Sick Puppies and Unacceptable Conditions: Former Employees Speak Out About 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.

Former employees of a troubled Connecticut animal rescue say there were told to lie about sick animals and conditions at the facility, and worry that state inspectors didn’t do enough to help.

The founder of Tails of Courage Animal Rescue has been written up twice for animal cruelty and a manager was arrested on similar charges while the rescue was in Danbury.

The rescue is currently under investigation for adopting out sick puppies after reopening in Wolcott this year.

NBC Connecticut Investigates requested and obtained prior investigative documents from the Department of Agriculture into Tails of Courage that show its troubled history. Despite having a history of violations, Tails of Courage continued to receive their animal importer license until they voluntarily surrendered it this summer.

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Former Tails of Courage employees Sian Hirtle and Melanie Dzamko say they’re not surprised when they heard the latest allegations about their former workplace, this time in Wolcott.

“To know that this is a dog that maybe you spent four to five days on trying to help it live and to know that his little, dead body is in the freezer right next to you while you’re adopting out his siblings,” Sian Hirtle pauses shaking her head, reflecting on her experience.

Hirtle and Dzamko say they tried to make a difference while working at Tails of Courage in Danbury.

“I wanted to leave, but if I did I knew the next employee that gets hired in my place is probably just going to go along with it,” said Dzamko, “We were all young, wanted jobs, and wanted to make a difference.”

Both women say their complaints to the rescue’s founder Kristan Exner about the overwhelming number of animals, the conditions, and puppy care were ignored.

“Kristan would make it seem that this is how it is for rescues everywhere,” said Hirle.

“People would ask us, you know, why didn’t we report this? Why didn’t we call anyone else? And the reason why is because the people that we’d be reporting this to would come and inspect our kennel every two months, so we saw them all the time anyway,” said Hirtle, “They knew exactly what was going on.”

Hirtle and Dzamko said that after they quit because they felt they couldn’t change the conditions, they told Danbury detectives about their experience and concerns, like their boss telling them to lie about sick dogs, while police were investigating Exner and Tails of Courage.

“’If it’s positive lie and say it’s negative.’ This is about the parvo test,” read Hirtle from her text messages between her and founder Kristan Exnar, messages she said she gave to police as evidence.

Danbury Police Department’s investigative report notes these same texts, “Exner also texted to (redacted) regarding testing the animals for Parvo: ‘But lie and say it’s negative…’"

“It is hard being 16-17. We’re not veterinarians. We just have the training which has been given to us, which is very little,” said Hirtle.

Earlier this year, animal cruelty charges against manager Krystel Lopez were reduced to reckless endangerment and breach of peace after an investigation into Tails of Courage in Danbury December 2017 led to her arrest.

Lopez was sentenced to two years of probation as part of a plea deal.

According to documents obtained from Danbury Police, they attempted to charge Exner with animal cruelty too, but their arrest warrant was denied.

State Rep. David Michel is the House Democratic Chair for the Legislators for Animal Advocacy Caucus. NBC Connecticut Investigates showed him pictures from past investigations into Tails of Courage that we obtained from a Department of Agriculture documents request.

He said he would never live or let someone else live in those conditions. “Neither my voiceless friends, my cats. I would never. This is horrendous,” he said.

“I’ve heard so many stories where animal cruelty goes to court and then nothing happens, I would say the judicial system, as well as DOAG, I don’t think are doing enough,” said Rep. Michel (D - Stamford).

“We have technically good laws on the books. The cruelty statues are written very broadly,” said animal advocate Annie Hornish, the Connecticut state director of The Humane Society of the United States.

“I think state agencies, animal control officers, need to start enforcing the laws. The courts need to take them a lot more seriously than they have in the past.”

When asked, both Hirtle and Dzamko said they thought the Department of Agriculture was ignoring the issues at Tails of Courage.

“It makes you wonder where else they’re ignoring problems and Tails of Courage the problems were huge,” said Dzamko.

A lawyer for Tails of Courage said no one from the organization is willing to comment at this time.

The Department of Agriculture spokesperson said they couldn’t comment on an active investigation.

They said regulations for animal shelters should soon be put into place under a current law, so they have the ability to do random inspections on animal shelters.

But that law was passed in 2017, and two years later those regulations still are not being enforced.

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