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Animal Abuse at Valley's Largest Pet Spa

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Last night, the Studio City Neighborhood Council (SCNC) took up the issue of Chow Bella, a Studio City animal grooming and boarding facility that has been at the center of repeated animal abuse allegations.

Three hours into an otherwise routine meeting, the twelve-member board considered asking the Department of City Planning to review the local pet spa’s zone variance, granted to them in 2005. A zone variance allows the limited overnight boarding of dogs.

“Frankly,” said board member Remy Kessler, “[just asking for a review] is too weak.”

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Instead, the Council voted unanimously to request that the city revoke Chow Bella’s zone variance. Throngs of supporters cheered the motion and viewed the passage as the first battle in a war against a business they feel to be egregious violators of animal rights.

Since 2004, Chow Bella have been implicated in the deaths of three dogs, been the focus of numerous complaints from community activists and on the wrong end of scorn from those whose pets sustained injuries while staying at Chow Bella. At least one former worker witnessed animal abuse and intoxicated co-workers

In June 2004, Cynthia Bain brought her cat to Chow Bella for a bath and teeth cleaning. A couple of hours later, Bain picked up her cat, Bella, and was shocked.

"The first thing I noticed was that the entire right side of her face was covered in blood," she said. "I pulled Bella from her carrier to get a closer look. I could see immediately that she was in shock."

Distressed, Bain rushed Bella down the street to the Studio City Animal Hospital (SCAH) where she was found to have suffered from a blunt force trauma to the head. Bain claims that her cat's eyes were badly injured and that her gums were "ripped up and bloody from the teeth cleaning."

Chow Bella admits that accidents happen, but they insist that Bain's cat was "brought in...with pre existing injuries," according to John Adzhiyan, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Tina.

Two months later, in August 2004, Filippo Ioco's four-month old Chihuahua, Big Papa, died. Big Papa was purchased by a friend of Ioco's on August 10, from Chow Bella for $600. Upon Ioco's return from vacation, 24 days later, he witnessed the first of Big Papa's seizures. The next day, while receiving medical attention at the SCAH, Ioco's dog experienced a "massive seizure" and died two days later, according to the hospital.

Ioco claimed that local veterinarians who checked out Big Papa before the dog's sale implored Chow Bella not to sell the sick dog, who was found to have canine distemper, an often fatal, multisystemic viral disease that affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems.

"[The veterinarian] told them they shouldn't have sold that dog, that if they did, they would have nothing to do with them ever again," Ioco said recently. "They already knew Big Papa was sick and they sold it anyway."

John claims that it is not his responsibility, that he is simply a facilitator between breeder and potential owner. "We make every effort to ensure that the dogs we sell are healthy," he said, after admitting that Chow Bella does not sell dogs in its store anymore, though it will act as an intermediary between prospective owners and breeders.

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Ioco's case was followed four months later by the death of Sheryl Piland's dog, in December 2004.

John contends that Piland's dog, a Scottish terrier named Bingo, suffered a heart attack while playing with dogs twice his size. Unable to reach Piland, John said, he had the dog cremated deciding that a carcass on the grounds of Chow Bella was a health concern.

Piland sued Chow Bella in November 2004. The pet spa was found negligent in her dog's death, according to Piland.

Piland's situation was preceded by another case in which a Yorkshire puppy dog, owned by Nahir Clinger, was badly injured. According to Clinger and reports from the Studio City Animal Hospital, his dog was left unattended on a Chow Bella examining table and slipped off, his esophagus damaged from a leash that became a noose. The SCAH reported "the dog was brain damaged and was in the hospital for weeks."

Josh Glass dropped off his dog, Tyson, at Chow Bella, on the afternoon of December 24, 2005. He and his girlfriend were about to embark on a weeklong Mammoth escape, where snow, skiing and hot chocolate offered them a chance to escape from the rigors of everyday life.

Two days into their vacation, Glass was informed that his dog was dead. His is the most recent case of canine death at Chow Bella. Glass brought the case to the city attorney, with the help of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles (SPCALA), but all charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence.

"It was extremely unfortunate," said SPCALA President Madeline Bernstein.

