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Former PetSmart Employees Charged After Poodle Dies During Grooming Appointment

Former PetSmart workers Julie Miller, Shaphan Stonge, Elizabeth Doty and Heather Rowe have been charged with animal cruelty and neglect after reporter AJ Ross’s 11-year-old poodle, Kobe, died in their care.

By Gina Tron
4 Heartbreaking Cases Of Animal Mistreatment

Four former PetSmart employees were charged with felony animal cruelty earlier this month in Pennsylvania after a poodle died during a grooming appointment last year.

Julie Miller, Shaphan Stonge, Elizabeth Doty and Heather Rowe have been charged with animal cruelty and neglect in connection with the November death of Emmy-award-winning journalist AJ Ross’s 11-year-old toy poodle, Kobe.

Days before Thanksgiving, the NFL sideline reporter took Kobe into a Petsmart location for a nail trim. Within the hour, her dog “was lifeless on the grooming table,” according to a criminal complaint filed in Pittsburgh Municipal Court, obtained by Oxygen.com. The employees told her that “the dog passed out and went limp.” Ross rushed Kobe to a nearby animal hospital where he could not be resuscitated. 

That same day, Ross returned to PetSmart to try to see the surveillance footage of her dog’s death but her request was refused. By December, Ross managed to convince PetSmart to allow her to view the footage, with stipulations that she couldn’t record or photograph it and that it be viewed under the supervision of a PetSmart manager.

Aj Ross Ig

“They tied him on two different leashes,” Ross told Oxygen.com, recanting what she saw on the video. “The grooming table has this apparatus above it, an L shape. One leash is tied up in a vertical manner and another is tied to the end of the table. The tensions are contrasting around his neck.”

Through tears, Ross said that the groomers, while cutting his nails, "grabbed his paws off the table so he never had any stability — so he starts to rise and twist in pain. You can tell he’s struggling to breathe because he has no stability and his entire body weight is on his neck for more than a minute.”

Ross said that she watched her dog go “completely limp” while “still hanging” from the leashes. She also alleged that while watching a video of her dog’s death, the manager in the room insulted Kobe's behavior.

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“When this first happened, I felt like I was alone,” Ross told Oxygen.com. “You feel helpless.”

Ross said she began writing letters to anyone who would listen to her, including the Humane Society and PETA. 

“I know it may seem small at this time, obviously we are in a pandemic, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” she explained, adding that she's now talked to countless others who have experienced something similar. 

Ross says she began to feel less helpless after she linked up with Angela Fry, an animal control officer at the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh, who launched an investigation into the incident.

Fry wrote that when she viewed the surveillance footage she observed "exactly what Ross had described,” according to the criminal complaint.

The complaint also says that Dr. Arielle Samson of the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh viewed the video and “stated that the hyperextension of the neck, as well as the lack of contact between Kobe's paws and the grooming table, led to Kobe's airways being crushed which resulted in his death.”

The four former PetSmart employees have a preliminary hearing set for October. It’s unclear if they have lawyers. 

“We are heartbroken by and truly sorry for the loss of Kobe,” a PetSmart spokesperson said in a statement provided Oxygen.com. “After this terrible accident, we launched an internal investigation and found unintended failure to adhere to our pet safety processes. Additionally, we cooperated with an external investigation, terminated the responsible associates, and facilitated a necropsy to help provide answers.”

Ross claims that before the four individuals were charged, she asked to view their pet grooming regulations. PetSmart agreed and even offered her a new dog, but asked her to sign a nondisclosure agreement in exchange — which she refused to do, she said. 

PetSmart did not immediately provide the necropsy or comment on the offer Ross says they made to Oxygen.com

Following Kobe's death, Ross is on a mission to ensure stricter regulations are in place for groomers.

“I didn’t know before any of this that grooming was such an unregulated industry,” she said, adding that most states have no regulations or minimum requirements to groom.

Ross said she is now talking to both state legislators in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh city leaders to garner support for a measure introducing licensing and oversight.

In the meantime, she continues to mourn Kobe, who she said would run towards her and lovingly lick her when he was a puppy. Since then, they traveled all over the country together.

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“It’s still difficult talking about him in the past tense because he’s been an ever-present presence in my adult life, for the majority of it,” she told Oxygen.com, adding that they had a “magnetic” connection. 

“I couldn’t go anywhere without him wanting to check in on me,” she said. “He was family for me. I don’t have any children, and he was there for me through all the highs and lows.”

Ross urges anyone who experienced something similar to follow their intuition, reach out to a dog control officer, be vigilant and document everything.

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