(WBIR-Sevierville) The Sevierville Police Department said it has been getting emails and Facebook messages claiming abuse and neglect at an exotic pet store, but the owner is denying the accusations after passing 12 inspections by the local animal control officer.
Exotic Pets Center, on Winfield Dunn Parkway, has been open for 10 years. The store sells fresh and salt water fish, hamsters, sugar gliders, rare breeds of dogs and cats, and exotic birds.
Monday, a concerned animal lover created a Facebook page called 'STOP the hell at this pet store in Sevierville Tennessee NOW', claiming the animals are malnourished, neglected, and have dirty water and food.
One picture showed two macaws in the same cage, but the owner says that's because the birds have been together for 15 years.
"The owner fell under some hardships," explained Ellen Perez, the store owner. "She specifically sought me out because she wanted those birds to stay together forever. And that's the guarantee I gave her."
Perez said another picture made a different bird, Woody, look as though he was being housed in a tiny cage.
"There's a picture of him where they show him just on this side of the cage and they have it like this," said Perez. "They say the cage is not big enough for him and look he has no toys. But no, the cage is much larger than the photo and he does have a toy."
Customers and animal lovers across the country disagree. The Facebook page had over 800 'likes' by Friday.
"My parents had a pet store in Ohio and I grew up in that. And that's not how a store should be," said Catherine Wright. "The cages are fifthly. They're always full of dead feces, and food pieces and you can tell they've been there for a long time. I noticed there are a lot of dead animals when you go in there."
"Absolutely not. You're welcome to come look around," said Perez, in response to the allegations.
The Sevierville Police Department said in the past few days, it has received seven or eight complaints. The animal control officer inspected the store three times this week, but found no violations.
"For us to take action, we must see abuse or neglect, such as when the basic needs of the animal are not being met, like food, water and shelter," said Bob Stahlke. "When the ACO has inspected the business, he has not found anything that would allow us to cite the business owner. We have also discussed the situation with the Sevier County Humane Society, and it is my understanding that they have also visited the business in the past and not found anything that would warrant enforcement action."
Perez said the inspections are random and come without warning.
"I would like to welcome anyone to come look around and see the animals," she said. "The situation has gotten so out of hand and it's becoming scary."
Perez's daughter said someone from the Facebook group posted a picture of her and her four siblings on the private page.
"Saying beware of us," said Perez's daughter. "Also in one of their comments they were saying they were going to try to find our house."
By Friday evening, the Facebook page administrator posted this warning: "Under no circumstances will any threats of violence or threats to the family or store be tolerated on this page."
"The whole idea of the Facebook group is not to attack the family at all. It's just the shop. We want better for the pets. It's all about the pets and their owners," said Wright.
"I hope that people are wise enough to know that there are two sides to every story and often when one side is so very, very angry, you might want to take that with a grain of salt," said Perez.
10News also checked with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, which said it did not find any disease-related issues at the exotic pet center. The Department of Health said it has received complaints in the past few years, but none within the past 12 months.
Because the center sells exotic animals, the United States Department of Agriculture is also involved. It has not found any violations either.
"It doesn't seem like the laws are strict enough," said Wright. "If inspectors are going in and not seeing anything wrong, but people who don't even know about pets are seeing something wrong, that's a problem."
"We have had a lot of customers tell us they tried to post positive feedback to the Facebook site but it has been deleted," said Perez. "We've been getting encouraging support from a lot of our customers."