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Six Newport men jailed following investigation into illegal puppy trade

£300,000 worth of dogs advertised online under false pretences

Credit: RSPCA Cymru

Eleven members of the same family have been sentenced – with six men imprisoned – following an RSPCA investigation into the illegal puppy trade.

The six men and five women – who all belong to the McDonagh family –  were sentenced at Swansea Crown Court yesterday (Wednesday 21 February). The six men previously pleaded guilty to a fraud charge – and all 11 pleaded guilty to an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

In mitigation for the defendants it was heard by their legal representatives that it had been an “unsophisticated conspiracy” while the court was told that some of the defendants had work that “dried up” during the pandemic.

However, in his sentencing remarks Judge Geraint Walters said there was “carefully coordinated action” where the use of multiple properties, different vehicles and different vet practices had been used, along with false adverts, false documentation and various mobile numbers. He added that RSPCA Inspector Kirsty Withnall had painstakingly analysed data regarding sale and adverts while there had been a number of victims who experienced “unspeakable distress”.

The six men all were imprisoned and were disqualified from keeping dogs for 15 years. The five women all received community orders and were disqualified from keeping dogs for 10 years. (full sentencing details below)

Operation Earth – led by RSPCA’s Special Operations Unit – investigated the transportation and the sale of third party puppies that were illegally sold, imported or stolen, mainly in the Newport area over a 15 month period.

Credit: RSPCA Cymru

The case involved £300,000 worth of dogs/puppies which had been sold to members of the public under false pretences. Advertised as home bred, healthy, and a well socialised family pet – the puppies were in some cases bred in sheds or purchased from elsewhere, while there were also dogs that were reportedly stolen.

The RSPCA-led operation found that the dogs and puppies that were sold with a variety of health concerns had been imported from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ireland. It was also thought they were imported illegally due to the lack of passports and vaccinations.

It was also found that 41 residential addresses, 47 mobile numbers and 39 email addresses were being used by the dog sellers, some of these were completely unrelated to the McDonagh family.

They had been advertising and selling at least 40 different breeds of dogs, including Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Pugs, Beagles, miniature Dachshunds, American Pocket Bully, Shihpoos, French Bulldogs, Cavapoos, Chihuahuas, Labradors, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Whippets.

The puppies and dogs were advertised on four main pet selling sites, namely Freeads, Pets4homes, Preloved and Gumtree.

At a hearing in September six men pleaded guilty to two offences – one offence being under the Criminal Law Act in that between 1 January 2020 and 31 March 2021 they conspired to commit fraud by false representation.

All 11 defendants pleaded guilty to one offence under the Animal Welfare Act which related to failing to meet the needs of puppies in their care – relating to different addresses.

A hearing was held on 14 December and then another on 2 February when mitigation was heard. Sentencing took place at Swansea Crown Court on Wednesday 21 February 2024.

The investigation was launched thanks to an observant veterinary practice after a man had taken three litters of puppies into the surgery using the same phone number but calling himself something different on two occasions. The vets were suspicious about the puppies and concerned about their welfare, and notified the RSPCA.

Evidence was then obtained linking the addresses to the supply of the puppies through third party addresses which led to warrants obtained and executed by Gwent Police.

Warrants had been planned for 22 April 2020, however, police contacted the RSPCA on Monday 12 April to attend Ellen Ridge Traveller Site in Newport which resulted in 21 dogs seized by the police. Some of the dogs were found in poor health and were kept in inappropriate conditions.

A male Dachshund was found in a dog cage which was found on top of another cage inside a white Ford Transit Van. He was visibly emaciated with its back bone visibly protruding and the dog was subdued and reluctant to stand up.

Two labradors were found to be bright and alert but when they were given a small bowl of water by RSPCA Inspector Christine McNeil they drank thirstily.

A search of the site resulted in the seizure of a number of documents which included vaccination cards of dogs which showed the addresses of Maesglas, Libeneth Road, George Lansbury Drive and Ringland Circle thus linking puppies with the Ellen Ridge occupiers and all four other addresses.

Further warrants were then executed on Thursday 22 April 2021.

