You’ve heard the expression - you get what you pay for. It may not always be the case when it comes to dogs. Pure breeds can cost thousands of dollars, even if they start their lives neglected in squalor or come with hidden medical problems.
11Alive’s investigative unit, The Reveal, found more than a sick dog, but a sick animal welfare system. It’s why many advocates in the state are asking Gov. Brian Kemp to create an animal cruelty task force.
Janice, a pet owner in California who adopted a dog from Georgia, says the story of her Yorkie named Blanco is one reason why.
Janice, who has asked us to only use her first name, uses social media to post cute pictures of her dog Blanco's naps and new outfits. There's a more serious tone though, when she posts about what they've had to go through due to Blanco's health problems.
According to vet records obtained by The Reveal, Blanco has four places where her skull never closed and fluid builds up on her brain. The swelling causes confusion and a lack of coordination. That’s why Janice says her house is padded.
“It was devastating. Because they told me if her conditions got worse, I should put her down. And I’m attached to her, I love her,” Janice said, fighting back tears. “I’m praying for a miracle.”
As much as Janice loves Blanco, she’s confused why the dog was up for sale in the first place. Blanco wasn’t cheap, $2,000, plus the cost of the flight to get her from Suwanee, Georgia to San Francisco, California.
Janice went beyond medical updates. She also used her social media voice to tell others not to buy from Monica Wong - the pet dealer who sold Blanco. What followed were accusations on both sides of cyberstalking and bullying. They now have competing claims in court.
Wong insists the dog only had one hole in her skull when sold, sort of like a newborn child's soft spot, and was otherwise perfectly healthy.
When Janice raised questions about Blanco's health, Wong asked her to send back the dog. Janice has not, citing concerns for Blanco's safety. She also worked with her bank to get a refund for the purchase.
While posts on Wong's social media pages indicate she has had a number of happy customers over the years, The Reveal spoke with more than a dozen people in states scattered across the U.S., upset by their experience. On a zoom call, they talked for more than an hour about their frustration and even heartache.
One of the pet owners is Rachel, who bought an Imperial Shih Tzu from Wong that she said died four days later. According to Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) documents, Wong told inspectors she bought the dog from an unlicensed breeder, a violation of her own license. Wong said she later learned the dog might be ill, the actual disease was redacted from the GDA document.
Another owner Judy says her dog only lived two days after she picked her up. The vet bills to figure out what was wrong, added up to $3,000.
Caroline paid $1,800 for what she thought was a pure bred Yorkie, only to find out through Embark DNA testing that the dog is more Maltese.
“It doesn’t make me love her any less, but it just makes me angry,” Caroline said.
And two breeders, Kristie and Denise, bought dogs they believe had Brucellosis, a highly contagious disease that keeps females from having puppies. The breeders can’t prove Wong’s dogs were the source, but they argue the timing fits. Kristie says the disease impacted more than a dozen of her animals.
“I had to euthanize every one of my dogs. That cost me a little over $200,000. I do not care about any financial aspect, I think justice needs to be served for these poor dogs,” Kristie explained.
“It was very, very heartbreaking,” added Denise who also had to put down several of her dogs after the disease spread.
Several of these women said when they went online to criticize Wong’s business practices, they were cyberbullied, much like Janice. One woman said Wong posted her personal contact information online.
Janice’s court filings accused Wong of tagging her place of employment on personal attacks, forcing her company to reach out to Instagram and Facebook to get the posts removed.
LICENSE TO BREED:
For at least two years the Georgia Department of Agriculture licensed Wong to sell dogs out of her Suwanee house, without ever requiring her to show proof the county would let her run a breeding business there. The GDA relies on applicants to know if they need a local business license and to acquire one before requesting to breed or sell.
“The horrendous smell just absolutely hit me in the face,” said Tinker, a woman from Georgia who says she went to Wong's house to buy a dog in 2018. “There were dogs jumping, nursing litters in the dining room. There was a dog scratching under a bathroom door trying to get out.”
Others in the group reported that Wong’s house was orderly when they went to pick up their animals, but it was a complaint that finally brought Gwinnett County Animal Control to the house. Turns out, county zoning does not allow breeding in her home.
That’s when she moved her dogs to a closed Bruster’s ice cream store. Turns out, she didn't have a business license to operate there either.
When inspectors walked inside, they found rows of dirty cages. According to a GDA report obtained through a public records request, Monica and her husband Kwok would go to take care of the dogs each day between 4-8PM. With that schedule, the dogs would go unattended nearly 20 hours a day.
Animal welfare attorney Claudine Wilkins says that doesn’t just create a problem with sanitation, but it also makes it hard to properly socialize the dogs.
“They don’t look at you as long, they don’t want to play with you. They have a reactive disorder almost, they’re not bonding well with a human. If you’re finding something that’s already 12 weeks old that hasn’t had any human interaction, you’re looking at a long haul with that puppy,” Wilkins explained.
The Reveal reviewed GDA inspection reports. Until November 2019, Wong passed in every category at her house. But when inspectors went to her new location in Alpharetta, she was cited for housekeeping, humane care, and sanitation among other things.
GDA inspectors also found about three dozen dogs that needed rabies vaccinations, a requirement for any pet owner in Georgia.
