Redemption Paws shipped ‘difficult’ rescue dogs to Newfoundland

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The dogs arrived to fanfare, greeted at the airport by a TV news crew. They had been flown to Newfoundland by Redemption Paws, a rescue organization in Toronto that was expanding its charity to “fill the gap for wanted rescue dogs in St. John’s.”

They called the pilot project “Dogs From Away,” and the 10 canines received more than 80 adoption applications within days. “We are very excited to offer dogs a better chance at life,” Redemption Paws wrote on its website.

Karen Liu and Dennis Kam-Thong were excited too. Newfoundland would be a fresh start for their foster dog Mayo, a “puppy in a 70-pound body” that recently bit a woman in their condo elevator. The couple believed the smart but unruly rescue dog just needed the right training and support. Perhaps he would do better away from the frenetic energy of downtown Toronto.

But soon after its splashy debut, the Newfoundland program seemed to fade away. Liu and Kam-Thong were left wondering whatever happened to Mayo.

One year later, they finally know. And the couple says they would have never supported Mayo’s relocation if they understood the fate that Redemption Paws was sending him to.

Karen Liu and Dennis Kam-Thong previously fostered Mayo in Toronto. The couple said they would have never supported the dog's relocation if they understood the fate that Redemption Paws was sending him to.

While Dogs From Away was billed as an opportunity for Newfoundlanders to help dogs and “make a difference,” internal chat messages obtained by the Star show another motive: To send away “difficult” dogs and breeds that might be illegal in Ontario.

Redemption Paws has come under scrutiny in a recent Toronto Star investigation, where dozens of sources allege the popular rescue is causing harm by importing more dogs than it can responsibly handle.

The rescue is one of Ontario’s largest, taking in nearly 3,000 dogs since late 2017. CEO Nicole Simone, who did not respond to most questions for this article, has denied the allegations and said her rescue operates safely, ethically and responsibly.

Those who love Mayo say his story is just another example of how some dogs are failed by the charity that promised to rescue them.

And in the St. John’s rescue community — where the Dogs From Away program was initially met with “hope and joy” — Sarita Pellowe says she would be happy if Redemption Paws never came back to her island again.

“People warn you about backyard breeders,” said Pellowe, a professional dog trainer. “But they don’t warn you about poorly-run rescue organizations.”

On March 13, 2021, Simone messaged her rescue’s inner circle on Signal, an encrypted chat app: Let’s set up a Newfoundland branch.

“I feel like they’d be more easygoing with some of the more difficult dogs :P,” she wrote to her then-executive director Kyle Hodder and director of operations Jing Kao-Beserve, adding an “:P“ emoticon.

Simone later added: “It would be a way to send off any dogs that might end up falling under bsl,” or breed-specific legislation.

That day, Redemption Paws had received its latest intake of rescue dogs, according to Hodder — and Simone was caught off guard by how many resembled pit bulls, he said.

The rescue’s dogs are primarily from Texas shelters, where pit bulls or pit bull mixes are not uncommon. But Ontario has controversial legislation that bans breeds it considers “pit bulls” or even dogs with “substantially” similar physical characteristics. (Breed-specific bans are widely opposed by veterinary associations and animal welfare groups as ineffective and non-evidence based, putting innocent dogs at risk of being seized or euthanized.)

The timing was not ideal. Just one week earlier, Simone had her first court date for a charge under Ontario’s Dog Owners’ Liability Act. She and Redemption Paws were charged after one of their dogs bit a six-year-old boy in the face in August 2020. (The charges were later withdrawn but the charity was ordered to implement stricter safety measures. The boy required surgery and was hospitalized for over a week.)

Redemption Paws CEO Nicole Simone, seen here in August 2017, has denied allegations the popular rescue is causing harm by importing more dogs than it can responsibly handle.

The day after Simone’s court date, her rescue also learned of a new bite by a Redemption Paws dog.

Mayo, a black Lab mix originally named Felix, was imported from Texas in November 2020 by Redemption Paws. He was handed off to Grace Guma, a first-time dog foster in her mid-20s who lived alone in a downtown highrise.

Her struggles with Mayo began on day one. “He does this thing mid-walk: he gets a crazed look in his eye and starts playing tug of war with the leashes, biting/mouthing at my hands constantly,” she emailed to Redemption Paws.

A dog trainer was sent over the next day. But the hour-long session was the first and last one Guma received, despite her subsequent and increasingly urgent emails asking for help.

Nov. 27: “He looooves to jump a lot. He mouths a lot too … wonder what I should be doing.”

