21 Oct 2020

RNZ ordered to hand documents to SPCA over suspected animal welfare offences by dog breeder

From Checkpoint, 6:06 pm on 21 October 2020

A Hawke's Bay woman continued to breed puppies on her farm, despite the discovery of a highly contagious and potentially fatal parvovirus just months earlier.

The revelation is part of a Checkpoint investigation into the commercial trade of puppies, and the health of two boxer puppies produced by prolific Hastings dog breeder Margaret Harkema.

The pups - bought by two Auckland families - did not have parvovirus, but one of the purchasers ended up euthanising their new pet due to a suspected congenital issue.

Checkpoint can also reveal RNZ has been served with an order by the SPCA, which has commenced its own investigation into the breeder. The order references suspected offences under the Animal Welfare Act.

Sarah Peterson's boxer puppy, Loki, never got to go on his first walk before his life came to an abrupt end.

"I've had to put down a dog before, and that was heart-breaking, but that was after 14 years and you can sort of eventually find peace in the fact that it was their time, they had a life.

"But with Loki it was more than heart-breaking, it was devastating, because he hadn't had a life."

Peterson first spotted Loki on Trade Me for sale for $2250 in July.

On 15 July she sent the seller - Hastings-based James Roberts - several questions about the puppy, including how long he had been a breeder, what food the puppy was being fed, if there were any issues with the parents, and whether Roberts had any questions for her.

He said he had been feeding Loki large breed puppy food, and that Loki had been socialised with friends, teenagers, children and other pets. He did not say how long he had been a breeder.

Roberts also did not answer a question on the health of Loki's parents.

Peterson purchased Loki, and on 18 July Roberts delivered the puppy, along with several others in the litter, to Auckland. 

Scabs visible on pups' heads

It was during this drop-off that Peterson says she asked more questions about Loki's condition and pressed on the health of Loki's parents again.

"As we were holding him we could see scabs on his head and I could see the scabs on the heads of the other puppies too.

"We asked James what those were… he was saying they were nothing, they were just from fighting and you know, no worries there.

"We hadn't actually got a clear answer on more information about the parents, and he again just shrugged and said he didn't really know, he was just the person driving them up from Hastings, and he wasn't the breeder.

"That was the first we heard that he wasn't the breeder, because we'd been dealing with him from before, it was his ad and his Trade Me account."

But it was only when Peterson took Loki home that she noticed issues with the puppy's legs.

"Once we took him back inside you could see when he was trying to get up… he had to put in a little bit of extra effort because his hind legs weren't very strong. That was another thing we noted to mention to the vet, because we were already planning to take him to the vet first thing.

Boxer puppy Loki was put down not long after being bought from a breeder, as he had a suspected congenital issue or polyarthritis.

Boxer puppy Loki was put down not long after being bought from a breeder, as he had a suspected congenital issue or polyarthritis. Photo: Supplied

On 20 July, two days after Roberts dropped Loki off, Peterson took the boxer puppy to her vet.

Vet notes from that visit show the dog was underweight with a pot belly and had a mite and parasite infestation.

"Then she told us that he was riddled with parasites. Those were her words, she said he was completely riddled."

Pup in 'a lot of pain'

After that first visit to the vet, Peterson noticed Loki's stability issues getting worse.

"One week after that vet visit he really started to accelerate... He was getting a lot worse, he was falling over a lot and unable to get back up.

"He started expressing pain if he ended up falling over onto his left side, or ended up rolling onto his left side, he'd be in quite a lot of pain.

"You could also see him struggling when he was trying to go to the bathroom because he was so unbalanced, because his left leg was a bit worse than his right.

"He couldn't maintain his balance, so that was quite painful to watch and I'm sure it was quite painful for him as well," Peterson told Checkpoint.

On 28 July it was back to the vet a second time. The vet noted pain in Loki's hips and restricted movement. The young dog's hind leg appeared to be lame and not flexing properly. Loki could be heard yelping when that leg was handled.

