get there and they’d just be covered in poop because it was so big it would lay on the bars and they had to lay in it,” she said.

Chipman said labradoodles are a popular breed because they’re hypoallergenic. Kuenzi sold them for between $1,250 and $1,400, she said.

At one time, Kuenzi was housing a wild raccoon with two baby raccoons, Chipman said. The raccoons were kept in a birdcage in her storage room and there was no way to clean the cage because the animals were wild and would growl anytime someone came near, she said. She had to pour food and water in from the top of the cage, she said.

“By the time somebody came to get it — because somebody called the police on her about that — there was just a huge mound of poop in the cage with it,” she said.

Chipman said she was asked to throw a litter of dead, juvenile rabbits in a dumpster. She said she thinks the mother rejected a litter. The mom pulled them out of the nest, and they froze, she said. The staff tried to warm them up with their body heat, but they ultimately all died. Chipman put them in a box and put them in a dumpster, she said.

Isborn said she was called a derogatory name when she refused to clean up a dead litter of juvenile rabbits in a pen outside the store.

“On the weekends, she doesn’t have anybody go there and check the animals,” Isborn said. “A lot of times when we came in on Monday … all the cages were super dirty, there was no water, no food, nothing. … The cages were not clean, the animals were not fed or watered.”

Walking through the pet area on Monday, Kuenzi pointed to the kennels housing pomchi, shih tzu and dachshund puppies, and said they’re the same kind of cages used by veterinarians.

“They’re professional cages,” she said.

There are always toys for the animals, there’s always music playing for the animals, and the kennels are kept in a room that gets lots of natural sunlight, she said. The cages are larger than those that house animals at Humane Society facilities, she said.

“They’re the most sanitary, clean, best-for-the-animal-type kennels that you can have,” she said.

Regarding allegations that employees were asked to dispose of dead animals in a dumpster, Kuenzi said no animals have ever died or been seriously injured in her store.

“There are grooming shops where accidents have happened,” she said. “Nothing has ever happened (at Paws and Claws). I have never had a substantial injury to an animal in my care, ever.”

Susanne Beauregard, director of animal services for Thurston County, said she didn’t think it was necessarily illegal to dispose of deceased animals in a dumpster.

“You feel like it’s not terribly respectful, but at the same time I don’t think there’s anything specific that would prohibit that depending on the size of the animal,” she said.

Kuenzi said the online attacks against her business feel personal.

“I grew up with animals, I got into this business because of my love of animals and it’s very personal to me. … I (am getting) hate calls, hang-ups, people come in,” she said.

“But the beautiful thing about it is, I want people to come in to see for themselves. And we have had a large number of people come in here and then they go, ‘Oh yeah, it actually is pretty nice in here. I came in because of the Facebook slanders. But I’m glad I came in.’

“So if I can just encourage people to come in and see what we really do and that, I really hold our grooming department to the highest. I’m very particular about how our animals are treated. … We love our customers’ animals. They become like family. I don’t just take in somebody’s dog for grooming, I mean, I get to know them on a personal level and their dogs on a personal level. It’s not about hurrying and quantity and rushing the animal, it’s about the relationships that you build with your customers and the animals.”

For her part, Hawke said her intention in posting about Paws and Claws online was not to attack the owner personally. She said in a Facebook message she would be happy to work with Kuenzi to educate her “about the horrors of puppy mills and humane animal handling.”

“We would be willing to fundraise and get her, all the staff animal handling classes or something if needed,” she said.

Beauregard pointed out many of the issues are somewhat subjective. The term “puppy mill,” for example, doesn’t have a strict definition and what one person may consider a legitimate breeder may be considered unethical to someone else.

“We have people that are concerned about cruelty issues all the time and what is cruel to one person is not necessarily illegal,” she said. “I’ve had people say the animal was starving to death and found a very well-padded animal when I looked at them. It’s so much in the eye of the beholder. It’s a very subjective kind of thing.”

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