Under fire: Pet Paradise blaze raises concerns about lack of oversight

Mallory Cypher didn’t have any issues with Pet Paradise before the fire. Her dog Teddy survived the August blaze Mallory Cypher didn’t have any issues with Pet Paradise before the fire. Her dog Teddy survived the August blaze

By Spencer Philps

Mallory Cypher’s husband dropped their dog, Teddy, off at Charlottesville’s Pet Paradise on August 26 before the couple went on vacation. The boarding facility operates in nine states, and Teddy, a regular at the Harris Street location, seemed to love it there. Cypher says the staff was great, and she never had any issues.

Two days later, while Cypher was still on vacation, she received an email from Pet Paradise: There’d been a two-story fire at the facility, and emergency workers were rescuing pets and administering oxygen to the animals that needed it.

She spent the rest of the evening trying to determine Teddy’s whereabouts, calling all of the area’s veterinary hospitals to see if they had any idea where he was. Eventually, she tracked him down at a local vet, and learned that he’d been unharmed by the fire.

For most pet owners—many of whom see their dogs or cats as members of their family—Cypher’s story sounds like something out of a nightmare. 

While almost all of the 78 pets in the facility at the time were rescued (one dog, Bailey, was found dead a mile and a half from the location), the fire has revealed perhaps an even more troubling fact for local pet owners: the absence of laws and regulations that govern the pet care industry. At the time of the blaze, the Charlottesville Pet Paradise didn’t even have a fire sprinkler system installed. 

The Code of Virginia has few laws pertaining to pet boarding facilities. It requires them to provide adequate food, water, shelter, exercise, space, and emergency veterinary care, but provides no specifics on what these elements ought to entail. Virginia also has no required licenses or inspections for facilities such as Pet Paradise.

In early 2017, Ellie Carter made the decision to take her dog, Levi, to a boarding training facility in Afton. One night, she received a text from the trainer saying that Levi had escaped from his kennel and gone on “walkabout.”

“I’m like, how does my dog take himself on a walkabout when you’re in charge of him?” Carter recalls.

She and her husband were unable to find Levi that night, and spent the next three months looking for him. Carter said that once she informed the trainer that she expected him to reimburse them for their search efforts, he cut off all contact with them. They later found Levi’s remains in Albemarle County. Carter eventually discovered that the trainer didn’t have a business or local kennel license, both of which are required by Nelson County law.

The ordeal inspired Carter to learn more about the laws that govern the pet boarding and training industry in Virginia. She was dismayed with the little that she found.

“There’s just nothing,” she says. “There’s no rules or regulations.”

Carter says she’s spoken with a state politician about drafting legislation on the issue, but nothing has come of it.

“I think it’s kind of scary,” she says. “Pets are part of people’s families.”

Other local pet owners say they’d noticed signs of concern at Pet Paradise well before the fire, and felt that they had no way of holding the facility responsible.

In May, Caleigh Saucier dropped off her goldendoodle for a summer haircut. When Saucier returned to pick up her dog later in the day, it’d been shaved so completely that she was unsure if it was her dog.

“She was not responding to her name [and] she seemed really traumatized, and we noticed later when we brought her home that she had scabs on her ears from the clipper maybe cutting off the edges of her ears. She had these bald spots all over her chest and her tummy,” Saucier says.

Saucier and her husband repeatedly attempted to get into contact with Pet Paradise, but their calls and messages went ignored. 

“We felt kind of helpless because we had no way of holding them accountable.” she recalls. 

Erica Goldfarb, another former Pet Paradise customer, had a similar negative experience when she dropped her dog off for boarding.

“It was just chaotic.” she says. “They didn’t really know what they were doing, and I just remember leaving and thinking I am never coming back here.”

The local Pet Paradise manager, Dustan Sweely, says they take special precautions when grooming dogs that require excessive shaving, and that the chaos Goldfarb observed could have been explained by the recent transition of ownership and new policies. 

“We have thousands of clients that come here on a weekly basis, dropping off, picking up, boarding, the whole nine yards, and we take reviews seriously,” Sweely adds. 

Pet Paradise CEO Fernando Acosta-Rua said several new measures will be put in place to ensure the safety of the pets at the Charlottesville location.

“We were obviously within code [at the time of the fire], but our goal going forward is going beyond code and ensuring that we’re doing everything to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Acosta-Rua says that in addition to setting up a sprinkler system in the building, the Charlottesville facility will now also have a staff member on location 24 hours a day.

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