Undercover at Chelsea Kennel Club

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An investigation showing abuse at a pet store prompts protests from animal activists


  • Protesting Chelsea Kennel Club. Photo: Estelle Pyper

  • English bulldog Lilly turned out to have a heart murmur. Photo courtesy of Brianna Bryan

After a Humane Society investigation revealed troubling and abusive conditions at a high-end Chelsea pet store last week, the sidewalk in front of Chelsea Kennel Club became the site of protests from outraged animal rights activists.

“Don’t buy from them!” “They abuse their dogs!” “Adopt, don’t shop!” were chants protesters yelled outside the storefront on Seventh Avenue as policemen stood by.

The Humane Society of the U.S. released video footage last Tuesday of a store employee mistreating their animals — many of them visibly ill. The recordings were secretly taped as part of a two-month undercover investigation by the animal rights group.

Close-ups showed puppies struggling to open their eyes and mucus dripping from their noses. A particular French bulldog was well underweight, its ribs visible and eyes bulging. The employee was shown shaking a puppy, repeatedly banging on cages and whacking two yapping dogs with a towel.

While the Humane Society routinely conducts investigations, this is the first time someone posed as an employee for an extended period.

“We get complaints all the time from people who purchase puppies in pet stores, and then the puppies end up being very sick,” says John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society’s Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. “We decided to get in there and take a look. The Chelsea Kennel Club was not selected — it was more of a random thing — [the undercover investigator] took the first one that would hire her. We had gotten a couple of complaints about them, but we’ve gotten complaints about a lot of stores; what we’re looking at is a systemic problem in the pet industry.”

The investigator worked at Chelsea Kennel Club for two months starting in April, keeping a detailed diary and taking hidden videos.

“She documented puppies being sold without disclosure that they were sick,” says Goodwin. “She witnessed puppies being bullied and roughly handled in ways that were shocking. There was so much going on there that was problematic.”

In one interaction, the undercover employee asked about a puppy with a high temperature, to which the store owner, Dana Derragh, shrugged and suggested giving the dog an aspirin and a cold bath.

Derragh could not be reached for comment, but immediately denied the allegations to the media, claiming she was unaware of her employees’ actions.

The denial was echoed by the store manager and longtime employee, who asked only to be identified as Alexa. She added that the woman caught hitting the dogs has been fired.

“We’re just trying to move on from this,” Alexa said days after the video release. Clearly overwhelmed, she tried to speak with the few customers, ignoring the commotion outside.

When asked about the claims of unhealthy puppy sales and hidden medical records, she brushed it off, assuring that their puppies come “100 percent” from licensed breeders.

Goodwin is not convinced, disclosing that past records from Chelsea Kennel Club indicate links to puppy mills. “Most of the puppies were being shipped in from states like Missouri and Iowa that are well known for having a lot of puppy mills,” he says.

The Humane Society has submitted the findings to law enforcement, and the Attorney General’s office has told media outlets that it is looking into it. In the meantime, Chelsea Kennel Club remains open, causing more outrage and sidewalk protests.

On the evening of July 27, an organized demonstration drew more than 60 participants. They marched in a circle within barricades, repeating chants: “There is no excuse for animal abuse, there will be no rest for animal abusers,” and “Chelsea Kennel Club, shut them down!” Flanking the crowd, protestors with laptops played the Humane Society footage on loop.

“We are looking to further the public’s understanding of what exactly is taking place,” said animal rights activist Leonardo Anguiano, who helped organized the protest. “To help expose a little bit more about what puppy mills are all about and how many dogs are unfortunately exposed to extremely cruel and horrific treatment. It would be foolish to consider this an outlier situation.”

Also present at the protest were two women who purchased puppies from Chelsea Kennel Club. Both were told their dogs were healthy, only to discover the opposite.

Michelle Bernstein bought her Shih Tzu mix four years ago — a “sibling” for her only son. Derragh told her the puppy had a microchip and all required shots. After seeing a vet, Bernstein discovered her dog had giardia and no microchip. By that time, weeks had passed since Bernstein purchased the dog — too long for Derragh to be liable for covering medical expenses. New York Pet Lemon Law requires a customer to provide proof of medical bills and vet records within 14 days of purchase to receive reimbursement from a store.

Brianna Bryan, a hairstylist, fell within the time constraint: she bought her English bulldog, Lilly, just days before the news broke. Like Bernstein, Bryan learned shortly after that Lilly was not up to date on her shots, and also had a grade-three heart murmur.

“We literally thought we were saving a pet,” Bryan said through tears at the protest. She said she immediately called Derragh, who seemed skeptical and insisted Lilly was healthy when at the shop. Under the Lemon Law, Derragh would have to pay for any heart surgery, but Bryan seems unconvinced she will, given her dismissive and unsympathetic tone over the phone.

“It’s fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice ... you know,” said Anguiano. “Maybe you miss one or two things here or there, but if it’s your establishment and you’re there, there’s no way you’re missing tons of animals that are not receiving proper medical treatment.”

The fate of Chelsea Kennel Club is yet to be seen. Although he said he could not disclose specifics, Goodwin said that a law enforcement investigation is underway: “I think that they just need time to do their job.”

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