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The Pet Zone

The Pet Zone in Aviation Mall is seen. The Attorney General's Office ordered a cease and desist for the pet store chain. 

The state attorney general’s office has filed a lawsuit seeking to permanently prevent the operators of a pet store chain from selling dogs or other pets.

The office filed state Supreme Court action May 15 at the Jefferson County clerk’s office against Bell Pet Co. LLC, which does business as The Pet Zone in the Salmon Run Mall, as well as at three other locations including Aviation Mall in Queensbury.

A call to the Aviation Mall store May 16 directed comments to the regional manager.

The AG’s complaint alleges that the business, which is operated by Theodore and Sheila Bell, Port Charlotte, Florida, has repeatedly sold dogs without having the animals first examined by a licensed veterinarian, sold dogs without disclosing medical treatment the dogs received while in Pet Zone’s care and refused to reimburse customers for veterinarian bills.

The AG further claims the business deceptively charged customers for products they did not want or know they were purchasing and placed customers in financing agreements with third parties in which the customer was unknowingly “leasing,” rather than owning, the dog.

Pet Zone, which also has stores in Albany, Poughkeepsie and Queensbury, was initially issued a cease-and-desist letter in July from the AG’s office, in which the office claimed the business denied refunds to customers who attempted to enforce their rights under the state’s Pet Lemon Law after the dogs they purchased from the stores became ill and were certified as “unfit for sale” by the customers’ veterinarians.

William S. Nolan, Albany, an attorney representing Pet Zone, said Wednesday that the AG’s allegations regarding violations of the Pet Lemon Law are “absolutely wrong” and that the Bells stand behind their business practices.

“To date, the attorney general has failed to identify what these alleged (deceptive) business practices are to us,” he said. “If we’ve broken any laws, they haven’t told us what these laws are.”

The AG’s office’s suit states that when Pet Zone receives a dog from a third-party distributor, a store manager checks the animal’s health, and if the animal appears ill, can decline to accept the animal. However, the office alleges that store policies on this practice are not well-documented and employees have been encouraged by Mr. Bell to accept an ill dog “if they believe it is in the puppy’s best interest.”

All animals are supposed to be examined and treated if necessary by an independent veterinarian, but the AG’s office contends that employees told investigators that dogs were sold prior to examination “on a regular basis.”

The office claims that policies, where they exist, “are routinely disregarded and puppies are medicated without veterinarian instruction or knowledge, records are destroyed and the health and treatment history of puppies are hidden from consumers.”

The sale of dogs or cats are subject to the state’s Pet Lemon law, which allows a customer to return or exchange a sick animal within 14 days if a licensed veterinarian certifies that the animal was unfit for sale due to illness.

However, the AG’s office contends that Pet Zone does not provide employees with “any meaningful training” regarding the store’s responsibility under the law and are told to encourage customers to return sick animals to the store for treatment.

The store offers a warranty on the pets, according to the suit, but only customers that finance the purchase of an animal pay it; those using cash or credit cards are not charged the unspecified fee. The warranties are administered through a third party, and the AG’s office claims the reimbursement process is complicated and Pet Zone has no oversight over the claims process.

The AG’s office further claims that customers who opt to finance a pet’s purchase are not informed that they are actually entering into a “lease” agreement with a third party, including at one point a Nevada company that was not licensed to lend in New York.

The office claims Mr. Bell has informed it that he “was never trained regarding the terms of the financing contract and has no knowledge of the contract terms consistently offered to customers.”

The suit states the lending company requires pet purchasers to maintain insurance on their dogs and to make payments over a period ranging from 12 to 36 months. If a buyer fails to abide by the repayment plan, the lender reserves the right to “repossess” the dog.

At the end of these terms, “the consumer still does not have ownership rights to their puppy” pursuant to the lending contract, the suit states. Buyers must pay an additional fee, often about twice the monthly payment, to “purchase” the puppy, or “return” the dog to the lender, which comes with a “disposition fee.” Borrowers are also often charged either $25 or $35 for a warranty, a charge not incurred by those who paid with cash or a credit card.

Mr. Nolan said he could not comment on the AG’s allegations beyond those related to the Pet Lemon Law,as he had not been served the lawsuit as of Wednesday.

“We think that the state Attorney General’s office has a problem with the industry as a whole and is using our client as a punching bag,” he said.

A spokesman for the office could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In addition to preventing Pet Zone from selling live animals, the AG’s action against the business seeks restitution for customers who incurred expenses as a result of buying a sick dog that was diagnosed with an illness within 14 days of the purchase, as well as civil penalties for each instance in which it is alleged the company violated state law.

On Wednesday, Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Pet Zone from obtaining any new dogs for sale while the lawsuit is pending. Dogs already in the store can be sold, under orders that the business demonstrate to the court that the animals sold were properly examined and medicated.

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The Post-Star contributed to this report.

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