Reputed puppy mill thrived despite a history of trouble
Officials are investigating Renee Roske's role in what they allege is an illegal puppy mill that netted millions of dollars in the past decade. Last month, sheriff's deputies seized hundreds of sick and diseased dogs at homes in Snohomish and Skagit counties owned by Roske's parents and sister.
Times Snohomish County Reporter
How to avoid puppy mills• Many disreputable breeders often sell several breeds of dogs, but may advertise each breed in a separate place.
• A USDA-inspected breeder does not mean a good breeder.
• Verify purebred registration.
The Humane Society of the United States: A puppy-buyers guide at www.humanesociety.org/puppy.
The American Kennel Club: A guide to finding the right dog and identifying reputable breeders at www.puppybuyerinfo.com.
Source: Seattle Times research
Officials seek helpSnohomish County sheriff's detectives have asked that anyone who did business with Renee Roske or Wags N Wiggles kennel e-mail them at: email@example.com.
Follow the caseBrandon Hatch, who alerted officials to the Gold Bar house where 150 dogs were seized in January, tracks the case and related issues at: www.puppyjustice.com
When Ruth Brumbaugh answered an ad in the Little Nickel Classifieds for a Yorkshire terrier, she envisioned a companion dog who would alert her to strangers.
What the elderly widow got was almost $1,200 in veterinary bills for a dog that was deaf, couldn't bark and within six weeks had to undergo a Caesarean section to deliver two stillborn puppies.
The bill of sale, signed by Snohomish kennel owner Renee Roske, said the 7-year-old female was spayed.
Now, officials are investigating Roske's role in what they allege is an illegal puppy mill that netted millions of dollars in the past decade. Last month, sheriff's deputies seized hundreds of sick and diseased dogs at homes in Snohomish and Skagit counties owned by Roske's parents and sister. Her parents and another couple have been charged with felony animal cruelty.
Roske has not been charged. But Snohomish County officials have revoked her license and the sheriff's office last week announced that as part of its investigation, it was asking for anyone who has done business with her to contact detectives.
Attempts to reach Roske and her attorney for comment were unsuccessful. She has appealed the revocation of her license.
Former customers have complained about Roske for years, reporting her to county animal control and suing in small-claims court.
Snohomish County first discovered Roske was operating an unlicensed kennel with 30 dogs in 1996. She obtained a license, and since then, inspectors have cited her seven times; fining her twice -- for $50 and $100.
In November 2003, after finding dogs hidden in a dirt enclosure beneath her front porch, the county revoked her license. County Licensing Manager Vicki Lubrin documented a subsequent meeting with Roske.
"I told her that her file history illustrated a 7 year pattern of continued disregard for the laws and she continually demonstrated willful violation (of) the provisions of her license," Lubrin wrote.
"I know, I know," Roske responded, according to Lubrin's memo. "You warned me, the inspectors warned me, everybody told me, it's my own fault. I just don't like rules."
Roske appealed the revocation. Four months later, a county hearing examiner ordered that her license be reinstated and Roske be given "one last chance."
After that, the county recorded no problems at her kennel. Her parents opened a kennel in Skagit County where there were no dog-breeding regulations. Their stated purpose: to supply dogs to Roske.
Another couple bred dogs for her in an unlicensed operation on her sister's property, Snohomish County Sheriff's detectives allege.
The lack of regulations in some counties, and the discovery of so many dogs living in such poor conditions, has raised cries for statewide limits on kennels. A bill pending in the legislature would set minimum-care standards and limit to 50 the number of dogs in a kennel that have not been spayed or neutered.
Dan Paul, Washington state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said puppy mills -- operations that mass-produce dogs -- sacrifice animal welfare for profits. The animals in these operations are often caged for most of their lives, bred repeatedly, and trapped in overcrowded, filthy conditions, Paul said.
"There's no way they could have cared for all these animals," he said of the pending cases. "And that's what we saw."
At Roske's home on five acres in the Snohomish countryside, a gravel driveway circles a neatly landscaped yard and a handful of puppies run in a small wire enclosure beside the front porch.
A hand-painted sign, hanging under the eaves says, "Wags N Wiggles Kennel." Another sign notes that all major credit cards are accepted.
"You arrive up to a sweet country home with one dog playing in the front. It looks like a mom and dad operation," said Sandy Nelson, director of the Skagit Valley Humane Society.
"On a sunny Saturday, there would literally be a line of buyers at her door," said Brandon Hatch, the former Snohomish resident whose tip spurred the raids on the puppy operations. "She was good looking, had quite the silver tongue and could basically sell ice to an Eskimo." Roske took out multiple ads in local newspapers offering breeds such as Shih Tzu, Chihuahua and toy poodles and typically charged $350 to $1,500 a dog. The ads promised a "one year health guarantee."
She first came to Snohomish County officials' attention in August 1996 when license inspector Jay Crockett found 30 dogs at Roske's home. She had neither a private kennel license that would allow up to 10 dogs, nor a commercial license that would allow 25.
