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Pet app Rover faces flak after dogs went missing or died
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Pet app Rover faces flak after dogs went missing or died

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Rover dog-sitting app

Rover, which offers everything from dog walking to cat and dog sitting, says that 40 million services have been booked through its platform to date.

Like many new pandemic pet owners, Nia Morgan knew her puppy, Zorro, had grown very attached to her due to all the time she spent at home with him. So she was understandably hesitant about leaving him for the first time with a sitter she'd hired through Rover, a popular platform for booking dog and cat sitters.

Morgan took what she thought were adequate steps to ensure her timid then-9-month-old poodle mix would be in good hands during an upcoming trip. She interviewed a Rover sitter and did a trial run, dropping Zorro and a friend's dog off together with the sitter for the day. Zorro's "temperament was good," said Morgan, after picking up her dog, which made her feel comfortable enough to book the same sitter for a five-day trip.

One day after she left, the sitter said her phone had broken and she was using her computer to send updates through the platform. Morgan said she wasn't sent photos of Zorro — something that is typically common for sitters to do — but she had been "satisfied with the in-depth messages" the sitter was providing.

The evening before Morgan was set to return home to Chicago, the sitter messaged her that Zorro "got loose" while she was at her boyfriend's house more than an hour away from her home, according to correspondence viewed by CNN Business. Morgan would soon discover through a post from the local Animal Control's Facebook page that Zorro had gone missing at the beginning of the stay. (According to a police report, the local Animal Control received two calls reporting a loose dog on the first day of Zorro's stay; one came from a man who claimed his girlfriend's dog had gotten loose, describing a dog similar to Zorro.) The sitter waited four days to notify Morgan, all while providing false updates, according to correspondence viewed by CNN Business.

Four months later, Morgan is still searching for Zorro — mostly, she feels, with little support from Rover, which initially included Amber Alert robocalls, flyers and a $100 contribution toward a reward for finding Zorro.

"We feel terribly that some pet parents believe we've fallen short of our obligation to them," said Rover spokesperson Dave Rosenbaum in a statement for this story. "We'll continue to work hard to live up to our community's expectations."

More than 2 million "pet parents" have turned to Rover's network of "trusted sitters and dog walkers" to book services including boarding, house sitting and day care, according to the company. Now, it is set to ride a wave of pandemic pet demand to a Wall Street debut. But as with other sharing economy platforms, which largely rely on independent contractors with limited amounts of vetting, there can be a dark side.

CNN Business spoke with six pet owners who said their dogs have gone missing or died while in the care of a sitter they found on Rover's platform since the start of the pandemic. All of them said they turned to the platform because it was a recognizable name in the industry and they felt more comfortable after reading positive reviews of their respective sitters on the site. One pet owner said her sitter remained on the platform for months after her dogs were lost while in the sitter's care. (Rover declined to comment on this claim.) Another owner, whose dog was found dead with no explanation, said the sitter whose care he was in remains live on the platform. (Rover said it is reviewing this matter.)

It's unclear how many owners have experienced such incidents. Rosenbaum told CNN Business the company tracks these incidents but does not "currently disclose" numbers. However, there have been stories over the years of dogs who were lost, abused, or found dead while in the care of Rover sitters, often reported on by local news outlets. (CNN Business has not independently confirmed these accounts.) Others don't make it to the press at all, in some cases potentially due to the company's efforts to tie some payouts to non-disclosure agreements, which can effectively silence people from going public with their stories.

Additionally, when signing up to use Rover, customers agree to bring any claims against the company to individual arbitration, a process that keeps issues out of court and prevents people from banding together to pursue combined cases such as a class action lawsuit, unless they explicitly opt out of the agreement with a written notice.

"As a team motivated by a shared love of pets, we're committed to helping people access quality pet care, so it weighs heavily on our hearts if someone has a negative experience," Rosenbaum said in a statement to CNN Business. "Over 40 million services have been booked through the platform with 97% of reviewed stays receiving 5-stars. But even one negative experience is too many. We work every day to improve the platform so that every experience on Rover is a positive one."