At the warrant at Maesglas Road, Newport, two French Bulldogs were found in poor health – Archie and Blue. On arrival Archie was found sitting in a baby car seat and Blue was in a shed. (video footage available)

In a statement provided to the court, Inspector Kirsty Withnall said: “Both of the dogs were in poor condition, they had hair loss and were itching and scratching continually whilst we were there. Both dogs were clearly in a lot of discomfort.” Both dogs were seized by police.

A further warrant was executed at Laburnum Drive, Newport. There were no people or dogs at the property, although there was evidence of dogs being there including cages and empty dog food tins.

Through further investigations, it was discovered witnesses had purchased dogs/puppies from George Lansbury Drive, Newport, Laburnum Drive, Newport and a service station. Another witness attended Libeneth Road, Newport, after responding to an advert but did not purchase the dog.

The court also heard how Edward McDonagh was connected with the use of Maesglas Street along with an address in Ireland. He and his wife were passengers in a vehicle stopped by Animal Health Officers in Dover when they brought a crate with five Dachshund puppies into the country with passports in the names of Anthony Francis and John Paul McDonagh issued in Hungary and Czech Republic.

It was also heard that Martin Joseph McDonagh and his wife Rosaleen Marie McDonagh were the occupants of a vehicle stopped at Dover with a cage of five Dachshunds which needed veterinary attention. The puppies had pet passports from Hungary and Czech Republic.

As part of her investigation, Inspector Withnall collected details of all the microchips implanted in the puppies and dogs in this case, and traced the date the chip was implanted and to whom it was registered and collated any further information known about the puppy.

Inspector Withnall also collated data from the advertising sites which showed the different and false identities used to advertise, the number and types of advert and the value of the puppies being sold. Additionally, phone numbers associated with the adverts and how they link to the different members were also provided to the court as part of the case.

In total 22 purchasers gave statements for this case.

One witness statement revealed that they had purchased a dachshund puppy, later named Luna, from George Lansbury Drive for £2,500. In the evening they took the puppy home they found she had diarrhoea with blood in it and a vet was contacted. She was later tested positive for Parvovirus – but thankfully made a full recovery.

Another witness said that they bought a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, later called Hudson, from George Lansbury Drive. Hudson became unwell with and dehydrated and underweight, so at the vets he was put on a drip overnight. Fortunately, Hudson made a good recovery.

Following this case, Inspector Withnall, said: “We’d very much like to thank all those who helped us bring this case to court, from Gwent Police, veterinary practices, witnesses, Newport Trading Standards and The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

“The heartbreaking reality of puppy farming is that the welfare of the puppies comes second to making money.

“The sums of money involved are just eye-watering; and it’s another reminder of how unscrupulous this trade can be; and how dangerous poor breeding and trading practices are for dogs, pups and unsuspecting consumers.

“For anyone looking to buy a puppy, rather than adopt – we urge them to do their research, know the signs of an unscrupulous breeder and use tools such as the Puppy Contract to avoid becoming another victim of the puppy trade.”

Gwent police officer Bianca Robson-Mallet, who was the officer in charge of the warrant, said: “We had been receiving intel for a few months prior to the warrant and had been preparing for it when the RSPCA contacted us for assistance.

“In cases of animal cruelty, we work closely with the RSPCA, and this case was no exception.

“This was my first animal welfare warrant, and I had a massive interest in seeing it through because of my love towards animals.”

Councillor James Clarke, Newport City Council’s cabinet member for strategic planning, housing and regulation, said: “Our trading standards officers provided support both on the day of action and with the ongoing financial investigations. Tackling serious and organised crime is a priority for the council and we are delighted with the successful outcome of this joint operation.”

Out of the 21 dogs seized at the Ellen Ridge Traveller Site four had been reported and confirmed as stolen and have since been returned to their owners.

Different members of the McDonagh family stated they own some of the dogs, however, 14 of the dogs were rehomed as they were unclaimed – with one of the dachshunds having seven pups.

Two further dogs were signed over to the RSPCA at a later date and subsequently rehomed. Another dog remained who also was in RSPCA care – who also had a pup in care – has also been signed over and will be made available for rehoming.