Russo’s Owner: Bren Bowed to Pressure

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Inside Russo's pet store in Fashion Island. The Irvine Company said it won't renew the lease for the store, which recently moved to larger space in the retail center. Photo by Eric Longabardi

Dan Digiacomo knows the pet store business. He’s been in it for nearly four decades. Dan is the owner of Russo’s Pet Experience, which has been a fixture for decades in the Fashion Island retail center.

In an exclusive interview with the Newport Beach Independent last week, Digiacomo, who also operates a separate Russo’s store in the Irvine Spectrum Center, spoke extensively about his business and the decision last week by the Irvine Company to ban the sale of dogs and cats in its retail centers.

Digiacomo said he was blind-sided by the decision not to renew the leases on his stores when they expire, and believes Irvine Company senior executives, including Chairman Donald Bren, bowed to direct pressure from animal rights activists who have been trying to drive him and other pet stores out of business for years.

The Irvine Company last week acknowledged it had decided to quit leasing at its retail centers to stores that sell dogs or cats, “effective immediately.”

Irvine Company spokesperson Erin Freeman said this week that the company’s decision came as it was in discussion with Irvine city officials about a proposed city ordinance to ban the sale of dogs and cats.

“This process has included extensive dialogue among interested parties,” Freeman said. “As part of that process, the Irvine Company has decided to phase out the sale of dogs and cats from its neighborhood, community and regional retail centers. The Company’s decision is based on retail trends and what is in the best interest of our retail centers, business owners and shoppers.”

Puppies in Russo's in Fashion Island. Photo by Eric Longabardi

Digiacomo said this week he was “shocked and taken aback” by the Irvine Company’s decision.

Digiacomo claimed the Irvine Company had supported him until very recently, including relocating his store at Fashion Island earlier this year to a much larger space in the center. According to Digiacomo, part of the cost of relocating and building his new store to expand his retail sale of dogs and cats and other animals was paid for by the Irvine Company itself.

Asked about this, Freeman said, “Construction of Russo’s new FI store began long before the City of Irvine started its process of evaluating retail sales of dogs and cats.”

Digiacomo says in meetings with company and city officials over the past year, the Irvine Company had supported his business against attacks by animal rights activists.  He believes the company did an about-face after extensive lobbying and threats of stepped-up public protests by the animal rights activists.

An internal Irvine Company letter obtained by the Independent, dated April 5, 2011, from the senior general manager of the Irvine Spectrum Center informs two Irvine Company senior vice presidents, Michael LeBlanc and Russ Lowe, that “Russo’s Pets at Irvine Spectrum Center has provided a very popular service to Irvine residents since 2002. Their policies and procedures are subject to California law and are strictly monitored and enforced. There is no evidence that puppies are procured from an illegitimate source or that they are mistreated … We intend to renew said lease.”

Three months later, in July, LeBlanc later sent a letter to city officials saying the company had decided to ban the sale of dogs and cats at its retail properties. Informed sources familiar with the process as it took place, say the company’s “understanding” of the issue “evolved” throughout the process and resulted in the change in policy.

Digiacomo says he had the Irvine Company’s support until letters supporting the proposed sales ban began flooding in to Bren and other senior executives this summer. Digiacomo claims that threat of controversy prompted the Irvine Company to withdraw its previous support of his pet store business.

The Independent has obtained some of those letters and they clearly show that animal rights activists and advocacy groups sought to convince Bren and senior Irvine Company executives that they faced a public-relations choice.

Gail Lewis, a local Irvine resident and animal rights activist, wrote to Bren, “I am sure you are aware there are ongoing demonstrations at Russo’s every week end … Do you really want the public to think that you support puppy mills? I think not. Please do not try to stop the Mayor and City Council from banning the sale of puppy mill dogs. It would do more for Irvine Co’s public image to embrace the change.”

Digiacomo says the commercial breeders he buys his puppies and kittens from are not puppy mills and that they care for and treat their dogs humanely. He provided the Independent with extensive information he says he previously provided the Irvine Company about the breeders he buys his dog and cats from.

The Independent has reviewed that information directly, and in it Digiacomo says, “Russo Spectrum Pets does not support “’puppy mills.’  We feel that they are a blight on the pet industry. … We trust our breeders and stand behind our kennels.”

Shoppers check out the puppies in Russo's. Photo by Eric Longabardi

Digiacomo says he personally has visited the kennels he buys from and they are “clean, well established family run businesses that care about the animals they sell.”

When asked if Bren had personally been involved in the decision, Digiacomo said he didn’t know directly, but that “Mr. Bren does not like negative PR.”

Whether Digiacomo plans to continue running a pet store selling dog and cats in Newport Beach or elsewhere once his lease runs out at Fashion Island, Digiacomo says he’s keeping all his options open.

In the meantime he’s been collecting signatures on a petition for months from customers opposed to the proposed ban on dog and cat sales in Irvine. He says he has hundreds of signatures he plan to present to the Irvine City Council that show that the general public does not support the proposed ban that would close his Irvine pet store for good.

