Apparently the movie "All Dogs Go to Heaven" doesn't count as a legal precedent. So now Elena Zakharova — who is suing the New York "pet boutique" that sold her a $1,650 puppy with genetic defects — must prove that dogs have souls.
Zakharova bought the dog, a Brussels griffon named Umka, at Raising Rover on the Upper East Side last year. As the New York Daily News reports, Umka began limping and crying several months later, early signs of what turned out to be a congenital birth defect in the knees and hips that often plagues improperly bred dogs.
"We can only surmise that Umka comes from a puppy mill," Zakharova's lawyer, Susan Chana Lask, tells the Daily News. A 2011 Humane Society investigation listed Raising Rover as one of 11 pet stores in New York that buys dogs from puppy mills, but Zakharova was unaware when she bought Umka. "I had no idea," she says. "It was my first dog."
Puppy mills have become such a problem that New York has a "puppy lemon law," which lets buyers return unhealthy pets within 14 days. But since Umka's ailments took six months to appear, Zakharova is out of options — and on top of the $1,650 she already spent, she's also out $4,000 in vet bills.
Umka will reportedly never walk normally despite the expensive surgery she's already had, and she may need another $4,000 in procedures before it's all over. So in her lawsuit, Zakharova contends Raising Rover should pay for Umka's $8,000 medical tab — as well as for the dog's pain and suffering, just like if she was a human.
The only problem is that pets are considered "property" under New York state law, and property can't feel pain. Lask isn't deterred, though — all she has to do is convince a judge that dogs have souls. Filed in Manhattan Civil Court, the lawsuit "requests humanity for Umka in that she be considered a living soul that feels pain," and seeks unspecified damages from Raising Rover. "Pets must be recognized as living souls, not inanimate property," Lask tells the Daily News. "Umka feels love and pain like any human being whose pain and suffering would be recognized in a court."
Still, Lask also admits this is a gamble. "We are trying to get precedent that she's not property," the animal-right attorney tells the New York Post. "I don't know if the judge will go for it." If not, Plan B is to argue that dogs fall under the Uniform Commercial Code, which gives consumers four years to return defective products.
New owners have taken over the store where Zakharova bought Umka, the Post reports, and they say they don't have records from before their tenure. "We take selection very seriously, and we do comprehensive background checks before engaging with any new breeder," the current owners said in a statement this week.
The ASPCA says about 10,000 commercial breeders in the U.S. could be defined as puppy mills, which are characterized by overbreeding, failing to screen for genetic problems, and keeping animals in unhealthy or cruel conditions. Puppy mills generally sell their animals as high-priced "purebreds," often in pet stores or online. A recent undercover investigation by the Humane Society accused 100 New York pet stores of buying animals from puppy mills, 11 of which — including Raising Rover — it visited with hidden cameras. Animal advocates widely recommend using reputable rescue organizations to find pets, or at least to thoroughly research breeders.
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