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Courtesy: Susan Chana Lask
Elena Zahkarova (right), holding her dog, Umka, with attorney Susan Chana Lask (left), is suing a pet store to recoup medical bills for the pooch.
TODAY contributor
updated 1/5/2012 11:08:59 AM ET 2012-01-05T16:08:59

When Elena Zakharova looks into the eyes of her puppy as it suffers from bad knees and achy hips, she does not see a defective product to be returned to the store for a refund.

The New York City resident believes Umka, her 1-year-old Brussels Griffon, is a living soul who feels pain and emotion. Now her attorney aims to prove it in court.

Zakharova has filed a civil suit in a New York court against the Upper East Side pet store that sold her a puppy who went on to develop numerous medical complications. The suit seeks to hold the store liable for the dog’s pain and suffering, as well as its medical bills, as if it were a person rather than an inanimate product.

Under New York law, pets are considered “property,’’ but the complaint is trying to change that definition. The ultimate goal is to help shut down the puppy mills, many of them based in the Midwest, that often mass-produce the animals sold in boutique pet stores like Raising Rover, where Umka was purchased.

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“Don't call them property anymore,’’ Zakharova’s attorney, Susan Chana Lask, told TODAY.com. “They're not inanimate objects. They’re not tables. They’re not chairs. You don’t just throw them out.’’

“Umka is a living soul with a heart,’’ the suit reads. “She feels love and pain.’’

The ownership of Raising Rover has changed since Zakharova purchased Umka.

“I know nothing about the sale [of Umka]. The prior owner has all the records. We are very careful about where we get our puppies,” Raising Rover owner Ben Logan told the New York Daily News, which first reported the story of Zakharova’s unusual complaint. Logan declined to provide any information about the prior owner.

Zakharova is seeking compensation for past and upcoming surgeries and other medical treatment involved with Umka, which totals at least $8,000. She also wants a full return of the dog’s sale price plus interest since the date of purchase in February of last year. If Zakharova is awarded the money, she will donate it to an animal charity or animal-rights program, Lask said.

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New York state currently has a “Puppy Lemon Law’’ that allows buyers to return a sick animal to a pet store within 14 days for a full refund. One objective of that law is to slow down puppy mills’ mass production of dogs that end up having heart conditions and other ailments. However, in a case like Umka’s, the medical issues did not become apparent for months after Zakharova purchased the dog. The suit claims Umka will never walk or run properly again after several surgeries.

“Umka suffers a disorder causing her pain, her legs hurt, she cries when she is in pain, she drags herself with her front paws, [and] she cannot run like other puppies,” the suit reads.

“The Puppy Lemon Law doesn't cut it,’’ Lask said.

If the definition of a pet is changed from that of property to an animate being with feelings, it could substantially change the amount of damages that could be awarded when an owner buys a defective dog born in a puppy mill, according to Lask. That could, in turn, have a chilling effect on pet stores buying animals from puppy mills out of fear of getting slammed with large payouts from lawsuits.

“It’s going to put a number on my dog’s broken hips that you created because you’re negligent, you’re greedy, and you’re mass-producing these puppies,’’ Lask said. “Right now, even if you return it, they just kill it, which is so inhumane.’’

Lask is an animal lover who owns a Chihuahua named Lincoln who was found to have a hole in his skull months after her purchase. That discovery led her to investigate the practices of shady puppy mills. She has waited six years to bring a case of this nature, fielding calls from other pet owners in the past, but felt Zakharova is the perfect client to help correct a larger issue.

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“It’s much bigger than this case,’’ she said. “I am looking to shut down the puppy mill world.’’

The main issue will be proving to a judge that pets are living souls who experience feelings of pain and emotion.

“It’s a leap,’’ Lask said. “Human beings themselves have treated other humans as property in history before recognizing it was wrong. People will say this isn’t a human being, but they have a heart, so it’s not too much of a stretch to ask the courts to change the definition. Then we’ll see how quickly pet stores think twice before buying from puppy mills.

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“It’s already a felony to abuse an animal. If I kick my Chihuahua and beat it, I’m getting arrested, so that animal has rights. If they have criminal rights, why not put rights on a damaged leg or a heart condition? If we’re not equating [an animal] to a human being, and we’re not equating it to a table, there has to be something in the middle.’’

Whether the suit is successful or not, it brings to light the practices of puppy mills and their damaging effects on animals and their human owners, animal rights advocates say.

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“I don’t know where this case is going to go, but it’s good that it brings awareness that pets are not just a commodity and that we have to take this seriously,’’ said Sandra DeFeo, executive director of The Humane Society of New York. “We feel that animals are living, breathing beings, not a piece of furniture or inanimate object. People develop relationships and bonds with these animals, and you see how distraught they are when the animals pass away.’’

A 2011 investigation by The Humane Society of the United States revealed that Raising Rover, where Umka was purchased, was one of 11 upscale pet stores that purchased animals from Midwestern puppy mills with horrendous conditions.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Vote: Should dogs be viewed as ‘living souls’ or property?

