SARASOTA, Florida -- An investigation revealed both inexperienced and ill-intentioned dog breeders are selling sick pets online to unsuspecting customers. And when victims look for compensation, they often find neither the breeder, nor the law, has any interest in helping them.
Because the federal Animal Welfare Act was signed into law in 1966, there are no accommodations in it for many breeders who sell their pets, sight unseen, over the Internet. Florida has a pet "lemon law," but it is limited in scope and most agencies aren't staffed well-enough to enforce it.
Blue-Eyed Beauty Aussies
Ricky and Rita Brooks of Deltona say their love for dogs clouded their judgement. When they bought an Australian Shepherd from "Blue-Eyed Beauty Aussies" in Sarasota, they thought they had the perfect pet.
"He was such a beautiful little puppy," Rita Brooks said of Baxter, a puppy with one brown eye and one baby-blue eye. "He always laid down with me (on my chest) because he was little."
But just as quickly as the Brooks fell in love, their puppy fell sick. A couple of days after they bought him, Baxter grew sluggish. A vet diagnosed him with parasites. A couple of days later, he was diagnosed with Parvovirus, a highly-contagious virus often transmitted through dog feces. The virus incubates in dogs, but is very preventable through proper vaccinations.
"The veterinarian said if he'd been vaccinated, he would not have been sick like this," Ricky Brooks said.
The Brooks wound up spending $2,500 in vacation savings, on top of their $1,200 purchase price, trying to keep Baxter alive. But the puppy died 17 days after they got him.
"When we got there, he was gasping for air, and we told him how much mommy and daddy loved him," Rita Brooks said. "He looked at us one last time and he couldn't breathe."
When the Brooks couldn't reach the owners of Blue-Eyed Beauty Aussies', Sherrie Rouse and her daughter, they filed complaints with the state. And as other victims came forward over the course of several years, the women eventually closed down their website. But they weren't out of the breeding game; they opened a new site under the name Dos Lunas Aussies.
Meanwhile, neighbors continuously filed complaints with Sarasota Animal Control, which repeatedly cited Sherrie and her then 17-year-old daughter, Jacqui Rouse, for letting their dogs roam the neighborhood freely.
The 10 News Investigators called Sherrie Rouse to discuss the upset customers, but she said she would have to return the call another time. After a week of messages going unreturned, 10 News Investigators went to her house, where Sherrie and Jacqui drove away without answering questions.
Sherrie Rouse later sent text messages indicating she would talk without a camera, but attempts to contact her again went unreturned.
While there are no federal laws to go after Rouse, there is at least one Florida pet law that Rouse violated. On Jan. 22, she was arrested by Sarasota County deputies on five misdemeanor counts of failing to provide health certificates in the sale of a pet.
10 News again tried to reach out to Rouse following her Feb. 11 arraignment, but Rouse sprinted from the courthouse to a friend's car, refusing to answer questions.
Sherrie Rouse's Legal Troubles
The prosecutor in Sarasota said Monday the state was seeking 75 days in jail, five years of probation, and a slew of fines, fees, and restitution for Sherrie Rouse. But she pleaded "not guilty" and retained a public defender. Rouse will return to court for a pre-trial hearing in March.
Sherrie Rouse also faces possible eviction from her rented Sarasota home, a judgement from a local vet seeking payments, and numerous citations from animal control. Many of her former customers tell 10 News they don't anticipate seeing a dime from her.
10 News also discovered Sherrie Rouse faces civil charges filed by a breeder in Missouri who claims Rouse forged documents and stole an Aussie Shepherd from him. The lawsuit alleges a Lakeland woman, who was supposed to return the dog to the Missouri man, instead gave the dog to Rouse, who then forged American Kennel Club documents to assume ownership.
Other complaints obtained by 10 News indicate customers have reported Rouse to the state for fraud and tax evasion. But no other agencies have acknowledged investigations.
A Florida Department of Agriculture spokesperson said it takes action against pet dealers that send a forged or altered health certificate in the sale of a pet, but if a breeder like Rouse fails to include any health certificate, it's statutorily unable to help. At that point, it's up to local sheriff's offices and police departments to pursue charges, which they often do not.
Closing the federal loophole
A US Department of Agriculture (USDA) spokesperson tells 10 News a proposed change to the Animal Welfare Act would close the Internet loophole and bring online pet dealers under federal inspection.
Sherry Silk from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay says closing the loophole would be an important step toward shutting down puppy mills.
"You don't know what you're getting," Silk said of online pet sales. "You don't know what the parents were like. How were they housed?"
But the American Kennel Club (AKC) opposes the proposed change in law because they say it infringes upon reputable breeders' rights. The organization issued an in-depth reply to the proposed USDA rule-change.
"The proposed rule is overly broad and would be difficult to enforce, would punish responsible breeders, and lacks a fundamental understanding of how responsible small hobby breeders operate. It focuses on the physical circumstances of the purchase transaction rather than the conditions in which animals are maintained. It also places the onus of compliance on the breeder/seller, although a decision whether to visit a breeder's premises is ultimately made by the purchaser."
The AKC has suggested tougher puppy "lemon laws" and better enforcement of health certificates. It's concern largely stems from the fact that many hobby breeders could be considered "commercial breeders" under the new, tighter regulations.
"Many of us are breeding dogs at a financial loss in an attempt to improve the health and well-being of a dog and a breed," said Tim Golden, a breeder and president of the Hillsborough County Florida Dog Fanciers.
"Those who breed with a profit motive," Golden said, "that is the red flag."
Protecting Yourself When Buying/Adopting Pets
Silk says families looking for purebred animals should start at pet shelters, which have inexpensive pets that come with full health check-ups. She adds that much-sought-after breeds often come through the Humane Society of Tampa Bay when puppy mills are broken up across the Southeast.
If you're determined to buy a pet from a breeder, Silk advises visiting the home in-person. If the breeder refuses to show you a puppy's parents or where the animals are kept, it's a red-flag for a puppy mill.
Silk said "rescuing" dogs from puppy mills only supports the industry, while rescuing dogs from pet shelters saves a life.
Golden said many of the problem adoptions come from consumers' lack of education.
"Too many dogs are sold in pet shops, flea markets, and roadside stands based on a rash, emotional, 'Isn't that cute?' decision without considering the commitment," Golden said.
He suggests potential dog-owners visit the AKC's website for tips on whether buying a dog is the right choice.