Pittsburgh reporter AJ Ross seeks to change laws after PetSmart strangulation of toy poodle

“He was struggling and being tortured. They didn’t do anything, they just kept cutting his nails,” says Ross about the PetSmart employees

For the last 12 years, AJ Ross had a constant companion in her toy poodle, Kobe. Their worlds collided when she got her start as a television news reporter in South Carolina in 2009.

“He had this playful personality and he was like my spirit animal,” Ross tells theGrio.

In a job that can be demanding, Ross says that Kobe brought light into her life, especially as she traveled from city to city and spent a lot of time away from family and close friends. “The intangibles that pets can bring to your life, ordinary moments become just that more special, and there’s a connection between pets and their owners,” says Ross, who also is a freelance writer for theGrio.

That bond has now been broken, according to Ross, who says a routine grooming trip to a Pittsburgh-area PetSmart ended in tragedy. While in line at the pet store to buy a treat for Kobe after stopping at a pharmacy next door, Ross heard a manager being paged to the grooming area, where she found her dog lifeless on a table. 

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AJ Ross is pictured with Kobe. (Credit: AJ Ross)

According to the criminal complaint, employees at the PetSmart claim the dog passed out and went limp, but police say video footage showed the dog hanging by two leashes. 

“That morning he was perfectly fine and had no record of medical issues. When they told me that he fainted—in my shock and crying—I’m hearing them but it’s not registering,” Ross says. 

Ross says that, initially, she was not getting answers that aligned with what employees said happened to her beloved Kobe. She then went on a crusade to see footage of what actually happened inside of the grooming room. Ross wasn’t able to go inside with Kobe during the November 2020 nail-trimming appointment because of strict COVID-19 restrictions. 

Ross says after several attempts to get answers from employees at PetSmart, a regional manager brought her into the store to view the surveillance video in December of last year. “I was told that I could not take any photos or record video,” she says. 

Ross adds what she saw on the surveillance video traumatized her.

“They had him tethered to a leash and tethered to the end of the grooming table. So his neck is being hyperextended in different directions,” she recalled. “He was hanging. He was hanging for over a minute. He was struggling and being tortured. They didn’t do anything, they just kept cutting his nails.”

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AJ Ross is pictured with Kobe. (Credit: AJ Ross)

According to Animal Control, Ross called Humane Animal Rescue the same day she saw the video and asked for an investigation. Since news of the incident broke, four employees at the PetSmart location are facing animal cruelty charges in connection with the toy poodles death.

“This lawsuit will ensure that more people won’t have to go through what I went through. I’m looking into civil charges ,as well as trying to get laws changed,” Ross said. 

In the meantime, PetSmart released the following statement saying, “We are heartbroken by 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.”

Ross says the store also provided her with the option to get another dog but she declined. “I don’t want any reminders or connection with PetSmart and I feel if had accepted their offer for another dog it wouldn’t sit well with me,” she explains. 

Ross says she’s now on a mission to help prevent others from experiencing her pain by making sure there’s laws in place that require all pet groomers to be licensed. “I’ve written to anyone who will listen, from the mayor to Pennsylvania state representatives and senators,” Ross adds.

As for the four employees now facing charges in the case, a preliminary hearing is scheduled for October 2021.

Kelsey Minor is a two time Emmy-winning freelance reporter based in New York City. You can follow his work on Twitter @theKELSEYminor.

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