When Ed Webb brought home his newborn Maltese "Vanna," he never expected that just weeks later he would be putting her to sleep.
The Humane Society is asking a Florida judge to certify a class action lawsuit against a company the group says sells defective puppies like Vanna to unsuspecting pet owners.
While the animal protection organization has long targeted breeders and companies that it believes mistreat pets and other animals, this would be the first class action lawsuit the group has filed in its 53-year history. A civil complaint was filed June 18 against Florida pet store Wizard of Claws for allegedly selling sick, mill-bred puppies.
"[Wizard of Claws] is a very bad actor but is an example of a nationwide problem," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president of the animal protection litigation for the Humane Society of the United States. "In this case we had so many people — members and others — complain to us that we started looking at it."
Wizard of Claws sells dogs from its Pembroke Pines store as well as on its popular Web site where celebrities like Sharon and Kelly Osbourne are listed as satisfied customers. With just a few clicks of a mouse, prospective pet owners can simply browse through a library of photographs and find the puppy they like the best.
Jim Anderson, the owner of Wizard of Claws, tells ABC News he's innocent and is being unfairly targeted. Anderson says that his pet store is one of the best kennels in the world, and that he is the victim of the Humane Society's vendetta against pet stores.
"Their goal is to close all pet stores in the country. They don't want one pet store open," Anderson said. "I have a model facility."
The civil lawsuit is part of a larger movement to toughen and enforce what are known as "puppy lemon laws." These laws, which vary state to state, are designed to protect pet owners from purchasing sick puppies and ensure buyers get compensation for any veterinary bills. In some states, owners are given the opportunity to receive a replacement puppy.
But many pet owners don't care about the money and are concerned solely about the well-being of their pet, some experts say.
"A lot of lemon laws are just for dogs, and they usually enable pet owners to get monetary compensation or replacement," said Charlotte Lacroix, a veterinary legal consultant who heads Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. "Usually this doesn't do enough. People become attached to their pets and don't want just the money."
The Humane Society is also hoping the suit will bring attention to puppy mills — what they call "factorylike facilities" that are only interested in making a profit, rather than providing the best care for the animals. Puppy mills, it says, are overcrowded and often provide insufficient vet care and food.
But Lacroix argues that not all puppy mills are bad. While they may get a bad rap because of their size, she says that doesn't always mean the dogs are suffering.
"If they are properly cared for and the owners are conscientious and providing, puppy mills are not necessarily bad," Lacroix said. "In those cases, the dog is probably better off than it would be if it was on the street."
Alex Sarnoff, one of the seven named plaintiffs in the Humane Society's lawsuit, bought his miniature pinscher, Goose, from Wizard of Claws in August 2005. He discovered the company through an Internet search and said that on first glance the company looked like an easy way to get in touch with top breeders without having to do the legwork.
"You wouldn't know it's fishy because of the fact they pushed the great reputation and that they have happy clients," Sarnoff said. "This store claimed to be a business that has great relationships with top breeders across the country and will save you the headache of trying to find a breeder."
Wizard of Claws' mission statement, available on its Web site, is "to provide World Class unique dogs that set the standard of excellence." It refers to its facility as a "Doggie Ritz Hotel," where many puppies are given "little blankets at night so they can be more comfortable and cozier."
But for Sarnoff, the problems with his new puppy began just a week after he brought him home. Goose coughed constantly and, according to court documents, was eventually diagnosed with meningitis. The puppy was so sick he stopped eating and could barely stand. After months of treatment Goose survived, but Sarnoff is unsure what medical complications Goose might face in the future.
According to Louise Murray, the director of medicine and a veterinary internal medicine specialist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, meningitis and similar diseases are common ailments of store-bought puppies.
"Because they are continuing to rebreed the same puppies over and over there is no way to eradicate the defect," Murray said. "There is always much more rampant inbreeding in puppy mills."
Ed Webb, another unhappy Wizard of Claws customer, says he bought a Maltese he named Vanna from Wizard of Claws in November 2006. Just days after bringing her home, the puppy began coughing and vomiting and, according to court documents, was diagnosed with kennel cough and Coccidia, a parasite that infects the intestines. Webb says further treatment found that the puppy had a congenital liver defect. Less than a month after buying Vanna, the Webbs were advised by their vet to euthanize the puppy.
Christopher Pace, a Miami lawyer with the New York-based law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, is representing the Humane Society pro bono. Pace said he hoped that as many as 100 pet owners would join the suit.
"[The Humane Society] has had a number of complaints with the Wizard of Claws and they haven't changed their ways," Pace said. "This is perceived as the only way to stop them."
Wizard of Claws' Anderson says that his celebrity clientele make his company an attractive target.
"Why us?" Anderson asked. "You come in here and you will see a beautiful facility with beautiful dogs. Our Web site looks pretty juicy with all our celebrity dogs."
Regarding accusations that the puppies he sells do not come from reputable breeders as the site suggests but rather puppy mills, Anderson says that's just not true.
"I will not purchase a dog unless I see a picture of it," Anderson said. "I don't order off lists like they say I do. Breeders e-mail me very special puppies they have and every month our breeders get better and better."
The lawsuit, which was filed in Broward Circuit Court, requests a trial by jury.