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  1. We have purchased many puppies from Russos over the last 15 years Bichons, poochons, shichons. Every puppy was very healthy and well taken care of prior to them joining pur family. We are so sorry that more loving families will not be given the opportunity to have a healthy puppy be a partvof their lives.

  2. I am so glad that the government is taking over my need to THINK!! Gosh – there’s so many other things I can do now – I don’t have to think any more. Just do what the government plans for me. Wonder what they will plan for my breakfast tomorrow? I sure hope they’re going to cook it – I really like my eggs over-easy, but now I won’t have to THINK about it.

    Seriously – since WHEN do you guys feel you’re my conscience??? Whatever happened to democracy and capitalism and Constitutional Rights??? Have you, Mr Bren, lost your mind??? Pandering to freaks like Animal Rights is WRONG!!!! Didn’t your Momma ever teach you to think for yourself? Doing their bidding is pure evil. You have made it so not only will I never shop in your stores – but I will help my friends and anyone else I can talk to, to also come to that conclusion!!!!!

  3. Why can’t Russo’s and other shops take some pups and cats from an animal shelter(ex:Animal Assistance League of OC) who is overrun with just adorable animals that need homes. Perhaps in conjunction with a few bought from their current sources. This would make everyone happy instead of just moving to another location and continuing with bad habits in a new location. Perhaps the income would be diminished to a point it is not worth it- except to the pets.

    • Why should a privately owned business be made to sell animals for any animal shelter? The owner of a legal business should have the right to sell what he wants from whaat ever surce he wants. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. If you want to take your chances with a shelter animal that too is your right, go for it.

  4. All pet stores use puppy mills, that is a fact. Watch HBO special “Madonna of the Mills.” When you buy a puppy you support cruelty. So what your puppies were healthy, the parents of your cute puppies live in wire cages their whole lives and then they are killed when no longer good for breeding. People who buy puppies from these puppy mill fronts are just as bad as the monsters that breed them. FYI, the breeding dogs are sold for $1 $2 at auction, the mill sells the puppies to the puppy brokers for $50 then the pet stores buy them for $100-$200 and sell to you morons for $1500.

  5. FYI, so what if your puppies are healthy they are still from a commercial breeding factory. The mothers of these dogs live in hell, wire cages their whole lives, then they are killed when no longer breeding. These poor dogs are sold at auction for $1-$2 then they are sold to the monsters who breed them for $50, then the puppy brokers pay a little bit more before the petstore pays $100-$250 then you morons pay $1500-$3000 for a dog bred in hell. This store makes me sick and I hope they go under, good for the Irvine Co.

  6. There is no such thing as a clean puppy mill. The point of a puppy mill (and any other animal mill) is to produce animals as quickly as possible, as cost effectively as possible. These dogs are never taken out of their cages, walked, socialized, or properly cared for by vets. They live in their own feces and urine their whole lives and the females are meant to breed until they are lame and cannot breed anymore. And what happens to them when that time comes? Usually death or landing them into a shelter. The majority of puppies that come from pet shops have tons of health problems like parvo, and are very under-socialized. One of my friends who bought a puppy from a pet store years ago faced tons of health issues with her dog over the years.

    Also buying from pet stores marks the death of animals in shelters. Shelters, rescues, and private breeders (whom would NEVER sell to a pet store and actually TAKE CARE OF their animals) sell wonderful, healthy animals; about 25% of which that come out of shelters are purebreds. These animals -need- homes.

    Please consider the humane choice; make your store a place that sells pet supplies only or supports adoption of cats and dogs!

  7. Duffy, you obviously don’t care that your healthy puppies came from hell, yes a mass breeding factory. The parents of your cute puppy breed in wire cages their whole life they when they are done with them they are murdered, if lucky a puppy mill rescue group will bust them for violations. This store is disgusting, people who buy animals are just as bad as the jerks who sell them and the monsters that breed them. FYI, these poor breeding dogs are bought at auction by the breeder for $2 then the puppies are sold to the puppy broker for $50 then the a-hole puppy store buys them for $100-$250 then you morons pay $1500-$3000. Why don’t you google puppy mills and watch the HBO special documentary this month “Madonna of the Mills.” All puppy stores use puppy mills period.

  8. I don’t know why they just can’t sell rescue puppies. Many rescue animals are healthy and even if they were not why not just spend a small amount of money to vet them and then sell them in the stores? I do not understand the societal need to pay big dollars for dogs from breeders when SO many dogs are killed every year in shelters and many of them are ourebreds that are tosse dout like trash when breeders are unable to sell them. I have seen some of the most beautiful purebred puppies and dogs in every shelter I have visited. Surely we can empty the cages before we continue selling dogs from breeders….

  9. Dear Duffy,

    I’m glad the dogs you purchased from Russo’s were healthy but are you kidding? You clearly do not understand where your dogs came from. PUPPY MILLS! Fact: Pet store owners LIE. Oh yes. If they say their puppies come from reputable breeders they are lying. There isn’t a reputable breeder on the plant who would sell their puppy to a pet store. Reputable breeders CARE where their puppies go and are almost always invested in the future of that dog.

