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Ocoee pet retailer wins right to continue selling puppies amid controversy that it deals with puppy mills

Instant Photo Poster
Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Thursday, October 21, 2021


U.S. District Court via Iowa Capital Dispatch

Inspectors took this photo of a dog busting through an enclosure in a filthy horse barn at one of Daniel Gingerich's Iowa breeding facilities. Certification of veterinary inspection records show Chews A Puppy bought puppies from Gingerich at least through May. Owner Crystal Grastara says they stopped buying from him "as soon as we saw he began to have serious violations," but hasn't given a date as to when that was.

Emotions ran high on all sides at Tuesday’s city commission meeting in Ocoee where the proposed revisions to an ordinance to exempt the city’s only pet store from an Orange County prohibition against retail animal sales had finally come up for a vote. The vote had been tabled a month ago so regulatory and compliance language could be added to the local law.

Before a packed hall of animal welfare advocates and supporters of the pet store Chews A Puppy, the city commission voted 3-2 to allow the pet retailer to continue puppy sales. The vote was taken after VoxPopuli and others revealed that the store has purchased animals from several puppy mills cited for egregious housing conditions and treatment of their animals.

Commissioners Larry Brinson (District 1), Rosemary Wilsen (District 2) and Mayor Rusty Johnson voted in favor of allowing Chews A Puppy to sell puppies, while commissioners Richard Firstner (District 3) and George Oliver (District 4) voted no.

Johnson said the county’s close 4-3 vote on its ordinance had played a role in his decision. Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson, who spoke ahead of the vote, pointed out that in adopting the retail pet ban, the county was joining other Central Florida jurisdictions like Seminole, Osceola and Lake. “The Florida legislature is even discussing something statewide,” she added.

After the meeting, Firstner told VoxPopuli that he felt that Chews A Puppy owners Nick and Crystal Grastara had been misleading in their Sept. 21 presentation to the commission about how they chose and vetted their breeders and that he would be monitoring their operation very carefully.

“They have a deceptive business. Their financing is predatory, and they try to convince everyone that they are doing their best to eliminate all of those negative aspects of it, but I don’t see it that way,” he said in a phone interview. Firstner said he received hundreds of emails with accompanying documents prior to the meeting. “The information I’m getting from these different sources says they’re not on the up-and-up.”

“This is not the kind of business that I want operating in the city of Ocoee,” the commissioner said. “I will keep a close eye on it and given some time, I’m going to find out if there’s been any complaints, any issues and what the recourse of that has been,” he said. “If it’s insufficient and if it has been ignored, I’m going to call for rescinding this ordinance.”

“They don’t even deal with the Better Business Bureau”

The city’s revised ordinance — which the Grastaras helped draft, according to Ocoee City Attorney Scott Cookson — requires posting consumer advisories, which would inform potential puppy owners that they are entitled to information about a puppy’s birth date, store arrival date, its current health, vaccine history and congenital diseases. The new ordinance will also require Chews A Puppy to include contact information for the breeder and their U.S. Department of Agriculture license number.

There is no guarantee, however, that the posted information would be accurate. For instance, William McClintock who had his veterinarian license suspended in Iowa for two years for falsifying records, was signing off on puppy certification of veterinary inspections (CVIs) from Daniel Gingerich, the Iowa breeder currently under a federal injunction for numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act. When a U.S. District Court judge ordered “head to tail” physical exams of Gingerich’s animals, she specifically name-checked McClintock and his associates in the court documents and said any other veterinarian but him and his colleagues could perform the exams. McClintock’s name is on CVIs for puppies Gingerich sold to Chews A Puppy.

Breeders can also change company names and license numbers when they rack up violations. For example, the Rottinghaus family, currently operating as R Family Kennels, one of Chews A Puppy’s breeders, has “held nearly half a dozen licenses in Seneca, Kansas, over the past two decades,” the Humane Society of the United States noted in its 2021 Horrible Hundred report. It said R Family Kennels regularly cancelled USDA licenses that came under scrutiny and then obtained new ones.