Rosenbaum told CNN Business that it raised its standard reward for a lost dog from $100 to $500 in early July to address "the effects of rising 'pandemic puppy' adoptions and pent up travel demand." At times, Rover increases the amount or applies other resources "if we believe doing so could materially increase the likelihood of quickly reuniting a pet with their family," he said.

That change came late for owners like Morgan and Elizabeth Snell, whose terrier mix Tony went missing in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 4. After CNN Business asked whether Rover would offer the $500 amount to pet owners whose dogs are still missing, and specifically mentioned Morgan's Zorro, the company offered Morgan the $500 amount. Snell said she was offered the larger contribution after her story was featured on local news. ("This update would have been proactively communicated to the pet parent irrespective of press coverage," Rosenbaum said.)

Pandemic dog sitting boom

Founded in Seattle in 2011, Rover is part of a cohort of startups that emerged over the last decade — Uber and Lyft, chief among them — that created marketplaces to connect individuals in need of a particular service with individuals who can provide such a service on a gig-by-gig basis.

The company dominated the sharing economy pet market even as it faced competition from Wag, a rival startup that raised an eye-popping $300 million only to stumble. As CNN Business previously reported, Wag's leadership had struggled to handle fundamental issues facing its business, including growth, customer service and the safety of pets.

Rover weathered the pandemic and arguably emerged stronger this year, thanks to all the people who added canines to their homes and then needed pet walking and sitting services as the country reopened. Rover has increasingly eaten away at Wag's market share, holding 95% of the U.S. share of sales compared to Wag's 5% in June 2021, according to data from Bloomberg Second Measure.

Now, Rover expects to begin trading on the Nasdaq next month through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, which will value the combined company at $1.63 billion and help it continue to expand.

But amid the boom in business, there have also been new reports of missing or killed dogs while in the care of a Rover sitter. In an SEC filing from Nebula Caravel, the company Rover is merging with to go public, one of its risk factors is an acknowledgment that "Rover cannot guarantee the safety of pets, pet care providers, pet parents and third parties."

Like other on-demand companies, Rover requires pet sitters to pass at least a basic background check, which references a sex offender registry, terrorist watchlist, and the National Criminal Database, which has its own limitations, including the fact not all records are digitized. Rover says that sitter profiles are reviewed and approved by the company; applicants also take a basic six-question safety quiz. According to Rover's site, sitters who apply for Rover will receive approval (or be notified that information provided is incomplete) within 24-48 hours.

But some customers question the thoroughness of the background checks. Annette Leturia dropped off her two dogs, 2-year-old Togo and nearly 4-year-old Liam, with a Rover sitter in Houston, Texas, in late June for what was supposed to be a week-long vacation, only to return early after the sitter told her Togo was found dead on the bathroom floor. Afterward, Leturia said she had an independent background check done on the sitter, which turned up troubling charges for grand theft and fraud. She said she still has no closure on what happened to Togo.

In the meantime, based on screenshots viewed by CNN Business, the sitter appears to be pet sitting on the platform. When asked about this, Rosenbaum said: "We have asked our team to review the specifics of this incident and take further action if appropriate."

Morgan, Zorro's owner, also said she discovered her sitter had past criminal charges. Rosenbaum pointed out that cases can change between an initial charge and a final ruling. "In the interest of accuracy and fairness, we must make decisions based on what is legally available to our background check provider and reported to us," he said.

Rover said sitters can choose to apply for a standard ($25) or an enhanced ($35) background check, and pet owners can choose to only hire providers with enhanced checks. The company also said it promotes meet-and-greets with sitters as well as meeting with multiple potential sitters prior to booking.

There is otherwise minimal vetting, training or oversight because workers are treated by the company as independent contractors rather than employees — a classification that could be jeopardized if the company asserted more control over sitters. This factor is a standard complaint about the business model that worries some.

"Whether you're talking about ride share or grocery delivery, there are lots of complaints about poor service. Because these platforms have decided to go down this route of using independent contractors, they actually can't really train people to do a good job or to screen people maybe the way you'd really want them to do it," said Miriam Cherry, a law professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who has studied corporate social responsibility and the gig economy. "It is not a good model if you really care about wanting absolute good quality, knowing you're covered if something goes wrong."

"With a pet," she added, "if things go bad, they can really go bad."

The-CNN-Wire

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