20 May, 2016 – On Friday 6 May at the Manchester Crown Court in the UK, a woman was sent to jail for multiple offences under the Animal Welfare Act, the Pet Animals Act and the Fraud Act. The blood of hundreds – possibly thousands – of puppies is on her hands. By September, she will likely be free.
Leah Rogers or Holly Saxon or Sarah Connor or Lilly Cooper or Grace Banks – the last name the 29-year-old used, and the one she was convicted under – was sent to jail for nine months. It was the result of a four-year joint operation between the Greater Manchester Police and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) Special Operations Unit.
“It didn’t start out with Grace Banks,” Ian Briggs, a senior member of the RSPCA’s elite Special Operations Unit, told Pet News Today. “We started looking at two men local for welfare issues which they were prosecuted for to do with the sale of puppies. They carried on selling, even though they were banned. In a test purchase operation, we responded to one of their adverts and purchased two dogs – we posed as members of the public responding to an advert on the internet. They were prosecuted and sent to prison.”
The sister of one of the two men, who also changed their names numerous times throughout the ‘Operation Pagan’ investigation, took over the running of the illegal puppy business. Her name was Leah Rogers. Puppies were being illegally imported into the UK from Ireland, because the Pet Passport scheme was not being properly enforced by Irish and UK officials. Most of the puppies were sick, even dying, but they were fraudulently sold as healthy. Some had zoonotic diseases, which means they are capable of being transferred from animals to humans. Some of the puppies’ new owners did get very sick. Most of the puppies suffered, but did not receive adequate basic care from the sellers; neither did the sellers ensure they were seen by vets. The scale of the illegal trade, even at this early stage, was huge. A van was turning up every fortnight to an address in Stockport with 50 to 100 puppies in it, Ian said.
“They rented a house called ’17 Windows’ in Marple and rented other properties [including one on Buckstones Road, Shaw in Oldham, where she was arrested]. Grace Banks was basically the sales person. She would turn up with a puppy shortly before a person turned up at a property. She’d make it look like that was where she lived – there’d be a scattering of furniture. She’d say the mother [of the puppy] is away, out for a walk, is ill at the vet’s. It was a front to lull the public into buying a dog from her that they thought was home-bred,” Ian said.
“When they were selling them giving away four weeks’ pet insurance. She was registering each dog as a breeder, so in effect she was defrauding the pet insurer.
“Most of them [the puppy buyers] weren’t even suspicious at the time of buying the dog. But within a day or two the dog would fall ill with parvovirus, Campylobacter, distemper or giardia – lots of highly infectious and bacterial diseases which stemmed from the puppy farm, or farms, they were coming from in Ireland,” Ian said.
Leah changed her name to Lilly Cooper, moved into 17 Windows and set up ‘Lilly’s Puppy Boutique’.
“She carried on selling and we carried on getting complaints. Another search warrant was executed at 17 Windows and 30 odd puppies were found. She had multiple mobile phones, each one marked with initials of the type of puppy, so ‘YK’ for Yorkshire terrier, ‘ Pom’ for Pomerian etc so when she picked up that phone she knew the type of dog people were ringing about.”
She changed tack and went more commercial. She produced fake Kennel Club-style certificates to make it look like the puppy was a properly bred registered pure breed. In advertisements she said a puppy would come with a fluffy blanket with its mother’s scent on it. But Ian said the blankets were piled in a cupboard.
“Everything was geared up to try and go down the road of being a legitimate, well-managed dog selling company. The only thing she didn’t get right as keeping the dogs alive. She knew that the dogs that were passing through establishment, that there was a high chance those dogs would fall ill and die. Despite complaints [from people who purchased puppies from her] and RSPCA and police visits.”
At some point Lilly changed her name to Grace Banks.
When she was arrested the second time, there were no dogs in her house. But there was a dead puppy in a black bin bag in the boot of her white Mercedes.
“We had to take statements from people left devastated, people who caught infectious disease from these puppies, but she doesn’t care, she just wanted to make as much money as possible… with no regard to the suffering she caused to the animals.”
Grace Banks of Reed Street, Gorton, in Manchester, appeared at Oldham Magistrates’ Court in March and was found guilty of four offences:
- GUILTY: between April 4 and April 8 2015 caused unnecessary suffering to Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy by failing to provide necessary care for parvo and distemper contrary to the Animal Welfare Act 2006;
- GUILTY: between October 20 2014 and April 8 2015 failed to ensure needs of nine puppies were met by failing to protect them from pain, suffering, injury, or disease by failing to implement and apply appropriate quarantine, management and health screen to ensure they were healthy when sold contrary to the Animal Welfare Act 2006;
- GUILTY: between April 6 and April 8 2015 kept a pet shop except under the authority of a licence contrary to the Pet Animals Act 1951;
- GUILTY: between September 15 2014 and March 1 2015 dishonestly made false representation as to the condition and breeding of puppies that she was selling thereby intending to make a gain for herself or others or cause loss to another or expose another to risk of loss contrary to the Fraud Act 2006.
On Friday 6 May, 2016 she was sentenced to nine months in jail at Manchester Crown Court and will likely only serve half of that. Pet News Today was unable to publish her photo due to a Greater Manchester Police policy.
Ian said was well as changing her name, she changed her appearance and hair colour. It is the second time in 12 months she has been jailed in relation to convictions relating to the illegal sale of puppies. In October 2015, she was jailed for five months and banned form keeping animals for life.
If you are planning to buy a puppy later in the year, take the following precautions:
- Download the ‘puppy contract’, developed jointly by the RSPCA and the Animal Welfare Fund here and have both you and the breeder fill it in and sign it;
- Be suspicious of a seller who doesn’t want you to visit and meet a puppy, with its mother, at least once, before you collect it;
- If a pure breed puppy is registered with the UK’s Kennel Club, you can independently confirm this if you call the Kennel Club 01296 318540 and provide the puppy’s unique ‘kennel name’;
- Trust your instincts: is the house sparsely furnished with few personal knick-knacks? Is your puppy the only dog there? Is the breeder asking you questions to check your ability to care for a new puppy? A good breeder will only sell to a person it believes will love and properly care for a dog for its entire life.
- All puppies should be vet-checked soon after collection, even if the puppy has been fully-vaccinated and micro-chipped. If you suspect your new puppy might be from a puppy farm, it’s quietness may not be shyness, but a sign it is seriously ill. Have it seen by a vet immediately and advise them of your concerns. If it is sick, you should report this to the RSPCA. If you have been provided with fake registration or health documentation – and your vet will be able to advise you here – you should report this to the police as soon as possible on the non-emergency telephone number 101.
Photo: The main photo, of the dog in the picture frame, is one that Grace Banks used as a prop – she pretended the dog was hers. It was seized as evidence.