An employee's complaint that brought a state inspector and local animal welfare officials to a mall pet store Tuesday could mean $20,000 in fines and possible closure for the store, according to state officials.
In Hamilton County Circuit Court Tuesday afternoon, McKamey Animal Center Executive Director Karen Walsh said she had received more than seven complaints since December about the Pet Company in Hamilton Place mall. McKamey personnel had met with store staff six times over the last seven months to discuss the problems, she said.
In court, she read more than a dozen violations of law at the store, including no air conditioning for more than three weeks, animal and human food stored together, an isolation room for sick animals that was 85 degrees and no water present for the animals.
On Tuesday, state officials and Chattanooga police helped McKamey workers remove 37 dogs and cats and 26 rodents from the store, Ms. Walsh said. She said birds and fish were left in the store because they were not severely affected by the current conditions.
Officials with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, which oversees pet dealers, said several major violations were found during Tuesday's raid.
Ms. Walsh and Agriculture Department animal health technician Joe Burns were called to court after Andy Pippinger, attorney for United Pet Supply, a New Jersey-based company that owns the Pet Company location, filed a court order asking that the removal be stopped and the animals returned to the store.
Mr. Pippinger questioned details of Mr. Burns' report and whether conditions met the federal standard for animal removal, which requires animals in temperatures higher than 85 degrees for more than four hours to have a working ventilation system.
Calls to United Pet Supply headquarters were not returned.
Circuit Court Judge Neil Thomas cited state code and local statutes that give the authority of animal removal to McKamey officials and denied Mr. Pippinger's motion.
The office of state veterinarian Dr. Charles Hatcher is going to review the case information and make a decision about what action should be taken against the store over the next few days, officials said. The Pet Company is subject to a $500 fine per violation and could see its license to operate revoked, and the store will not be allowed to sell anything except pet supplies until a judge rules on the violations, officials said.
There have been other complaints about the Pet Company since it opened in 2004. An online petition with more than 4,230 signatures calls for the store to be closed down because the dogs being sold are purchased from puppy mills and kept with "no toys, no love, little if any vet work, cheap food, foul water and filthy conditions."
"They are eating their own feces, feces is smeared on them and on the cages," the petition reads. "It is no wonder, because the cages are so small some puppies can hardly avoid lying in their own waste."
Inspectors were sent to the Pet Company location after the Department of Agriculture and McKamey received several complaints about animal treatment.
Pets including dogs, hamsters and birds were kept without air conditioning in extreme heat at the store for more than three weeks, state officials said. They said they also found dirty cages and chemicals being used for cleaning that were hazardous for animals.
"These were unhealthy conditions for the animals," said Tom Womack, spokesman for the agriculture department.
Ms. Walsh said cleaning chemicals were in unmarked bottles and no one at the store adequately could explain appropriate cleaning practices.
She told the court that when she explained her concerns, over the phone, to United Pet Supply company's vice president, the person told her that those practices were not company-approved cleaning guidelines.
The next scheduled court date is June 24, when a city court judge will determine what happens to the two dozen animals removed from the store.
Ms. Walsh, visibly upset when talking with the media, said she couldn't predict what would happen in the upcoming court appearance but that, "if the judge charges them with neglect, they hopefully won't be selling puppies in Chattanooga."
Staff writer Joan Garrett contributed to this story.