The new ordinance also requires Chews A Puppy to self-report complaints against them to Ocoee City Manager Robert Frank.

“I don’t see this as a very practical solution, namely because the company we’re talking about doesn’t even deal with the Better Business Bureau when they have complaints and issues come up against them,” Firstner noted dryly before the vote.

He raised two issues: Who will enforce the regulations? What are the penalties for noncompliance? “[The ordinance] just doesn’t say.”

Commissioner Oliver agreed, saying, “It sounds like self-policing to me.” He pushed for clarity on who had input to craft the compliance aspect of the ordinance.

Cookson, the city attorney, admitted the Grastaras were involved in devising the ordinance by which they would police themselves. “We did speak with the pet store owners. They had some input into the ordinance,” he said.

“One of the challenges was we don’t have an animal control [department]. We’re not set up to regulate this type of business. We don’t have an employee to do regular inspections, to fly up and check out all the breeders so that was kind of a challenge,” Cookson said.

“So what we did was we looked at 15 to 20 different ordinances throughout the state and other counties and cities facing the exact same thing we’re facing, and we chose regulations that we thought were appropriate, that we could handle with the limited staff that the city could devote to this,” he said. “And that’s what we kind of came up with, based on what’s worked or been implemented in other areas with input from city staff and the owners of the pet store.”

Firstner told VoxPopul in a phone interviewi that he was unaware the Grastaras were involved in drafting the ordinance. VoxPopuli attempted to contact Cookson via phone and email about the extent of the Grastaras’ involvement. By press time, we had not heard back.

“All bark and no bite”

“All bark and no bite,” is how Nanette Paratto-Wagner DVM, PhD, chair of the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Committee, summed up the revised ordinance as did many of the veterinarians, animal welfare workers and concerned residents who urged commissioners to vote no.

“The revised city of Ocoee ordinance does not provide for any mechanism to assure that Chews A Puppy will abide by the stipulations of the ordinance,” she told the commissioners.

“It has no teeth,” said Rosina McVicker, vice chair of the Orange County Animal Services Advisory Committee. “You want them to post a sign telling people where to file a complaint, and you want those same folks to report to you any complaints they receive. That’s the fox guarding the hen house.” She said the county ordinance clearly spells out enforcement and offers options if those responsibilities aren’t met.

“There’s nothing in the ordinance you are proposing that gives any enforcement power to whatever entity you ask to enforce it — code enforcement, the police, animal services,” she added.

Cookson defended the ordinance as having the “ultimate teeth” because commissioners could rescind it at any time.

“It’s not true”

While Crystal Grastara had declined multiple media requests for comment, she took to the speaker’s podium to make a statement about allegations that “Chews A Puppy buys from ‘horrible’ breeders.”

Here’s what she said:

“It’s not true. We select our breeders based on a wide variety of criteria, which may include personal recommendations, in-person visits, phone conversations, documentation and USDA inspection reports. We also re-evaluate as additional information becomes available and have dropped breeders from our program if a situation warrants or they do not continue to uphold their requirements.

Four breeders were mentioned out of the hundreds we purchase from. Actually I went back and I checked my numbers and I know in the last meeting we said hundreds. It’s more into the thousands that we have the availability to. There are claims that we purchase from a breeder [R Family Kennels] that has a relative with issues. A person isn’t guilty by association; simply because they’re related to someone, it’s not relevant. The breeder in question is federally licensed and inspected. We purchased approximately a dozen puppies from this person between 2020 and 2021. Online federal inspection reports show that every single inspection report — a total of eight inspection reports dating back to 2015 — show zero violations.

