A Cooper City company believed to be America's largest online dog seller is accused in a lawsuit of secretly selling puppy mill dogs instead of dogs from top quality breeders as it claims.
The lawsuit against Purebred Breeders, filed recently by Leopold-Kuvin on behalf of 11 customers, and in cooperation with the Humane Society of the United States, the world's largest animal advocacy group, comes after an NBC Miami investigation into the company earlier this year.
Scores of angry customers nationwide believe the puppies they bought online quickly became sick upon arrival -- and sometimes died -- because they came from puppy mills, described by the Humane Society as commercial-scale breeding facilities, often in the Midwest, where profits come before caring for the animals and where sickness and genetic defects are not uncommon.
Karen Leland, of Tequesta, Florida, became one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit after her Beagle puppy "Zoey" arrived at the airport and became so sick that it died. A heartbroken Leland was, like other unhappy customers, offered full or partial refunds.
Other unhappy customers were offered replacement dogs but such customers rarely accepted the offer after they've invested money and love into the sickly puppies.
"It's a marketing deception," said Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle. "They never even see the dogs."
Purebred Breeders is little more than a telephone call center in a non-descript business park off Flamingo Road. But its hundreds and hundreds of websites often make it appear like a local dog breeder. "California English Bulldogs," for example, or "Florida Golden Retrievers" - quietly bring the customer to the same call center in Broward County where the lawsuit claims they will sell you a puppy from a puppy mill usually located in the Midwest.
Several inside sources tell NBC Miami the operation sells more than 16,000 dogs a year, supplied by 2,000 breeders. Christmas is the busiest time of year. Prices can go up to $4,000 and more and, the sources say, are marked up 100-150 percent, creating a hefty profit for Halberg, who lives in an estate in Southwest Ranches complete with a long, private driveway and guest house.
Halberg declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview. "After determining that the issues raised with these breeders (mentioned in the lawsuit) had merit, they were immediately terminated from our network," he said in a statement. "We take these matters very seriously and wish the Humane Society had come to us directly so that we could have acted upon this information sooner."
But several inside sources say Halberg's concern is feigned. In fact, the Purebred Breeders "Code of Ethics" demands the kind of standards not found in puppy mills even though suppliers named in the lawsuit have been cited for serious violations of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act. Employees say he uses fake names for non-existent managers, and sales scripts that pressure buyers into purchasing.
The Humane Society of the United States is known to use powerful, pro bono law firms to file similar class action lawsuits, such as a suit that shut down Wizard of Claws, another Broward dog seller different in that it took possession of the dogs before selling them. Purebred Breeders may appear to some to be actual breeders of dogs. But they are brokers simply taking orders for puppies bred at large scale operations and marking up prices for significant profits.
Every major animal advocacy group urges pet owners to never buy online or from pet stores. They say to be certain your money does not go to support the puppy mill industry, always adopt a puppy or dog from your local shelter, where countless unwanted dogs and cats are euthanized every day because of the lack of people willing to provide a loving home.