His left hock - the ankle joint - could not be fully flexed, while his knee could not be flexed at all.

The vet observed Loki growling and appear in pain when his right leg was manipulated, though it was noted this leg had more movement than the left.

No chance of recovery

The vet suspected a congenital issue or polyarthritis, and Loki was booked for an X-ray under general anaesthetic on 30 July.

"The vet who was actually doing the X-rays, one of the most experienced surgeons at the clinic, he called me about two o'clock that afternoon and he just… He's got some really bad news basically, that there wasn't going to be a recovery path for Loki. He said he looked at the X-rays and the blood tests and there was no realistic chance of recovery," Peterson said.

Veterinary notes show Loki was suffering from suspected congenital quadriceps contraction and his left hind leg could not be flexed at all. The right leg also appeared to have worsened.

The vet also noted Loki was suffering from demodicosis, which causes mange in dogs.

The vet advised Peterson to consider euthanising Loki, which she went through with.

Peterson said she was in disbelief. She was preparing to have to pay for expensive treatment, not a death sentence.

Boxer puppy Loki was put down soon after being bought from a breeder, over a suspected congenital issue.

Boxer puppy Loki was put down soon after being bought from a breeder, over a suspected congenital issue. Photo: Supplied

Sense of disbelief

"He told me if it was his own puppy he would put him down. I just couldn't believe it was all over for Loki. He was only 10 weeks old.

"He had just started to come out of his shell, we'd started to see a bit of his personality. There were so many things he still had to experience and so many puppy things to still do. He hadn't even been on his first walk."

Peterson contacted James Roberts about Loki's health issues and his death on 3 August. After no response, she emailed again a week later on 10 August.

Roberts responded the same day, advising her to follow up with the breeder. He told Peterson the breeder's name was Margaret Harkema.

On August 12, Harkema left a voice message on Peterson's phone offering a refund.

Harkema, through her company Windfield Farms Ltd, refunded Peterson $2250 on 13 August.

But Peterson was not the only recipient of a boxer pup with health issues from that litter of nine.

Multiple health problems for second pup

Justine van Zyl paid $2250 for her pup, Cooper, which she picked up off Roberts from an Auckland petrol station on 18 July.

"We got him on the 18th. On the 20th my husband noticed the scab was getting worse on his forehead and spreading. On the 22nd I took my pup to the vet to get checked and they had said he had puppy pyoderma and cellulitis in his ear, in both his ears.

Boxer puppy Cooper had inflamed ears, scabs and nodules soon after he was purchased.

Boxer puppy Cooper had inflamed ears, scabs and nodules soon after he was purchased. Photo: Supplied

"He was whimpering from the day we got him and I didn't know why. When I took him to the vet she said he was in severe pain because of his ears, and he was always scratching at them."

Notes from Justine's own vet on 22 July show Cooper had inflamed ears, with scabs from the trauma of scratching, as well as multiple raised nodules over the top of his head and under his chin.

By 28 July, the date of the second vet visit, Cooper was noted as constantly scratching at his ears. The pinna of his ears was still very inflamed, with raised nodules that were ulcerated in places.

Van Zyl was given a raft of medications for Cooper. By the next visit, on 4 August, van Zyl's vet observed Cooper's skin was "a lot better", and had continued to improve since.

"So we had to end up paying over $800 at the vet after we'd paid $2250 to James for the dog."

Boxer puppy Cooper had inflamed ears, scabs and nodules soon after purchase.

Boxer puppy Cooper had inflamed ears, scabs and nodules soon after purchase. Photo: Supplied

Van Zyl said she wants the money she paid for the pup and subsequent vet bills back, while Roberts has offered to reimburse only her first round of vet bills.

Van Zyl said she found the offer unsatisfactory and has pressed on with a Dispute Tribunal claim.