Daniel Gingerich, which I know has been the hot topic. Another recent allegation has been that we have been purchasing puppies from this breeder that is now facing a federal lawsuit. This is false. We did purchase puppies from the breeder after reviewing his online inspection reports and seeing multiple inspection reports with zero violations from 2019 through March of 2021 along with two noncritical violations, which the USDA defines as something that is not having a serious or severe impact on the welfare of an animal at the time of inspection. As soon as we saw he began to have serious violations, we stopped buying puppies from him. We didn’t continue to buy puppies, and we stopped well before all of this became public. This is an example of the Animal Welfare regulations working. The breeder started out okay and for whatever reason became a bad apple. We utilized the system and stopped using a bad apple as soon as we became aware of it.

Rebecca Eiler of Creek Side Kennels, federally licensed and inspected. We have purchased puppies. We have reviewed their inspection reports that are available to the public. Every single inspection report from 2021 back to 2015 — seven years of inspections — show not a single violation.

As of Oct. 21, Rebecca Eiler is still Chews A Puppy’s featured breeder on its website, despite numerous violations cited by Kansas state inspectors for the dangerous animal housing and unsanitary conditions that landed Eiler on HSUS’s 2021 Horrible Hundred list. If the Grastaras have access to the federal inspection database, it stands to reason that they would be able to access the state inspection reports as well — something they should know to check since, as Nick Grastara previously told us, they have been in the industry for 16 years.

VoxPopuli emailed Crystal after the meeting to ask if she would allow access to Chews A Puppy records to independently verify purchase dates from Daniel Gingerich. She did not respond as of press time.

A foregone conclusion?

There was a parade of speakers. Some had supplied commissioners with documentation demonstrating the connection between Chews A Puppy and Midwest breeders with federal and state violations. Others displayed disturbing pictures of wounded, ailing puppy mill animals throughout the meeting. A little boy, who could barely see over the podium, begged the commissioners to “stop the puppies from suffering” while another Ocoee resident wondered, “if we wanted to live in the kind of community where we put right over profits?” then quoted both Mark Twain and Peanuts creator Charles Schultz in urging commissioners to “do the right thing.”

However, it appeared the commissioners were swayed by none of it. Indeed, at times they appeared so detached during public comments — engaged in side conversations, eyes on their desks – one woman admonished the mayor to at least pay attention while she spoke.

It's unclear if the commissioners didn’t see the connection between the breeders trafficking unhealthy puppies into Ocoee through Chews A Puppy, costing Ocoee residents thousands of dollars in vet bills, often to no avail — or simply chose to ignore the evidence they were given. Both Commissioners Brinson and Wilsen made it clear that while efforts should be made to “go after the puppy mills,” the city had no role in arbitrating purchases between distraught pet owners and a pet store.

“If Chews A Puppy is not operating above board and they’re doing things that are unethical and immoral, I think it’s truly an opportunity where we as a community and as a commission and as a consumer, we need to exercise caveat emptor, that is buyer beware,” said Brinson. “If you walk into a store and if a finance company can get 118 percent interest out of you, then that’s on the consumer. I don’t think the government, the city of Ocoee, should be weighing in on that transaction.”

Firstner tried to connect the dots for his fellow commissioners: “The overall goal is to stop the puppy mills the best we can,” he explained. “We can’t directly enforce anything on them, but we can stop them from having an outlet for their product. That’s the best we can do here. If all of the pet stores are not allowed to sell dogs, cats and rabbits, that puts a dent in their business. [Chews A Puppy] can still operate their business through adoption, rescue, product sales, whatever they choose.”

The mayor said the commission’s ultimate responsibility was to the people of Ocoee. “They come here and pay taxes. They come here and give jobs,” said Johnson, giving an early indication which way he was going to vote before he voted yes on retail puppy sales.

"If it had been a 7-0 vote with the county, it would have been a little more serious to me,” he said. “But it was a 4-3 vote and one of them was kind of wavering on the line, it kind of felt like pressure, that doesn’t make it a secure vote. I know they’re getting sued in Orange County over this, so I don’t think that’s over.”

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