    Fact: The parents of your cute little perfect puppies endure years of constant abuse. They are forced to breed at every cycle, never touched or given vet care, forced to live in wire cages with just a few inches on all sides (if they’re the lucky ones) to barely turn around in. And when they can’t breed anymore? They’re tossed away like trash or killed. There’s a documentary on HBO airing right now on the subject of puppy mills and pet stores called “Madonna of the Mills”. I suggest you watch it. Oprah for God’s sake did several episodes on the subject. How can you and so many others be oblivious to this? When you purchased your puppies from that store you gave a death sentence to its parents. Google ‘puppy mills’ and learn all you need to know and then try to defend this store.

    Dan Digiacomo’s claim that he visited all his breeders is a joke and he knows it. But what he also knows is that the people who buy his dogs NEVER do their homework, NEVER pull up the USDA reports on the breeders to see for themselves what horrors they have inadvertently supported. It’s the same line all these pet store owners use and people just hear what they want to hear.

    Mr. Digiacomo, I bet you have a bunch of breeders from the midwest and I have a bunch of scathing USDA reports in front of me from the midwest. Care to compare notes? You know as well as I do where your dogs come from. Brokers who buy from puppy mills. You’ve gotten away with it for years but not anymore. The power of the web and social networking is finally exposing this barbaric industry for what it is. The Irvine Company did the right thing and they will not reverse this decision. The entire city of Los Angeles is working on their pet sales ban right now. Glendale just passed one! Irvine will be next! Pet stores are either going 100% humane or closing their doors. What you, the brokers and puppy farm breeders are doing is evil and evil eventually gets exposed! Be happy you’ve gotten away with it for this long. You made a ton of cash off the misery of beautiful loving animals and also lying to thousands of customers. It’s now time to do something better with your life. Perhaps work at a shelter?

    Oh and Duffy, 25% of all dogs in shelters are healthy purebred dogs so rest assured when all these disgusting stores go away there will still be plenty of dogs to adopt!

  10. How funny, the owner Dan Digiacomo said Irvine Company bowed to direct pressure from animal rights activists. HMMMM maybe thru the Activists they saw the light and saw the torture that you are a part of DAN. Time has come to stop the abuse from pet stores who keep puppy mills alive.

  11. Eric Longabardi is truly the worst journalist I’ve ever read. I mean, don’t you think an article like this should at least list ONE of the breeders Russo’s uses? He’s clearly biased, makes no attempt to speak with protestors to get both sides (obviously doesn’t want to know the truth) and I’m baffled why the Newport Beach Independent would want this guy on staff. He’s better suited for TMZ or some other trash website that isn’t interested it facts. He must be cheap, that’s all I can come up with.

  12. Duffy dogs live 12 – 18+ years. Why have you bought so many dogs? Is it because when they get older you dump them at the shelter and run out to buy a dog? Those dogs that you purchased had a mother who is still stuck in a cage in filthy conditions, never taken for walk, brushed or bathed so YOU can have a puppy. YOU are disturbed if you think this is right.

  13. It is too bad they are caving into these extremist animial activists. Russos has been a staple store at Fashion Island since it was built. When I go to Fashinon Island I’ve always looked forward to peting a puppie or rabbit or some pet at Russos. So now the Irvine Co and local residents allow animal fanatics from LA to dictate terms to us. That’s just a shame.

  14. I am a native and current resident of Newport Beach and Russo’s is notorious in this city for selling sick animals. It is only because our consumer laws are flawed and weak at protecting consumers and animals (as living being instead of product) that he is able to even stay in business. These animals have rights to life that include basic care and humane treatment by Federal laws that our own governments admits are not being adequately enforced. Russos is a known and documented puppy mill puppy pusher and mexican puppy mill smuggler. The refusal to rent to stores who supply live animals from USDA violating facilities is an ehtical and upstanding decision anyone should support simply for the health and welfare of the citizens and patrons. Thank You Irvine Company!

  15. Think before the Irvine company Bans the sale of pets in retail outfits they might consider banning people bringing pets into retail establishments. In Nordstrom a couple weeks ago someone had a large Dog, on lease, not very appropriate, We had to step around them. Why shop with a stinking Dog, to show off a well bred, documented hybrid expensive Pup.

    These retail establishment sell well bred documented hybrid Pups. Animal rights people say adopt from shelters, not an option because the reason the animals end up there are because of ill breeding and psychosis. That is why people take them to the pound or abandoned them in the first place.

    Animal rights folks have gone to far, if they are really concerned about animals rights visit the Tyson Chicken facility south of Fresno. You will never eat Chicken again, you should not eat Chickens anyway.

    People will buy Pets, and by eliminating retail licensed and audited outlets will, only spur underground and illegal puppy mills.

    Conversing with Animal rights peoples from the ARC of San Juan Capistrano I came to the conclusion they suffer psychosis and histrionic personality disorders and Dogs and Cats are their only friends. They consider this unconditional love.

    Animal rights people pool your resources and get Humans off the homeless streets and set up in an abode, however humble. Instead you ignore them and let live like wild animals.