Most recently, though, another dog was seen by the SCAH. According to the hospital, the bulldog puppy was purchased from Chow Bella by an unnamed customer.

"The owner brought the dog in because it wasn't walking right two days after he bought it from [Chow Bella]," a source that wished not to be named inside the hospital said. "We did an x-ray and the dog was found to have Grade 4 hip dysplasia, a developmental orthopedic disease," the source explained. "It lived, but it required many hours of surgery."

John stated recently from the grounds of Chow Bella, "the number of tragic incidents is a small percentage of the many happy dogs we care for every day." The pet spa services between 30 and 50 animals a day and, he says, is the largest pet spa in the San Fernando Valley.

However, claims a former employee, many clients have left recently. Because of the sensitive nature of speaking out against a former employer, the source declined to give his name. He worked there for four months near the end of last year, deciding to leave after his short stay because, "I didn't like the way they handled things. They were pretty rough on the animals. If a dog would misbehave, they would smack them on the head. Once, I saw a cat that was misbehaving on the grooming table and they...choked it.

"I saw a lot of roughness when they bathed the animals," he added. The source also observed employees drinking alcohol while grooming and bathing some of the animals.

"One of our last employees drank in the back room," he said. Asked if he knew if the owners knew of such behavior, he offered, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure they knew about all of this. It's not a hidden secret or anything."

Sinne Anderson also had a front row seat for much of the abuse. The veterinarian, who works in a local animal hospital, has been vocal in her opposition to what she views as Chow Bella's abusive tactics.

"I've been in the vet business for 25 years," she said, "and I've never seen anything like this. The severity of all of these cases is not normal for a grooming place."

For his part, John Adzhiyan believes that the multitude of abuse cases brought to the attention of Chow Bella are the designs of malcontents who want to bring his business down. "We are the biggest pet spa and they want to get rid of us," he said.

As far as some people's contentions that Chow Bella are unwelcome neighbors, Tina says, "We love Studio City, and we want to make every effort to be good neighbors and have made every effort to make sure accidents don't happen." Asked what Chow Bella has done to that end, she declined to elaborate.

By 2005, the Adzhiyan's had already been boarding dogs for three years without a permit, a violation of section 53.50(a) of the city's Department of Animal Regulation code.

"I didn't know we had to [get a variance]," Adzhiyan admitted from his storefront.

On the night of August 17 2005, the Land Use Committee (LUC) of the SCNC debated the merits of supporting a zone variance for Chow Bella.

"There was a deep division on the committee," remembers a former member of the LUC, who declined to be named "Some felt that business is business and others didn't like idea of having a an overnight boarding facility so close to their property. Still, others didn't like the ownership."

As a compromise, the LUC attached 22 terms and conditions, to which Chow Bella readily agreed. It was a strategic move, remembers the former member. "If people's fears are realized than [Chow Bella] will be done."

The issue came before the general SCNC board and passed by a razor thin margin, 5-4. According to Bill LaMond, who, at the time, was the Studio City Director of Animal Welfare, the vote was "almost entirely supported by the Chamber of Commerce Block. What's good for business," he said sardonically, "is good for [Studio City]."

Since that meeting in August 2005, LaMond and others have attempted to shed light on what they consider a heinous situation. "[Chow Bella is] a horrendous facility that has been responsible for a lot of mayhem and death," he said recently during an Animal Welfare Committee meeting.

Specifically, LaMond, and others, including George Shea who now runs the Animal Welfare Committee, are looking closely at the terms of the variance.

"We want to see if they violated any of the conditions," said Shea. Asked which ones he thinks Chow Bella might be in violation of, he mentions five of them, including the catch-all condition, number 21, which states: "Within 18 months...the Applicant shall file an application for Plan determine that the business is operating in compliance with the conditions of approval herein."

For some members of the SCNC last night, reigning in Chow Bella must be completed through their perceived non-compliance. "We issued them a variance, so we just have to consider their actions based on these conditions," stated SCNC President Rafi Kuyumjian.

For others, however, the issue is larger than 22 conditions on a zone variance. For Glass, Piland and everybody else, Shea says, "we just want to do the right thing."

Photo of an unrelated dog by robstephaustralia via flickr

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