Sick Puppies and Unacceptable Conditions: Documents Show Troubled History of Connecticut Animal Rescue

NBC Connecticut Investigates requested and obtained prior investigative documents from the Department of Agriculture into Tails of Courage, which reveal that State Animal Control Officers have had eyes on the rescue for years.

An animal rescue that was shut down in Danbury is under investigation after reopening in Wolcott. Police there started their inquiry into Tails of Courage after someone claimed their new puppy died just hours after it was adopted from the rescue this summer.

During their initial search of their rescue, police say they discovered sick puppies in their care.

NBC Connecticut Investigates requested and obtained prior investigative documents from the Department of Agriculture into Tails of Courage. According to the documents received, State Animal Control Officers have had eyes on the rescue for years.

When you sift through the hundreds of pages of prior reports, you have to ask, how can a rescue with repeated violations continue to run in Connecticut? It’s a question the Kaplans have been wondering since their experience with Tails of Courage.

“I couldn’t even listen to what the doctor was saying because he was like…I just...,” said Emily Kaplan, shaking her head and tearing up.

Emily’s dad Dean finished his daughter’s thought, “The dog shouldn’t have to go through any more of this, let’s put her down.”

In June 2017, Dean Kaplan says he caved and let his daughter adopt a dog. They went to Tails of Courage, then located in Danbury. Days after picking her up, they had to put Callie down.

“How can someone not care at all about another living being like that? I just…,” said Emily, again shaking her head.

Two years later, Connecticut residents are sharing similar sentiments after adopting from Tails of Courage at their latest location in Wolcott.

“He was completely limp and soiled himself. Absolutely horrible,” said Jillian Wanner of Bristol. Wanner told police she had to give Louie CPR just hours after adopting him. Her report to Wolcott Police sparked local animal control to investigate the facility.

“I can’t fathom that people who claim to be rescuing dogs would do the complete opposite and put them in a situation where it’s dirty and diseases can be easily communicable and it’s horrible,” said Wanner.

Click here for full screen view of timeline

According to Department of Agriculture reports, in 2013 and 2014, Tails of Courage founder Kristan Exner received written warnings for a violation of 53-247 C.G.S Cruelty to Animals (a) proper care.

In 2013, animal control officers wrote in the conclusion of their investigation report that “two puppies were found in need of medical care and kennel sanitation needed improvement” and “Some outside runs contained several piles of feces and still had snow inside,” among other things.

In 2014 they wrote witnessing “four soaking wet puppies contained in a wet run with no area to get dry,” “no heat source to keep the temperatures reasonable to promote health and comfort to puppies.” They wrote, "No puppy was observed to be sick, but conditions were inadequate for these puppies."

According to a Department of Aagriculture spokesperson, after that 2014 warning “no civil or criminal penalties were sought.”

Following up on a complaint in December of 2017, animal control officers say they found 61 animals at Tails of Courage. Paperwork and pictures detail dirty, “unacceptable conditions,” thirsty and crying animals, some in cages too small for them.

“There was only one kennel worker with 60 dogs. It’s impossible for a human being to take care of that,” said former Tails of Courage employee Melanie Dzamko, who was there the day the order to remove the animals came down at the beginning of January 2018.

Eventually Tails of Courage manager Krystal Lopez was charged with cruelty to animals in 2018. In February 2019, she pled guilty to reckless endangerment and breach of peace in exchange for 2-years-probation as a plea deal.

In court the judge questioned how she could still work for the shelter, “she still continues to work there which just absolutely boggles my brain that you continue working there.”

According to a report obtained from Danbury Police, after a two-month investigation Danbury Police wanted to arrest the founder for cruelty to animals, but their arrest warrant was denied.

Tails of Courage set up shop in Wolcott earlier this year after the City of Danbury agreed to drop a civil lawsuit against the shelter for health and zoning violations if they promised to no longer conduct business in the town, according to counsel for the city.

Despite her conviction, Lopez is listed in paperwork for their latest location in Wolcott, now under investigation for adopting out sick pups there earlier this summer.

NBC Connecticut Investigates reached out to Tails of Courage, but they declined an interview and did not issue a statement.

We repeatedly asked the Department of Agriculture spokesperson for the commissioner to do an interview with us about monitoring animal shelters in our state. A spokesperson for the department said they couldn’t comment on Tails of Courage, as it’s part of an active investigation. The spokesperson said the commissioner would speak once registration regulations for animal shelters are further along in the approval process. These regulations are expected to give the state the ability to do random inspections on all animal shelters. The law creating these regulations was passed in 2017 (HB 6334, AN Act Requiring the Registration of Animal Shelters). Two years later, those regulations have yet to be approved.

Hear from former employees who say they were pressured to lie about sick puppies, and why some advocates are calling for stricter laws in the second part of this investigation.

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