NEW YORK (Reuters) - Police on Tuesday were investigating whether animal cruelty laws were violated when 100 pets died inside a Petco store in upstate New York that was flooded by Tropical Storm Lee.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights group, said nearly 100 animals, including reptiles, rodents and birds, either starved or drowned at the Johnson City store, which was in a mandatory evacuation zone during the storm.
Jim Myers, Petco's chief executive officer, called the incident an "unfortunate tragedy" in an apologetic message posted on a Petco website.
"Our store in Johnson City is relatively new. We were not operating the last time flooding threatened the community and we misjudged the risk to this location," his message said. "We feel terrible that we did not do more to avoid this tragedy, are truly saddened by what has occurred, and accept full responsibility."
Petco did not respond to efforts to confirm the number of animals that perished.
PETA said Petco's decision to not move the animals from its Johnson City store despite warnings of catastrophic flooding showed a "callous disregard" for the animals' lives.
Johnson City is near Binghamton, where 20,000 people were ordered evacuated on Wednesday before the swollen Susquehanna River flooded on Thursday.
"These animals died slow, agonizing deaths, and those responsible should be prosecuted," PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch said in a statement which urged the Broome County District Attorney to investigate.
Petco staff found no problems at the store last Wednesday night, Myers said, but by Thursday morning found the store flooded with four feet of water in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee and were "unable to enter". When staff were permitted to return to the store on Friday morning, they found some animals had perished, but were able to rescue "the majority," he said.
Police in Johnson City said they had begun a criminal investigation. The Broome County District Attorney did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)