PetSmart Employees Charged After Sports Reporter's Poodle Dies During Grooming Visit
Four former PetSmart employees are being charged in connection with the death of a CBS Sports reporter's dog that was allegedly strangled during a grooming visit in November.
Julie Miller, Shaphan Stonge, Elizabeth Doty and Heather Rowe have been charged with a number of offenses, including at least one count each of felony animal cruelty, court records show.
The dog, an 11-year-old toy poodle named Kobe, was dropped off at the PetSmart in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a nail trim on November 17, his owner and NFL sideline reporter AJ Ross tells PEOPLE.
"When I brought him in, I asked if I could stay, because he was just the type of dog that he liked to see where I was at all times," she says. "They told me because of COVID I couldn't stay in the grooming area."
Ross says she walked to a nearby Walgreens to make a purchase before returning to the PetSmart a few minutes later. Upon return, she heard an employee ask for a manager to the grooming area over the intercom.
Minutes later, the manager escorted her to the salon, where Kobe laid "motionless on the grooming table," Ross tells PEOPLE. "He looked lifeless. He didn't even look like he was breathing."
She rushed Kobe to a local animal hospital, but the veterinarians were unable to resuscitate him. Initially, the PetSmart manager told Ross that Kobe had fainted during his nail trimming, Ross says.
Several weeks later, Ross says she was able to view the surveillance footage from the incident.
She describes to PEOPLE that the video shows Kobe being tether by two leashes, unable to put his paws down as two employees trim his nails.
"They used two separate leashes," she explains. "One is directly above the grooming table at a vertical angle, and the other leash was horizontal. So he's tethered in two different directions. They begin to clip his nails, and there's two of them and they're lifting him up in a way that he can't put his paws down on the table at all."
She continues, "He has no stability so he's hanging by his neck and he starts to writhe and twist in pain because he can't get any air, and they're not paying him any attention. They just keep on going...It's horrific to watch and [after a minute] he goes limp. They never put his feet down until after he goes limp."
Ross says she contacted Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh, which launched an investigation into the matter.
In a criminal complaint obtained by PEOPLE, animal control officer Angela Fry wrote that upon viewing the surveillance footage she observed "exactly what Ross had described."
Fry wrote that Dr. Arielle Samson of the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh also viewed the video and concluded that Kobe's neck was likely hyperextended due to being tethered by two different leashes.
"Dr. Samson 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 complaint states.
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A necropsy performed on Kobe, also obtained by PEOPLE, did not find a definitive cause of death. Kobe did not show signs of "bruising/hemorrhaging in the neck tissues" that are common in cases of strangulation.
Still, "strangulation cannot be completely ruled out in this case, however the lack of neck bruising makes it less likely," the necropsy states.
In a statement to PEOPLE, PetSmart said: "We are heartbroken and truly sorry for the loss of Kobe. 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 an autopsy to help provide answers."
Court records show that the four employees are currently awaiting their preliminary hearing, which is set for October. Attorneys for Miller, Stonge, Doty and Rowe could not be identified to comment on their behalf.