Is it the end of the line for New Jersey's most notorious pet shop operator?
Over the last quarter century Nat Sladkin has settled scores of civil suits for selling sick puppies to unwitting consumers.
Now he's facing criminal charges.
Sladkin and his partner, Maria DeSantis, are facing dozens of counts of cruelty stemming from a raid last month at a Jersey Shore pet store where health officers seized 39 puppies - mostly Chihuahuas, German Shepherds and Yorkies - the majority of them sick.
Four puppies found at the store, Puppies Galore in Brick, were severely ill with pneumonia and rushed to a veterinary clinic.
The New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA) on Friday filed 42 animal cruelty charges against Sladkin, 71, of Farmingdale and DeSantis, 57, of Old Bridge.
The charges came after an investigation by the Ocean County Health Department and the NJSPCA into conditions at the store.
DeSantis, the store's owner was charged with 38 counts and Sladkin, the manager, was charged with four counts.
The majority of the criminal charges were filed for failure to provide necessary sustenance in the form of veterinary care for the puppies. The remaining criminal charges were filed for failure to provide proper shelter and water, the NJSPCA said in a statement.
The NJSPCA may also file civil charges in addition to the criminal charges. Each criminal animal cruelty charge is subject to fines up to $1,000 and potential jail time of up to 6 months.
Sladkin has a long history of selling sick puppies from Pennsylvania puppy mills. In 1995 my Inquirer colleague, Karl Stark, detailed Sladkin's decade-long legal scuffles resulting in settlements totaling easily in the tens of thousands with the state of New Jersey and scores of customers.
In interviews, including one with the Wall Street Journal, Sladkin blamed customers for their dogs' illnesses, saying they didn't know how to care for their pets. He blamed humane societies and veterinarians for maligning the reputation of pet stores. He called people protesting conditions in his old store, Pet Depot, "a bunch of vegetarians who need mental help."
Ocean County health officials confirmed the sick puppies from Puppies Galore originated in Pennsylvania and identified the store's veterinarian as "J.W. Sellers."
Past reports indicate most of Sladkin's puppies came from Lancaster County. In 2009, shortly after the passage of the Pennsylvania dog law aimed at improving conditions in commercial kennels, Sladkin joined Pennsylvania breeders in a federal lawsuit to overturn the law.
They failed. But the judge tossed out a provision in the law that would have allowed Pennsylvania to charge higher fees to out-of-state dealers of which Sladkin was one at the time.
But today he is operating without a Pennsylvania license, according to state officials.
Pennsylvania plays a central role in this New Jersey case.
-The store's sick puppies came from Pennsylvania breeders.
-Their health was "certified" by a Pennsylvania veterinarian.
-The store was supposed to have an out-of-state dealers license, but did not.
Yet there is little, apparently, that Pennsylvania authorities say they can do.
Pennsylvania kennels supply thousands of puppies to New Jersey each year, but authorities on either side of the border appear to rarely, if ever, communicate, let alone pursue joint investigations, leaving the prospect of illegal activity in dog dealing a serious concern.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office says it handles only complaints by aggrieved Pennsylvania consumers under the state's limited Puppy Lemon Law. The state Veterinary Medical Board is charged with investigating veterinarians who violate regulations and the law, but officials say they will not do so without a complaint.
It's a large loophole that Pennsylvania kennels, unscrupulous veterinarians and pet store operators in New Jersey have exploited for a long time.
Meanwhile, Puppies Galore is closed and the 39 puppies that were removed are being cared for in animal shelters throughout the area.
The first court appearance for Sladkin and DeSantis is Feb. 9 at 4 p.m. at the Brick Municipal Court.