The Moldy Pet Store
My husband and I moved down from Portland, Oregon to Waterford, California in December 1998 to open a pet store. My sister found the building and talked with the landowner. She told me that the carpet was in need of being stretched, but other than that the building was in an ideal setting and was big enough for our needs. We had contacted the building owner to discuss renovation of part of the building into living quarters and were told that it would be ok, that there was residential housing on both sides, so the zoning would not be a problem. We were assured that the building was sound and in good shape, with a newly replaced roof and new windows.
We paid rent before leaving Portland. We brought with us a large variety of reptiles and items such as a counter and cages. When we arrived and were able to check out the building we found buckled carpeting from obvious water damage and water stains on the ceiling and walls. Inspection of the roof led us to believe that the roof may have been repaired, but definitely not replaced. The landowner also told us that the carpet couldn’t be fixed because he couldn’t find anyone to “come all the way to Waterford”, which is 15 miles from Modesto?!?!
Much to our dismay, a few days later it rained and the roof leaked profusely. We complained and the landowner stated, “No one told me the roof leaked.” When I asked him why he would replace the roof if it didn’t leak? He said, “I didn’t say that I replaced the roof.” Needless to say, we became very suspicious of our new landlord. He said that he would get the roof fixed. We really didn’t care about whether or not the building was as he said it was as long as he made earnest efforts to take care of his responsibilities.
After being in the building for 2 weeks we both came down with what we thought at the time was a simple cold. 2 weeks later we were still sick and had decided that we had the flu. New environment, new stress, we thought we were going through the gamete of winter in a new place. New Years came and went without much recognition as we could barely breathe, let alone party and have a good time.
It was about this time that we started to loose a few of the animals that we brought with us. We lost an iguana in early January, and from there it seems that we lost about 3 a month during the rest of January, February, and March. We also found out in February that the property owner had lied to us and we could not get a building permit to remodel a portion of the building for a place for us to live.
In April we started to lose more, one or two a week. During this time we were working at some minor remodeling, purchasing necessities, and setting up shelving for the grand opening of our store on April 6th in addition to being sick the whole time with symptoms that ranged from simple cold or allergy to full blown flu symptoms.
In early April, a couple of ladies came into the store and in a joking manner told me that I had stolen their building. I asked them what they meant by that and they told me that they had contacted the landowner in November, (right after I paid the rent on the building), as they wanted to rent the building to open a preschool/day-care center. (As I look back now I am glad that we were there and not a bunch of little children.)
The first week of May we lost almost all our animals, not just the ones we brought with us, but the new animals we had purchased in California. Most of the reptiles quit eating and then eventually bled from their mouths before dying. Birds struggled and splattered blood all over their cages before falling to the bottom of the cage panting. There was a cockatiel and a couple of budgies that I just couldn’t deal with watching them slowly suffer and die. I took them from their cages and with tears on my cheeks I broke their necks and ended their misery.
This one week had been the worst week I had had in many, many years. I was still sick and I wondered if my own illness had worn me down and compounded my misery. We took some of the animals to the vet for necropsy. The verdict from the vet was; “I have never seen that kind of massive internal damage. Every organ had massive damage to it. I have never seen anything like this before; I have no idea what could do this kind of damage to an animal. I am certain that there is nothing you could have done to do this. There was no poison or parasite found and they could not do this kind of damage either.”
It was about this time that we started to notice memory problems and confusion, we both started to doubt our ability to do this, but we had no choice but to proceed. Our store was doing great business, and we saw our dream blossom but overshadowed by the fact that about 1/2 the animals we sold were brought back dead. What could we tell people?
We launched an intense investigation by first calling anyone that may have had anything to do with the deaths of our animals. Cal-Tran (California Transportation) had sprayed weeds and trees near our store and I contacted them to find out what they were spraying. Their spray was investigated and eliminated by the vet as the culprit. My next step was to call OSHA and they lead me to the EPA who hinted that Stachybotrys might be the reason behind the deaths. I had never heard of this stuff before. It took an additional 4 weeks of phone conversations, e-mail, and regular US mail to come around to the point of testing the building. First we did a simple test of some molds found in the windowsills that were sent to a lab in the Sacramento area. These tests were $50 a sample. We didn’t want to spend $600 to have formal testing done if we didn’t really have something to test. The simple test came back with massive (4+) infestation of Stachybotrys.