The puppies' health problems led to a number of questions about the litter and the conditions the dogs were bred in. Checkpoint visited the people in Hastings who sold the puppies - the people who customers initially thought were the breeders.

But James Roberts and his partner, Rachel Keith, are not the breeders. They are intermediaries - responsible for caring for the puppies from a certain age and selling them on Margaret Harkema's behalf.

Keith is studying to be a vet nurse and met Harkema through a mutual contact.

She said she and Roberts have sold multiple litters of puppies on Harkema's behalf since March.

"There were cavoodles, there was a labradoodle, there were Pomeranians and there was this lot, so four."

Keith said the puppies are dropped off at her property by Harkema when they were around six weeks old.

She told Checkpoint she has never visited Harkema's property herself to see the puppies she sells on her behalf.

"I didn't want to. I had my own stuff going on, we were busy with the puppies. I have a family to raise, I had my study. It wasn't an issue."

Harkema said other intermediaries have visited her property and she does not discourage them from doing so.

Keith's property has ample space, and dogs of her own for socialisation.

"When we first get them they stay inside in our laundry area and we have a back door, which we fence off so they get like an indoor-outdoor flow. We keep them in there for at least a week, week and a half until we're sort of happy that they're settled in.

"Then we move them out  into our garage which is lined and we put down rubber mats so they're not directly on the concrete, and they have a duvet cover which gets changed daily for them to sleep on.

"Also over the winter months there's a heater in there to keep the temperature warm. Also during the day, especially if it's a nice day, we fence them outside on our lawn and they have some sun time."

One of the boxer puppies looked after by James Roberts and Rachel Keith.

One of the boxer puppies looked after by James Roberts and Rachel Keith. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Keith is adamant she did not notice any health issues with the boxer litter.

"With the boxers we did notice a few worms but they were wormed and it wasn't until after the puppies had gone that we noticed the runt had lumps on her head which is when I took her to the vet because I wasn't sure what they were.

"The vet said because she was the runt the other puppies were probably picking on her.

"He picked the scab off and it was lovely and pink underneath and it was nothing to worry about."

Keith said another one of the puppies in the litter, Ruby the runt, which was still in her possession, did have an issue with her hind legs.

This was picked up in notes produced by Clive Cottage Vet Clinic, when a vet examined all nine puppies in the litter on 7 July.

"She was tight in her hind area and what we needed to do was just grab her back legs and her front legs and gently stretch her out and put her back together. We just needed to do that a couple of times a day and then after that she came right."

Keith said she was told Ruby's leg issue was likely because she was the runt and was being picked on.

She said physiotherapy worked on Ruby and she struggled to understand why Loki had not received the same treatment.

No sign of leg or skin issues

She said the puppies were simply not in the conditions claimed by the new owners and there was no sign of leg or skin issues.

Keith also said neither she nor Roberts were ever contacted as Loki's condition worsened.

"The 3rd of August was the first that we ever knew about it, plus she also got her money back and never gave us the chance to actually see if we could help that puppy at all.

"So I just kind of think that the victim in all of this is the puppy that got put down."

No health problems - lawyer

Checkpoint wanted to meet with Harkema in Hawke's Bay, but she repeatedly declined to do an on-camera or phone interview.

Instead her lawyer, Wellington-based barrister Steven Price, answered questions on her behalf as the story developed.

Price, also representing Roberts and Keith, said his clients did not have any reason to suspect any health problems with any of the boxer puppies. He said they were properly fleaed, wormed and vaccinated.

Price said the congenital quadriceps problem in Loki's hind legs was not his clients' fault.

He said putting the puppy down would not have been his clients' choice, and added the condition was only suspected.

Clive Cottage Vet Clinic's Alastair Denton, whose practice examined the litter, gave his thoughts on the leg issues preceding Loki's death.

"They looked fine. There's developmental issues that happen and it's really hard without examining that dog when it was unwell. One of the things it could have been, let's say, you have the demodex - it might have caused an infection that's cruised around, that's gone into a polyarthritis, which is possible.

