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11 Investigates: Sickened, dead puppies spark outrage, questions

Late last year, a parvo outbreak struck the shelter. Several dogs were sickened and sold to unwitting customers.

TEMPERANCE (WTOL) - A Great Pyrenees stretches out on the cold ground in rural Monroe County, leaving a visitor to wonder whether he is alive or dead.

He ends the debate when he rolls over and rises to his feet.

One of his owners, Whitney Keeler, comes around the corner.

“He’s our guard dog,” she says with a laugh.

The old dog slowly walks away.

The idyllic, farm setting seems an unlikely location for an animal rights’ feud that has erupted in Monroe County, but the site is home to Northbound Hound, a puppy rescue shelter run by Whitney and her husband, Zak.

Late last year, a parvo outbreak struck the shelter. Several dogs were sickened and sold to unwitting customers.

11 Investigates has identified at least six puppies that have died since the shelter opened in May. Dozens of other dogs have endured painful – and expensive – bouts with the gastrointestinal virus or infestation with worms or other parasites.

“In November of 2018, we did have a parvo outbreak we experienced. You can read about parvo all you want, but until you are in the trenches dealing with it, it is not something you can adequately prepare for,” Zak Keeler said. “We own up to it. Unfortunately, about a dozen dogs infected with parvo made it out for adoption. We tried to make it right by offering full refunds or offering to bring them back here for treatment.”

But those words mean little to the families affected by a sick puppy adopted from the shelter.

On Nov. 6, Northbound Hound was registered by the state of Michigan as an approved animal housing facility or shelter. At the same time, an adopted beagle died from the parvo outbreak.

On Northbound Hound’s Facebook page, the page administrator lists the facility as a state licensed shelter. The use of “license” gives the air of greater regulation than truly exists.

The register is a way for the state to keep track of its 187 shelters and ensure they undergo future inspections. The state can refuse to add a shelter to the register, but that was not done with Northbound Hound, despite it being in the midst of a parvo outbreak that was killing dogs and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development receiving numerous complaints from customers.

For Monroe’s Peggy Langford, her internet search revealed that Northbound Hound was on the Michigan registry.

“I’m thinking that they are a shelter and they are licensed by the state of Michigan,” she said.

After taking more than a year and half to heal from the broken heart of losing her longtime pet, Langford visited the facility on Dec. 14 and took home a huskie/poodle mix, Missy, who stole her heart. Days later, her life was immediately changed.

“I came home, and as soon as I opened up the garage door to come in the house, I knew something wasn’t right. There was an awful smell,” she said. “I opened up the crate, and she was covered with her diarrhea and vomit.”

Missy had an extreme strain of parvo and spent a week in the hospital, racking up close to $10,000 in bills for Langford.

“The day after Christmas, the hospital called and said they need to keep her another day. I said, ‘I can’t. I’m tapped out.’”

Missy survived, but Peggy and her husband spent the next several nights staying up all night, alternating who was responsible for giving her five different medications.

Mia Seragusa of Luna Pier, Mich., wasn’t as “lucky.” Her family purchased a German shepherd on Nov. 24. Within hours of bringing her home, Aurora was vomiting.

“It seemed as though she was on the verge of vomiting up her intestines,” Seragusa said.

After racing her to the pet hospital, Seragusa was told by the vet that he had never seen such a severe case of parvo.

She took Aurora back to Northbound Hound for treatment, and the puppy died days later.

“I have a lot of guilt for doing that,” Seragusa said.

Keeler said he feels heartbroken every time he hears of a puppy dying.

He and his wife opened the shelter in May, after Whitney heard a story on National Public Radio about a feral puppy problem in the south. Keeler went to college in Tennessee and was sometimes chased by feral dogs while on his bike.

He said Northbound Hound has rescued and adopted out more than 500 puppies since May, often pulling abandoned puppies from under porches or alongside country roads in Kentucky.

“With a breeder, the dogs have built-in immunity. The parents are vaccinated,” Keeler said. “With rescues, the parents are almost never vaccinated. They are vaccinated the day we get them. It’s a condensed process and the puppies are much more susceptible to disease.”

That explanation is not accepted by a vocal online community. At least two Facebook groups, totaling more than 775 followers, have been created to speak out against the Temperance shelter. During the November outbreak, several commenters said customers were not given veterinarian information by Keeler, leading some to wonder if the puppies were actually getting vaccines.

Keeler told 11 Investigates that he has been protective of the identities of his vets because of the online harassment and because many vets do not like to work with rescues. In his registration application and on a Jan. 10 inspection report, Keeler lists Dr. Dawn Hanusz as the shelter vet. Keller said he worked with her for awhile before she inexplicably dropped them as a customer.

Dr. Hanusz would not agree to an on-camera interview, but she disputed Keeler’s explanation in an email:

“I have been advised by my lawyer, due to possible pending legal action by us against Northbound Hound, to not speak on this matter other than to state I am not, nor have I ever been, the shelter veterinarian for Northbound Hound or its owners.”

When confronted with what seems to be the misrepresentation on a state application, Pollyanne McKillop, who oversees MDARD’s animal shelters, offered a head-scratching response about the requirements of shelters when it comes to listing a veterinarian.

“The regulation requires them to name one on file. It doesn’t require them to have a client-patient relationship,” McKillop said.

Keeler’s critics point to the application that Keeler is disingenuous, but McKillop and other state officials insist that Northbound Hound has done everything asked of them.

Recently, a quarantine area has been built in the Keelers’ garage, and they are expecting to briefly shut down while making additional changes required by the state.

“It’s a difficult situation. We put our heart, soul and tears into these animals. In the end, we’ve rescued hundreds of dogs in the past year. The vast majority of the dogs are still happy and healthy in their home.” Keeler said. “Unfortunately, we can’t go back and change what happened. But I can change the future and ensure that doesn’t happen again.”

Though there has not been another widespread parvo outbreak, dogs are still getting ill.

11 Investigates has been contacted by several people whose puppies have gotten sick after a recent purchase. Many of those puppies have sickened other dogs in the homes, leading to vet bills that run into the thousands.

Toledo’s Kristy Scsavnicki and her mother adopted dogs. Now, all six of the families’ dogs have been diagnosed with parasites.

“I want them to be closed. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through dealing with a sick puppy,” Scsavnicki said.

Keeler explained it as the risk of adopting a dog who was pulled from a dangerous environment.

His critics said he could be doing more – a lot more. Some of those critics have said Michigan should be doing more, including holding shelters accountable for selling sick dogs or educating the public about the risks of buying a “rescue” puppy.

For Langford, she is, obviously, happy that Missy has recovered, though that recovery has wreaked havoc on her household finances.

“If I didn’t adopt her, she wouldn’t be here,” Langford said. “People have said to me, when she had parvo, ‘Why didn’t you put her down?’ She was just eight weeks old. She’s just starting her life, and I feel like I had to give her a chance.”