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Pet brokers leasing puppies - and people feel scammed

By: Karin Brulliard The Washington Post
January 2, 2018 Updated: January 2, 2018 at 7:44 am
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Natalie Sullivan said she and her roommate leased Jane, a French bulldog-Boston terrier mix, without realizing it; they ended up buying out the contract. MUST CREDIT: Natalie Sullivan.

If you're determined to get a pet from a breeder or pet store instead of a shelter or rescue, you'd best double-check that you're not really leasing the fluffy little bundle.

Pet leasing is fairly new but very real, and authorities say it's a predatory practice to push expensive puppies on people who can't afford them and don't always understand they are renting an animal - and paying far more than they might realize.

Natalie Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., says she made a "very irrational decision, very stupid" when she and her roommate fell for a tiny black French bulldog-Boston terrier mix at a pet store in Queens.

They couldn't afford the $1,450 price so they took a store employee's offer of a "payment plan," Sullivan said.

They would pay about $123 a month for two years, according to the contract.

Once they were back in their apartment, Sullivan reviewed the paperwork and found that puppy Jane wouldn't be theirs even after what turned out to be a two-year lease costing nearly $3,000. Even then, they'd need to make a final payment of $266.

"It was a very absurd concept to me," said Sullivan, 24. "How do you lease a dog?"

Nothing is inherently unlawful about renting-to-own a living animal as you might a car or a sofa.

Contracts used by the most prominent pet-leasing firm, Wags Lending, include the word "lease" several times and inform lessees that they are "leasing the Pet and have no ownership rights in the Pet unless you exercise your purchase option, if any."

Interviews with lessees and online customer complaints suggest pet store employees or breeders often gloss over the lease terms - either because they don't understand them or want to make a sale, said Jennie Lintz, puppy mills campaign director for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Their product is awfully cute," Lintz said. "They have the benefit of that adorableness to get people over their discomfort."

Even if they're legally sound, the contracts are ethically troubling, Lintz said, in part because the person caring for the puppy has no ownership rights.

The Wags contract states that lessees are responsible for "service and maintenance" of the pet, but it also warns that the company might repossess Rover if the lease is broken.

"Being treated as an inanimate object as part of a lease is problematic," Lintz said. "It definitely raises issues about what people expect when they get a pet and the decision-making power they have."

California and Nevada last year banned pet leasing, and the ASPCA is lobbying other states to do the same.

The Federal Trade Commission recently warned about the practice, noting that pet leasers can still be on the hook for payments even if the animal dies.

Once she realized what she and her roommate had agreed to, Sullivan decided to dip into her savings and buy out the contract. Additional fees meant she and her roommate ended up paying nearly $1,800 for Jane, a sum she says she is "still reeling from."

"She is actually an awesome dog," Sullivan said. "But I learned a very big lesson."

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