Clive Cottage Vet Clinic in Hawke's Bay.

Clive Cottage Vet Clinic in Hawke's Bay. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

"The other thing the radiologist commented on was the possibility of trauma, which I think is unlikely but it's just one of those things.

"But I think Margaret, she'd have wanted the benefit of the doubt to have the puppy back and to give it a crack. Where there's life there's hope and when you're only little. But again, really hard without seeing the animal and how bad it was," Denton said.

Price, speaking on his clients' behalf, said the cases of mange are unfortunate.

He said it was reported by the owners of other pups from the same litter, but both of these puppies recovered and their owners had no complaints.

Price said the mange appears to be a congenital condition, invisible to Harkema, Roberts and Keith.

Their vet, Alistair Denton, has some ideas as to possible causes and said in hindsight his practice probably did observe early signs of mange.

"I have treated a lot of demodex. The fact that it's two or three in a litter that all got it, suggests that it is an unlikely pairing that mum and dad together had maybe a recessive gene that predisposed them to a problem.

"Could you know that ahead of time? You can do genetic tests now. I know a lot of breeders aren't doing it, but Margaret's asked to come in today to get this dog genetically tested so I feel like from her point of view she's doing what she can, and this has been a horrible experience for her as well."

Meanwhile, Price said Harkema has taken Clive Cottage Vets' advice not to breed from Boss, the boxer pups' mother, again.

No sign of genetic testing results

On September 21, Price said Boss would be genetically tested and the results would be provided to Checkpoint no matter what the outcome. As of the time of publishing, no results have arrived.

In response to Checkpoint's questions about whether Harkema should genetically test her dogs, Price said his clients are baffled by the question, asking what possible need there could be to do so.

He also said Harkema's vets were not suggesting it. But Serena Dixe, who runs the Boxers and Bullies Charitable Trust, has a different view.

"There's no excuses for that not to be done these days, it's so cheap. It's not expensive anymore.

"If you've got a female and you get four litters out of her and she produces 10 puppies and you sell each litter of 10 puppies for $2000 each, that bitch only has to have one lot of genetic testing done at $240.

"So there is absolutely no reason why that can't be done."

Potential genetic issues can be picked up in such tests.

"As with all breeds there are pre-disposed conditions that they are more prone to, so with boxers it's things like bad hearts, kidneys, hips, elbows and those sorts of things.

"A lot of other breeds… they're all predisposed to the all sorts of things which can all be tested for via DNA."

Staff abused

During the investigation Checkpoint was warned by Price not to visit Harkema's property. When filming her paddocks from across the public road, Checkpoint's reporter and cameraman were threatened by two aggressive men who were holding spades and swearing.

Margaret Harkema's property in Hawke's Bay.

Margaret Harkema's property in Hawke's Bay. Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

Price has since supplied Checkpoint with video of the rural property Harkema uses for breeding.

The footage shows large grass areas for the animals and Price said there are numerous kennels on site. He also offered to allow a third party to visit and report back.

Price said his client has sold hundreds of puppies to happy customers over the last decade. He gave one example of a satisfied customer whose boxer puppy, from the same litter as Loki and Cooper, is reportedly in excellent health.

Vet vouches for health of other puppies

Denton said he can also vouch for the health of the puppies he has seen from Harkema over the last couple of years.

"I would have seen 50 of her litters and I'll be honest with you and say I've never had an issue with any of them."

As for her use of intermediaries, Harkema offered a number of reasons for this.

Price said his client is a private person who prefers not to deal with the public. She also doesn't have time to sell the dogs, because she's busy breeding them, he said.

However, he conceded she uses intermediaries to skirt Trade Me's rules on litter volumes, which limit sales to a maximum of five litters of puppies a year.

Parvo outbreak confirmed

Checkpoint's investigation uncovered another reason Harkema doesn't sell her puppies herself.