Roske applied for and was granted the 10-dog private kennel license. Two years later, an inspector visited and counted 44 dogs. Roske obtained a commercial license, but then violated the 25-dog limit four times, twice paying small fines.
Meanwhile, from the late 1990s on, customers complained to Snohomish County Animal Control that Roske had sold them sick dogs and did not respond to concerns.
Dianna Kern, who then lived in Marysville, paid Roske $350 for a miniature Pomeranian only to learn from her veterinarian that the puppy was infected with ear mites, roundworms, Giardia, Cryptosporidium and Coccidia, a potentially fatal organism that attacks the stomach and intestines and is spread through contact with feces.
Kern complained to Roske but the breeder insinuated that Kern's vet "didn't have a clue what he was talking about," according to a letter Kern wrote to Roske and also sent to the county.
Wendy Hooser, of Maple Falls in Whatcom County, complained that a miniature dachshund Roske sold her had ear infections and a skin disease and needed surgery to have a hole in his nasal cavity repaired and 18 rotting teeth removed.
Hooser told the county, "I believe Ms. Roske is running a puppy mill."
The $900 Chihuahua that Brian and Verna Loft brought to their Ferndale home developed bloody stools and needed care for Giardia and Cryptosporidium. The couple's two other Chihuahuas got sick and nearly died, Brian Loft said. When they called Roske, "she hung up twice."
By 2004, Snohomish County had revoked Roske's license and then restored it on court's orders. But the restored license came with a warning: one more violation and she'd be shut down.
A few months after Roske's kennel-license troubles in Snohomish County, in July 2004, her parents, Marjorie and Richard Sundberg, purchased a nearly 5-acre property in Skagit County just outside of Mount Vernon. There was a small, manufactured house and several heated garages and shops, all set back from the road and screened from neighbors by trees.
"There was no kennel law. It was very easy to set up shop," said the Humane Society's Nelson.
After a neighbor complained about noise from dogs, Skagit County officials told the Sundbergs they had to have a permit for a home-based business. In December 2006, the Sundbergs applied for the permit, saying they would be breeding "in excess of 75 dogs," to be sold at their daughter's house.
The following month, Skagit County Animal Control Officer Emily Diaz inspected the kennel, guessing the Sundbergs had "150 adult dogs, but that does not include all of the puppies." She said the small room where mother dogs and their puppies were kept in wire cages was crowded and had such a strong odor of ammonia, "it made my eyes burn."
But while some "minor adjustments," were needed, Diaz concluded the overall operation "is safe and handled well."
Roske also sought out other people to raise dogs for her. In 2006, she approached Jason and Sarenna Larsen, a Sultan couple who ran a small breeding operation, said Brandon Hatch, a longtime friend of the couple's.
In May 2007, Roske's sister, Mary Ann Holleman, purchased a home on 10 acres outside Gold Bar, property-records show. The Larsens moved in and began raising dogs for Roske, according to sheriff's deputies.
On Jan. 10 this year, Hatch stopped by after visiting his mother in Snohomish. He said the smell hit him as he approached the door. Inside, Hatch said, there were feces, "everywhere," including on a mattress and box springs the Larsens' nieces slept on when they visited.
Crates were stacked two and three high in some rooms, with several dogs crowded into each. After agonizing over whether to turn in his friend, Hatch called Child Protective Services. Armed with that complaint, Snohomish County Sheriff's deputies obtained a search warrant and on Jan. 16, seized 155 dogs.
Jason Larsen told deputies that he supplied Roske with dogs, according to the search- warrant affidavit. He broke down crying under questioning, telling deputies that they were dealing with "millions of dollars" in revenue to Roske, the affidavit said.
Six days later, Skagit County sheriff's deputies seized 450 dogs from the Sundbergs' property. Skagit County shut down the operation and has asked a judge to make the Sundbergs reimburse the county for caring for the rescued animals.
The Sundbergs are fighting those efforts in court. Attempts to contact the Sundbergs and the Larsens have been unsuccessful.
Snohomish County detectives say they continue to investigate Roske.
The approximately 600 dogs seized in two January raids are still being cared for at area animal shelters and by foster families. The Everett Animal Shelter plans to alert the public when dogs are ready for adoption, probably not for another month. The Skagit Valley Humane Society is awaiting court approval to offer dogs for adoption.
Ruth Brumbaugh, who purchased the sick and pregnant Yorkshire terrier from Roske in 2007, successfully sued the kennel owner in October. The small-claims judge ordered Roske to repay almost $1,200 in vet bills and to refund the $325 purchase price. Brumbaugh, now 80, has not been paid. She has liens against Roske's Snohomish house and another a few miles away that records show is worth $1.1 million.
The judge also told Brumbaugh to return her Yorkie.
Brumbaugh said, "I'm not giving this dog back to her."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this report.
This story on a suspected puppy mill, published Feb. 23 and corrected Feb. 26, incorrectly stated that Skagit County has no kennel regulations. Skagit County adopted regulations in May that limit the number of adult dogs at a kennel to 25 and provide for standards of care. The county previously had no kennel regulations.
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