"Today Show" contributor Scott Stump recently reported on a New Yorker named Elena Zakharova who filed a civil suit in a New York court against an Upper East Side pet store. The store, Raising Rover, sold Zakharova a puppy that developed numerous medical complications. The suit seeks to hold the store liable for the dog's pain and suffering, and medical bills, as if the dog were a person rather than an inanimate product.
New York law considers pets "property,' but the complaint wants to change that definition. The goal is to help shut down puppy mills that often mass-produce animals sold in boutique pet stores like Raising Rover, where "Umka" was purchased.
"Umka is a living soul,' the suit reads. " She feels love and pain.'
Ownership of Raising Rover has changed since Zakharova purchased Umka.
"I know nothing about the sale. The prior owner has the records. We are careful about where we get our puppies," Raising Rover's new owner Ben Logan told the New York Daily News. Logan declined to provide information about the prior owner.
Zakharova is seeking compensation for surgeries and medical treatment for Umka totaling about $8,000. She also wants a full return of the dog's sale price plus interest since the date of purchase in February 2011. Zakharova intends to donate any award to an animal charity, Lask said.
New York state has a "Puppy Lemon Law' that allows buyers to return sick animals to a pet store within 14 days for a full refund. The law is meant to slow puppy mills' mass production of dogs with inherent medical problems. However, Umka's medical issues did not become apparent for months after Zakharova purchased the dog.
"The Puppy Lemon Law doesn't cut it,' Lask said.
If the definition of a pet is changed from property to a sentient being, it could substantially change the amount of damages awarded when an owner buys a defective dog born in a puppy mill. That could have a chilling effect on pet stores buying animals from puppy mills fearing large payouts from lawsuits.
"It's going to put a number on my dog's broken hips that you created because you're negligent, you're greedy, and you're mass-producing puppies,' Lask said. "Right now, even if you return it, they just kill it, which is so inhumane.'
Lask is an animal lover who owns a Chihuahua named Lincoln who was found to have a hole in his skull months after her purchase. That discovery led her to investigate the practices of puppy mills. She waited six years to find a case to help correct the larger issue.
"It's much bigger than this case,' she said. "I am looking to shut down the puppy mill world.'
The main issue will be proving to a judge that pets are living souls who experience feelings of pain and emotion. "Human beings have treated other humans as property in history before recognizing it was wrong," said Lask, "so it's not too much of a stretch to ask the courts to change the definition."
"It's already a felony to abuse an animal. If animals have criminal rights, why not put rights on a damaged leg or a heart condition? If we're not equating (an animal) to a human being, and we're not equating it to a table, there has to be something in the middle.'
The suit brings to light the practices of puppy mills and their damaging effects on animals and their human owners. A 2011 investigation by The Humane Society of the United States revealed that Raising Rover, where Umka was purchased, was one of 11 upscale pet stores that purchased animals from Midwestern puppy mills with horrendous conditions.
The moral of the story is buyer beware! Experts agree consumers should opt to adopt from shelters like the Yavapai Humane Society to avoid the trauma that comes from paying exorbitant fees for pet store animals with hidden defects.