Video: Laboratory pups get first taste of freedom in US

  1. Closed captioning of: Laboratory pups get first taste of freedom in US

    >>> now to los angeles where dozens of adorable beagles got a first taste of freedom this thanksgiving. we have that story.

    >> reporter: at lax the special delivery just in time for the holiday.

    >> hi, baby.

    >> reporter: this precious cargo comes from half a world away , 40 beagles rescued from a research lab in spain now safely in los angeles headed for a foster home and a new life.

    >> these dogs have sort of served people their whole lives. they've been used and abused for animal testing , and now they get to be free. we got to give them a life.

    >> reporter: volunteers say these beagles and the dogged rescued before them have never really had a chance to live.

    >> and we are headed somewhere where we can run free for a minute.

    >> reporter: the rescued beagles were more project than pet. the dogged spent their lives caged in a science lab . some have never seen the sun, much less a park.

    >> opening the door for what's about to their first stretch ever on the grass or outside ever in their entire lives here. very exciting. should i start?

    >> let's do it.

    >> reporter: that first fearful step is never an easy one.

    >> come on, big boy . yeah.

    >> reporter: ten minutes past before a shaky paw touches solid ground, a dog learning to be dog.

    >> in the beginning they didn't know what anything was. they didn't know what a toy was. they didn't know how to do for a walk or jump up on the couch or go up and down stairs.

    >> reporter: these little guys spend the next couple of weeks here until they're medically cleared and adoptd out. the lucky ones have found owners who want to bring them home.

    >> i felt like he was kind of claiming me.

    >> reporter: with a story like theirs and a face like this, volunteers believe all these beagles will find a happy home . a reason this holiday for adopting families to be thankful and these beautiful beagles to be grateful. for "today," nbc news, los angeles .

Photos: How swimming, and lots of love, saved Harper the puppy’s life

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  1. A sad prognosis

    On Aug. 31, 2011, a puppy was rescued from a garbage bag in Central Florida. She was afflicted by a condition dubbed “swimmer puppy syndrome,” formally, pectus excavatum. It's rare in puppies, but when it happens it causes them to lie flat on their chests with their legs perpetually splayed out. It's usually a symptom of serious neurological problems that most puppies cannot survive. Veterinarians recommended putting her to sleep. (Dolly's Foundation) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Changed circumstances

    Erica Daniel, who provides foster care to dogs in serious need, decided to take the puppy home for one full day of love and affection before she was to be put to sleep the next morning. After a few hours of being massaged and cuddled, Harper began to lift her head and move. Encouraged, Daniel contacted Bev McCartt, a therapist with Hip Dog Canine Hydrotherapy & Fitness in Winter Park, Fla. McCartt, pictured here, offered to treat the puppy free of charge. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A fish in water

    At her first hydrotherapy session, the puppy – whom Erica Daniel named Harper – responded remarkably well. Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt explained that swimming helped teach Harper what her natural gait should be. “Her brain kicked in and by the end of her first session, she was like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ ” McCartt said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Getting going

    “Hydrotherapy and massage actually build on that instinct for a dog to move,” Hip Dog therapist Bev McCartt said, adding that Harper is “a real testament to a dog’s determination to get up and just go.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Just the right help

    Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom and head of a dog-rescue organization called Dolly’s Foundation, said Harper has benefited from a mix of treatments: hydrotherapy, massage therapy and electric stimulation of her muscles. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. ‘Loosey-goosey’

    After one of her early massages, Harper got “all loosey-goosey, like we all are after a massage,” Bev McCartt said. “She just kind of melted into the pad.” Later that same day, she started to trot. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. ‘So much determination’

    “She has so much determination and grit,” Bev McCartt said. “She’s a miracle puppy. That’s how I see her. She’s a walking miracle.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Relaxed and happy

    Harper has thrived after receiving personalized attention and care. Her foster mom, Erica Daniel, plans to give her up for adoption in late October – if she can stand parting with her. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Unstoppable

    Harper took her first actual steps on grass, then on carpet, then on concrete. “She still can’t walk on tile or hardwood floors,” Erica Daniel said on Sept. 20. “But she’s getting there.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A whole new life

    Harper has been holding her own and playing happily with the seven other dogs at Erica Daniel’s home. “My dogs really egg her on,” Daniel said. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. ‘Dogs need love’

    “Pit bulls are just dogs,” said Erica Daniel, noting the negative image of Harper’s breed. “Dogs need love, and they need homes.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Help from new friends

    Harper has benefited from an outpouring of support from a variety of Central Florida residents. Flyin Fur Pet Photography donated photography services when capturing these "day in the life" images of Harper. All money raised from sales of Harper's photos will be directed toward Harper's medical bills and the work of Dolly’s Foundation, Erica Daniel’s dog-rescue organization. (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. No worries

    “The whole world was against her, but she’s such a fighter,” said Erica Daniel, Harper’s foster mom. “She’s a blessing. She’s awesome.” (Flyin Fur Pet Photography) Back to slideshow navigation
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