Complaints against the Puppies Galore pet store on Hooper Avenue included reports of dogs rolling in, and consuming, their own feces, an official with the Ocean County Health Department testified Tuesday night.
The testimony, as well as a track record of non-compliance with health regulations for nearly the entire time the store was open, led the Brick Township Council to revoke the store's license at a hearing.
No representatives from the store came to the hearing.
Ryan Griffin, acting senior public health inspector for the county's health department, said Puppies Galore opened in October and operated for just over two weeks before the first complaints about the store came in.
The owner, Maria De Santis, and the manager, Nathan "Nat" Sladkin, have been charged with a combined total of 42 counts of animal cruelty stemming from their operation of the pet store. All of the puppies the pair were selling, 39 in all, were removed from the store Jan. 26.
Griffin testified before the council that an initial compaint against the store was filed by a citizen on Oct. 24 for unsanitary conditions.
"At that point in time, there was feces present in a few of the cages," Griffin said.
Staff members cleaned the cages, however, and the store was allowed to continue to operate.
But additional complaints were filed days later in what would become a pattern of noncompliance with regulations, Griffin said.
On Nov. 4, a complaint was filed with the health department that puppies had runny eyes and were crammed in cages, Griffin said. Four or five dogs were removed that day because they did not have a certain state health certification form.
On Nov. 21, another complaint stated that male boxer puppies were being held in dirty cages and "rolling in and consuming their fecal matter," Griffin said. Finally, on Dec. 1, De Santis agreed to voluntarily shut down the store after being given a grade of unsatisfactory by the health department.
But the store eventually reopened, and the complaints continued. On nearly a weekly basis, the complaints were filed, mainly by citizens who said they witnessed overcrowding and sickly-looking dogs, Griffin said. A Jan. 18 complaint stated that dogs were "covered in feces and urine and looked sickly and hungry."
Investigators on Jan. 20 found 11 health code violations at the store and once again, De Santis agreed to voluntarily shut down. Four days later, senior officers from the county health department visited the store, including a veterinarian and members of law enforcement, and recommended medical treatment for several of the dogs in the then-closed store, Griffin said. He testified that De Santis was "openly hostile" but agreed to treat the dogs after initial resistance.
In the course of the investigators' visit, medications that were years out of date were observed, Griffin said.
Finally, on Jan. 26, investigators acted on another tip that dogs in the store appeared sickly. That day, the 39 puppies were removed, 26 of which were determined to be ill.
"At that point in time, it was obvious that the conditions were not good," Griffin said.
Veterinarian Dr. Phillip Begund testified that many of the dogs suffered from kennel cough, a respiratory disease often transmitted between dogs that live in close quarters. Veterinarians also found dogs with pneumonia, parasites and other diseases at the store, he said.
"Numerous complaints came in to me about the deplorable conditions at Puppies Galore," said Officer Paul Schlossbach of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Police.
Eventually, he said, the NJSPCA charged De Santis with 38 counts of cruelty and Sladkin with four counts.
Township council members voted unanimously to revoke the store's license to operate in Brick.