Wong’s attorney argued his client had not been given enough time to renovate the facility when the surprise inspection happened and the citations ordered.
STOP ORDER IGNORED:
After the discoveries in her Alpharetta shop, the GDA ordered Wong to stop selling dogs. But she didn’t stop.
A sales receipt shows Janice bought Blanco one month after Wong was ordered to stop. The GDA also reported it found Wong advertising on a half dozen other websites under the names Five Star Yorkies, Perfectly Posh Pets and Bella Pooches to name a few. In a written response to the GDA, Wong's attorney denies she sold any dogs in violation of the order through those websites.
Six months later, even though the GDA had reason to believe Wong wasn't playing by the rules, it gave her a new license. That allowed her to open a pet store as long as she acknowledged her mistakes and promised not to make them again. That’s how Linda and Rachel met Wong.
“There was absolutely no ventilation. The dogs that she had in the pens in the front were panting so heavily. There were puppy pads in there that were completely soiled and chewed up. I would call it anxiety chew,” described Linda, who visited the store twice while purchasing a French Bulldog puppy.
When animal control went to check it out, Wong didn’t even know how many dogs were there. She told inspectors 45. They counted 81.
“Every proud and legitimate breeder knows how many animals they have, how they’re bred," Wilkins said, explaining why it should be a red flag.
But Solicitor Brian Whiteside is focused on another number. 61. That’s how many criminal citations animal control wrote that day at Wong's pet store.
“There’s allegations of animal cruelty, possible hoarding, unsanitary conditions,” Whiteside said. “People show things on the news, they see the picture, but you don’t see the smell.”
The faces and conditions inside dog breeding facility shut down issued a stop order
Whiteside can’t talk about the details of the case but says while his office fights to protect animals from abuse, it’s also important to think about the defendant’s mental health.
“You have to care about that person that is also charged,” Whiteside said. “What is their mental makeup? Why have they come to this point if it’s alleged that animals aren’t taken care of properly? How can our system also help that person?”
“That’s exactly why local assistance is so key to this. And not only local law enforcement, but local individuals – that if you see something, say something,” said Mark Murrah, the program manager for the GDA’s Department of Companion Animals, which oversees licensing.
While Gwinnett Animal Control did take action in Wong's case, local law enforcement doesn’t always understand a dog doesn’t have to be beaten or starved to press animal cruelty charges. And there’s still little recourse when the dog you get is not as advertised.
“The problem we have is the lack of communication. Which is why an animal cruelty task force in the state of Georgia that the Governor anoints, is what we really need,” Wilkins explained.
Police training on the state’s animal cruelty laws has increased in recent years, but with high turnover in many police departments and several counties with no animal control, Wilkins says it needs to be made mandatory.
“A police officer’s job is to enforce the law, whether they like animals or not it doesn’t matter. If something is happening and there is a law there that says it shouldn’t be done, police officers have to enforce the law,” Wilkins said.
'NOT GUILTY' PLEA:
The Reveal tried to talk with Wong at a recent court hearing. She declined, and attorneys representing various aspects of this case haven’t responded to our emails. But she will get to present her side to a jury. She’s pleaded not guilty.
Wong told Animal Control officers that she offered customers upset about their purchases a refund or a new puppy. All of the buyers we spoke with say they were never offered a full refund, even when they asked. But a few did get another dog from Wong. One person reports receiving a partial refund since the type of dog she received cost less.
The buyers we spoke with want to know why Wong is the only one being accused. Her husband’s name, Kwok Wong, is listed on the business license for the pet store. Records show he was there when inspectors arrived, and he definitely spent time at the store.
“Her husband opened the door of the facility and let me in,” said Rachel, who filed a complaint with the GDA.
And several people sent their payments to another woman named Susan Miller. We emailed the address associated with the payment account, but received no response to our questions.
So why does having these names listed in the charges or GDA's disciplinary action matter to the buyers?
“A breeder may simply disguise their entire operation under their friend’s name or relative’s name. And unless there’s some hard evidence to connect the two, the department of agriculture is not going to know that,” Wilkins explained, adding that GDA does not have the manpower to investigate these types of connections.
The program manager for the Companion Animal Division responsible for overseeing inspections agreed.
“We have 14 inspectors that are tasked with licensing and regulating over 4,000 establishments,” Murrah said, adding that there is no separate staff to help if an in-depth investigation is needed.
GDA says since they revoked Wong's license, neither her, her husband or any other family member to their knowledge has requested a license to sell or breed dogs. Wong was ordered to pay an $8,000 fine stemming from violations for house keeping, humane care, and sanitation. The GDA says she has not made that payment to date.
Janice has no idea how long her dog Blanco will live. But says her fight is about more than one dog. A feeling shared by many – who say something needs to change.
“Every dog has its day and I’m going to leave it at that,” Linda said.
NOTE: It is believed Monica Wong has also conducted business under the names Puppy Planet, Precious Yorkies, TWC168 LLC, Five Star Yorkies, perfectly Post Pets, Perfectly Posh Yorkies, Teddy Bear Mini Doodles, Bella Pooches, House of Color French Bulldogs.
The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country. It airs Sunday nights at 6 on 11Alive.