Goodwill mission ends with dog deaths

November 6, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
It was supposed to be a second chance for more than 80 dogs in the overcrowded Lindsay Animal Shelter, but a four thousand mile rescue attempt ended with death and a bitter blame game.More than 80 dogs from the Lindsay Animal Shelter were just days away from being euthanized when they were loaded up in vans and taken to rescue and foster organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But the Minnesota woman who organized the effort says dozens of dogs died just before and after this complicated rescue and she says the shelter is at fault.

Lindsay's Animal Shelter, like many others in the valley, is constantly dealing with overcrowding. So in June, when a Minnesota rescue organization offered to take more than 80 dogs and pay for their transportation, shelter workers jumped on the opportunity. "I think it was unprecedented for the valley? I don't know of anyone that has been able to take 70 or 80 dogs in one day out of a shelter. That literally reduced the population by 50 percent or more," said former shelter employee B.J. Motko, who helped organize the rescue.

The goal was to get the animals to rescue and foster organizations in Wisconsin and Minnesota and then find them permanent homes. The massive effort, costing $10 thousand dollars, was financed by Britt Gage, who helps run an animal rescue organization called Puppy Porch. Gage and Motko met through an animal rescue website. "What could have been a really good thing went downhill very quickly. We had an incredible amount of infectious disease sent and it crossed over 7 state lines," said Gage.

Gage contacted the southern California based non profit organization "CAN-DO" to take the animals across the country. CAN-DO says no dogs died during the trip and Gage insists it's the Lindsay Animal Shelter that didn't hold up its end of the deal. "We've lost a lot of dogs we didn't expect to lose. 28, that should have never happened," said Gage.

Gage claims the shelter gave them sick animals, with diseases they should have noticed and treated beforehand. Gage says 17 dogs died in the weeks following the transport. The results of one puppy's necropsy showed he died of the virus distemper. Gage says 8 of his siblings also died, though she could only provide one necropsy. Gage also claims the rescue groups lost thousands of dollars trying to save the animals. "It's been heart wrenching for the rescues because they've put so much effort and love and care into these dogs? and to keep losing them and losing them and losing them," said Gage.

Lindsay's Police Chief Rich Wilkinson also serves as the director of the Lindsay Animal Shelter. He says Gage has turned the rescue into a personal vendetta. "The issue of trying to make something so great into something so bad because two dogs were left behind that she wanted. That's where it stemmed. Our first interaction or conversation after the rescue took place, she was furious about two dogs not being on the transport," said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson says the dogs gage wanted stayed behind because of health and biting concerns. "To you and I, to reasonable folks, to logical folks, that seems ridiculous, but the issue behind this is so emotionally fueled," said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson says every animal that comes into his shelter is vaccinated. He also disputes Gage's claim that so many animals died because he's never seen any proof. Wilkinson says a couple dogs did have some upper-respiratory infections and a few suffered from mange, but he says Gage told him to send them anyway because vets were ready to treat them. "Ms. Gage got what she asked for, we did not send any animals that were gravely ill knowing they were so ill they wouldn't make the trek, or that there was a risk to infect other animals, that was not the case," said Wilkinson.

There are safeguards in place to prevent the spread of disease across state lines but they were not followed in this rescue. Action News has learned there were no health certificates signed by a vet, which are required when animals are brought into Minnesota. Gage says the certificates were the shelter's responsibility, but Chief Wilkinson says Gage never asked for them or informed them of the requirement. Motko agrees there was never any discussion about the certificates and getting them would have been financially and logistically impossible.

Motko is no longer with the shelter. She says she was let go just days after the transport. "They thanked me for my assistance, etc., etc. The timing was pretty interesting," said Motko. But Wilkinson says Motko knew her position was temporary. He says Gage has launched an attack against the shelter without stepping foot inside.

The blame game aside -- the rescue did save lives. "It was a wonderful thing for the dogs that made it out alive," said Motko.

Gage thinks the Lindsay Animal Shelter should be shut down and in the months following the rescue she's worked to launch an investigation by the Tulare County Grand Jury. Wilkinson also invited the grand jury into the shelter following the rescue. He says they have nothing to hide.



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