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USDA uncovers widespread abuse at pet store rodent supplier

PHOENIX — A Pennsylvania company — which supplies guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters and other rodents for sale at pet stores across the country — has been cited for more than 100 violations by inspectors of the United States Department of Agriculture.

The federal citations followed an undercover examination by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which alleges the company, Holmes Farm Inc., is a supplier to Phoenix-based PetSmart. PetSmart would not comment on PETA's allegation.

USDA inspectors visiting Holmes Farm Inc. northwest of Philadelphia found dead, diseased, lethargic and cannibalized animals; inadequate space; unsanitary conditions and other signs of neglect or mismanagement, including improper record-keeping and a lack of procedures for euthanizing diseased animals. Inspectors also found a cat wandering the rodent facilities, along with multiple escaped rodents.

The 10-page, single-spaced report was prepared by Keri Lupo, a USDA veterinary medical officer.

"The feds found exactly what we told them they'd find, and a lot more," said Dan Paden, a PETA spokesman.

The federal investigation into Holmes Farm began in early January after a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) employee went undercover and worked at the facility for three months, according to an earlier statement from PETA.

Pet supplies giant Petco subsequently ended its relationship with Holmes, saying the company doesn't meet its animal care standards.

The USDA posted its report May 20. Holmes contested some of the findings, but those comments weren't included in the USDA report. Martha Holmes, co-owner of the company and the person to whom the USDA report was addressed, didn't return a phone call to The Arizona Republic.

Her company remains under investigation by the USDA and could face fines, penalties and a revocation of its license as an animal dealer.

It was the fifth recent investigation by PETA into companies that, PETA says, supply pets to retailers including PetSmart. The Republic earlier this year reported on problems at an Ohio reptile supplier.

PetSmart, one of Arizona's largest employers, declined to discuss the Holmes investigation but issued a general statement.

"As a standard practice, we do not comment on the status of relationships with our vendors," wrote Michelle Friedman, PetSmart's vice president of corporate communications. "Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of pets, and we take any allegation of mistreatment very seriously. We immediately review and thoroughly investigate, taking appropriate steps and corrective actions as needed to ensure our high standards of pet care continue to be met."

Rival Petco said it has stopped accepting rodents from Holmes and reptiles from Reptiles by Mack, the Ohio supplier cited in the earlier PETA investigation. PETA contends PetSmart continues to buy from both suppliers. In some stores, PetSmart offers rescued rabbits and other rodents for adoption, just as it does with dogs and cats.

On its website, peta.org., the animal-welfare group has posted a video of its Holmes undercover investigation, which was conducted from October 2015 to January, and of the Reptiles by Mack probe conducted last fall.

"Hamsters and guinea pigs suffer in these mills, just like puppies suffer in puppy mills," said Paden, whose group hopes to pressure large retailers to stop selling animals or at least monitor suppliers better. "It's up to caring consumers to vote with their dollars."

Contributing: Mary Bowerman, USA TODAY