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New Jersey Reporters Investigate PetSmart Grooming Deaths
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Phoenix-based PetSmart has recently started implementing some changes in its in-store grooming procedures and techniques. A report by New Jersey's NJ.com discovered that 47 dogs in 14 states had died soon after being groomed at PetSmart — and 32 of those that occurred since 2015. A pair of reporters followed up with a comprehensive investigation to learn more about those incidents and to take a broader look at what pet grooming related laws states do or don't have. Sophie Nieto-Munoz is one of those NJ.com reporters and she's with me. Sophie other than the fact that the animals passed away, what else did their situations have in common?
SOPHIE NIETO-MUNOZ: The one trend that we did find is that 20 of the 47 documented deaths were brachycephalic breeds. So those are the breeds with the smushed in faces and the short noses — which is an English bulldog or really any kind of bulldog, Yorkies Boxers — those all have breathing issues. So in hotter areas, or when they get more stressed out, they typically have more respiratory problems. So you know that that may have been a trend.
GOLDSTEIN: What happens at a typical grooming visit there? Or what's PetSmart groomers doing any different from industry standards?
NIETO-MUNOZ: They could be different. So I'll start with what the process says — or what employees have told us the processes is — depending on whether you get an express grooming or not. But the dog comes in, it's greeted, it's checked out by an employee — they have a check in process to make sure that there's no cuts on the dog or that the dog is not sick not refusing to go in — they bring the dog in and they kennel it, and then they go through the bathing the shampooing, then they get brushed out and cut, and you know the actual grooming process itself. They also do an express grooming — which is— so that process that first process I talked about sometimes it takes four to six hours you know because of the amount of dogs that are in there. So they also have this option that's called Express grooming, which is the dog is in and out usually within an hour. so it's less likely to stress the dog out. What we've found is different in PetSmart versus your average grooming salon is the big box part of it. You know there's a huge volume of dogs in here and also the groomers are required to meet a quota, which is typical for any business, but when you're grooming people's pets they can get more stressed out. So groomers these groomers are working on commission as well, so their quota is tied to the amount of money that they're going to make. So you know it your average mom and pop shop might do for five dogs a day. But at PetSmart employees are doing six to eight dogs a day. Some people can handle that. You know it really depends on the type of dog you're doing. If you have five golden retrievers back to back it's going to take more than an hour for each dog.
GOLDSTEIN: PetSmart had open houses and allowed customers to tour grooming salons on Sunday. Is this just a PR move or are they trying to make sure that people understand this is how we do it and there's nothing to worry about?
NIETO-MUNOZ: I think it's a little bit of both. So they announced these changes in February after you know to really publicized incidents. They announced a bunch of changes that they were going to make ranging from express grooming for bulldogs, to enhanced check in, to an independent review board. And they also announced these salon open houses so that pet parents can come in ask questions, check out the grooming process. It just happened to be that it came out the same week and our story came out. So we already had a publication date for our story, and maybe two weeks before that they announced that they were going to do the open houses on the 23rd. I don't know what they told employees to do. I don't know if there was any different reaction because of this story, but I think that it was — they definitely had prepared for some backlash because of this.
GOLDSTEIN: Has PetSmart admit any wrongdoing, or is it more of those one of those things where we can always improve what we're doing?
NIETO-MUNOZ: They haven't admitted any wrongdoing. They do fiercely defend their safety record in a statement — multiple statements to us — and to other media companies. They don't find that themselves at any fault for this. They say most dogs that died had preexisting conditions, or age issues, or were obese, etc. and we didn't find anything to say that PetSmart is doing anything wrong. You know we are just pointing out that these dogs have died in their care. And you know it's much more than the numbers. These dogs are dying in their care and then they're not providing families any answers. The groomers are saying that they complained, and they're worried about safety incidents, and they're not trained properly and when they tell their managers they're either ignored or retaliated against. There's no transparency, so there is no reporting process to ever find out how many dogs actually died.
GOLDSTEIN: Did you have any indication that any of the groomers that you talked to or really anyone like that that they had any reason to have sour grapes toward the company? Was this more about just saying hey we care about animals we want to make sure that people know what's going on?
NIETO-MUNOZ: There were people that came out and said like there are so many pet safety violations at my store and I need to tell somebody. And there were other people that we reached out to — I mean we reach out to employees that loved the company, we reached out to employees that were just OK with it, people that left on bad terms, people who left on good terms, people who were fired, people that were there for over 10 years — we tried to talk to as many people as possible that way we didn't just get one side of the story.
GOLDSTEIN: Are there states that are working on laws to try to tighten up some of the requirements on uncertain grooming licensing that can affect?
NIETO-MUNOZ: Yes. So, actually, one of the most surprising things that I found out when I started reporting on this was that there is almost no regulation at all. There's no transparency. There's no accountability, and part of that is because pets are still viewed as property even in an age where we spend I mean 70 billion dollars on our pets every year. To have a grooming industry with no regulation is really tough so there are some states that are pushing for regulation. New Jersey actually has three bills. One has been stalled since 2014. It's called Bijou's Law, which would start to regulate grooming and have oversight by the Board of Veterinary Medicine. There's a few more that would require groomers to be certified. Another that would, if a groomer has an injury or a death and they are found at fault they would have to show it in their store — kind of like a grade for a restaurant — they would have to have some type of notice for their customers that that a dog has been injured or died in their store. Massachusetts, Rhode Island — they also have bills but they've all stalled. So we're really hoping that this story kind of sheds a new light on those.
GOLDSTEIN: Sophie Nieto. Munoz is a reporter for NJ.com. We've been talking about her investigations into PetSmart grooming practices.