I guess it was about this time that it finally dawned on us that we could possibly be sick because of this mold too. Our minds were having a hard time holding onto the things we needed to do everyday just to get by, without all of this testing and new information on top if it. We had been without insurance so we hesitated to go to the doctor till now. First the doctor said it was allergies and prescribed medication for allergies. This did not help at all.
It took another 4 weeks to pull together the financing to have an indoor air quality company come test the building. We knew before this test was done that we were done. We had to get out of the building, but have you ever tried to find a place to rent to live with about 50 reptiles, birds, and rodents? Impossible? Yes. We were too worn down and confused in addition to having sunk our entire life savings and even borrowed $10,000 to open this store to think about moving the store too. The testing by the DEE (Doctorate of Environmental Engineering) found Stachybotrys, Aspergillius and Penicillium in great quantities. His report was shared with the health department and the building was condemned.
What was the response of the landowner when we told him that toxic mold had killed our animals, our store and made us extremely ill? “There ain’t no itty-bitty mold gonna do that. You planed this, didn’t you? You’ve been planning this since before you left Oregon, huh?”
Well, I don’t think it takes a stretch of the imagination to figure out what happened next, we were hit with eviction notices. Like we were not trying to get out already. We were not able to find a place to live until the first of August and we moved as quickly as we could. We lost it all. We left the building with about 25 reptiles, 10 birds, a few dozen rats, mice and hamsters, and way too many fish.
It took about 4 months for me to find a job and my husband has a few physical problems that when added to the mental problems has made it impossible for him to find and hold down a job. Once I became employed I also became insured and we went to the doctor.
The visit to the doctor left us with even more hostility as one after the other admitted that they knew very little about toxic mold poisoning and did not want to know. We have fought an uphill battle all the way. My husbands memory problems will probably never be addressed by this insurance company as the doctor doesn’t think there is anything wrong with him other than he constantly complains of pain, (he has since has surgery for acid reflux disease), shoulder pain, (he fell through the rotted ceiling and hit the floor on the shoulder that had been broke in 7 places before), in addition to 2 compressed and dislocated disks in his back, (surgery set for 7/23/02) and they think his memory problems are… what? Faked? I don’t know.
We contacted Fox-40 news and they did a short story on our store. The shocker is that without removal of the infected materials in the walls and the attic area of the building, the building was released by the health department and has been rented to a church for a senior staffed second hand store.
After almost 2 years we were both still suffering from the effects of the toxic mold but our major problems have leveled out with asthma and muscle spasms being the residuals. We are now into our 3rd year of waiting to go to court. Yes, we are suing the landowner for the funds we lost, fraud and a few other things like our long-term medical problems. My husband has not been able to work since and our lives have been changed permanently. I will update when we settle.
Someone from another weird site contacted me but that was fine. She was desperate. Anyways, almost 3 years to the day we settled out of court for $30,000. Why so little you may ask? Well, lawyers have this method of ‘breaking’ people like us. We were on the verge of bankruptcy, trying to make payments on the loan that we had taken out, I was working and they continued to get one postponement after another. We were told that they would be able to hold off judgment for 5 years or more and we were going under.
You have no idea what kind of stress the whole thing puts you through. We went through grueling 5 day depositions where we accused of bringing the mold with us to the totally outrageous ideas and accusations that the store was nothing more than a front for selling drugs (my husband had long hair and tattoos). We barely had enough money to pay the loan off after the lawyers got their cut. You have no idea just how miserable our lives were, living on less than a shoestring and trying to keep groceries in the cupboard and the utilities on. The court system is not for the weak or those in immediate need. It is for those that have the time and money to hold out and wait, a very long time.
My husband has not been able to return to work, he still has back problems and some sever memory problems. On occasion I can compare his mental capabilities to that of a 12 to 14-year-old. I still love him just the same and he still has a way with the animals. We have one room in our house where he is raising reptiles, he recently hatched out a dozen baby lizards. He sells them to local pet stores. I have no doubt that he could put together another pet store if we could raise the funds but with no savings to start with, his dream is gone.
My advise for someone that finds themselves in a situation where they have lost thousands of dollars and is considering court to settle the score? Be prepared to wait a long time. Don’t count on the court being sympathetic to you. Don’t depend on an outcome until it happens, which could be a very long time.