"She had a parvo outbreak on her property, an illness on her property so she sent all these dogs away," Denton told Checkpoint.

"She had friends looking after these litters, so she didn't have the hands on, on these puppies she would normally have had. And I do wonder if she'd had these dogs whether she would have sent them to Auckland."

Harkema, again through Price, said the parvovirus outbreak on her farm is another reason why the puppies are fostered and sold by intermediaries.

Harkema is described as obsessive about the disease, and Price said despite his client's meticulous precautions, four puppies on her farm were found to have parvovirus in January 2020.

Two of those puppies died.

Price said he cannot go into detail about the outbreak for legal reasons, but stressed it is not Harkema's fault. Price said he was willing to offer Checkpoint a confidential briefing instead.

The parvovirus outbreak also helps explain another Waikato-based puppy purchaser's complaint.

Concern over absence of vet records

The buyer, who asked not to be named, purchased a labradoodle from another of Harkema's intermediaries - another Hawke's Bay couple, Abbey Sherwood and Jacob Mildon - in May this year.

"When we received the puppy and we took it home we started saying 'well we should've got a vet book', and we hadn't received a vet book.

"That was starting to be a bit of a cause for concern so we inquired back to the people that we had purchased the dog off and things started to get more and more fishy I guess for the fact that there was no vet book, no proof of vaccination.

"When they had sold the dog to us we were under the assumption that the dog had had its first vaccination that would've needed to be documented in a vet book to be able to then take that to our vets."

Sherwood did not respond to Checkpoint's questions but Harkema, again speaking through her lawyer, Price, explained the missing vet book.

When the parvovirus outbreak occurred, she started vaccinating her own puppies at her farm. This was confirmed by Sherwood in a text to the labradoodle's owner.

Price said this started in April during alert level 4 lockdown, with the labradoodle litter, and was an extra early vaccination to get the puppies' immune system up and running.

But Price said because Harkema is not a vet, she cannot supply a vet book.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association says a registered vet must provide authorisation for a breeder to vaccinate their own puppies and ideally see them in advance.

Price supplied Checkpoint with a letter from Dr Sharon Marshall, the owner of VetsOne in Hastings, authorising Harkema's self-vaccinations.

However, the letter appears to be written retrospectively, dated 15 September, despite authorising vaccinations from 1 April.

Checkpoint wanted to know how authorisation was given back in April. Price said this was verbal authorisation and Harkema cannot remember if it was documented. VetsOne declined to be interviewed.

Checkpoint also wanted to know why there were puppies back on Harkema's property so quickly. The New Zealand Veterinary Association says only fully vaccinated dogs should be on a property for the six to 12 months following the discovery of parvovirus, which can significantly impact a breeder's ability to have litters.

Price was unable to offer an answer to this question.

Get SPCA involved - trust

Meanwhile, Serena Dixe from the Boxers and Bullies Charitable Trust said anyone with issues with any puppy they have purchased online should contact the SPCA.

"If people do experience problems like this, no matter who the breeder is, you need to report it to the SPCA."

The SPCA executed a search warrant at Harkema's Hastings property on 28 August, but no animals were seized and no scrapings were taken.

Price said one SPCA vet found Boss, Cooper and Loki's mother to be in excellent health, while another vet described Harkema's property as "beautiful", with the only recommendation being to construct two more dog houses.

But Checkpoint can reveal another search warrant was executed by the SPCA [RS3] the same day at an Auckland vet clinic, during which two other puppies from the same boxer litter as Loki and Cooper were seized.

Checkpoint understands those puppies were to be sold at an Auckland pet shop.

Price said those puppies developed mange, but by early September were in excellent health and entirely healthy.

The SPCA has declined to provide further details of its investigation [RS4]  into Margaret Harkema.

But it has served Checkpoint with an order, requesting documents relevant to its investigation.

The order refers to suspected offences under the Animal Welfare Act.