Dec. 7: “(In elevators) he goes wild, jumping on people and trying to bite their things.”

Dec. 18: “It’s getting quite out of control” — followed by Dec. 19: ”Today he really attacked my family members … he broke skin on two of them.”

Dec. 22: “Hi, can someone call me? Mayo bit someone in my lobby just now quite deeply. I’m feeling quite stuck.”

Mayo had bitten a construction worker who tried to pet him. Redemption Paws immediately found a replacement foster, a woman who drove from Hamilton that same day to pick up Mayo.

Guma said the new foster was riding the elevator down with Mayo when he latched onto her arm and refused to let go. The woman went to get her car and said she would come back to collect Mayo — but she never returned. “She was really traumatized,” Guma recalled. “She messaged me (from the car) saying ‘I can’t do this.’”

Guma was terrified. She phoned Redemption Paws’ emergency line but said a woman with the “coldest voice” reprimanded her for calling that number. “(She said) they’re in the middle of an intake.”

The next morning, Guma sent frantic emails to Redemption Paws, asking that Mayo be moved as soon as possible. Her condo manager was now threatening to contact a lawyer if she didn’t get rid of the dog.

The rescue emailed Liu and Kam-Thong, who had just signed up to foster. A volunteer asked the couple if they’d be willing to take a dog named Mayo, who had become “unsettled” and recently “nipped at sweaters and two people’s arms, breaking skin.”

It was the day before Christmas Eve, and Liu and Kam-Thong could see this was an urgent situation. They said yes.

Guma asked Redemption Paws to connect her with Mayo’s new fosters so she could answer their questions and share background information. This never happened, despite her repeated requests.

Over at Liu and Kam-Thong’s condo, it was like someone had hit rewind on the past four weeks of Mayo’s life and pressed play — only this time, with Liu and Kam-Thong in the role of fosters caught unaware.

When they first brought Mayo home from a boarding facility, he jumped all over them in the elevator and clamped onto Liu’s sleeve. On walks, he bit his leash and tugged with astonishing strength, at one point overpowering Liu and forcing her to flag down a passerby for help.

The couple asked Redemption Paws for help and received a virtual session with a dog trainer. But they said it only skimmed the surface of what they needed.

Then, two months after getting Mayo, they sent Redemption Paws a troubling update.

“Mayo had an unfortunate bite incident this morning where a neighbour got too close in the elevator and he bit her leg, arm and hand,” Kam-Thong wrote in an email, attaching photos of multiple puncture wounds. “Please let us know what the protocols are.”

They were instructed to start muzzling Mayo and Redemption Paws promised to scour its application forms to see if the dog had potential adopters. “Will report back to you ASAP.”

There were no takers. Two weeks later, Redemption Paws delivered the surprising news: Mayo was going to Newfoundland.

Rescued dogs from Texas arrive in St. John’s

When Redemption Paws called Sarita Pellowe for help, she quickly grew concerned

Redemption Paws wanted to know if the St. John’s dog trainer was available to work with some rescue dogs they were about to send over. Pellowe launched into her questions — have the dogs been behaviourally assessed? Do any require medical treatment? — but the lack of concrete answers was troubling, she said.

“They still didn’t have fosters lined up,” Pellowe recalled, adding that she declined their offer. “It sounded like a pretty hodgepodge job.”

The Newfoundland program had been thrown together in 18 days. Much of the planning fell to Hodder, who had just been appointed executive director.

Hodder was initially thrilled with the idea. He used to live in Newfoundland and had told Simone about the dearth of rescue dogs in his hometown. At this point, he still saw Redemption Paws through “rose-coloured glasses,” Hodder said. “We were in it to save the dogs, so this is what we have to do.”

But Hodder said he quickly grew disillusioned with the program and, soon, the rescue overall. He quit last July.

Dog rescue is a complex undertaking but the Newfoundland program was so hastily assembled that the necessary infrastructure — supply chains, fosters, veterinarians, trainers — was never established, Hodder said.

“It was very much a mission just to get these specific dogs out of Ontario, and no plan to ever continue that branch in Newfoundland.”

Newfoundlanders, meanwhile, were ill-prepared for what had been foisted upon them, Pellowe said.

She was dismayed by the lack of communication and support provided to fosters, two of whom hired Pellowe as a trainer after adopting their Redemption Paws dogs. Pellowe said one couple was blindsided by the severity of their dog’s behavioural issues and heartworm infection.

But Mayo is the Redemption Paws dog that haunts her still.

Pellowe rents training space at A Dog’s World, a kennel and daycare facility where Mayo was dropped off a few days after arriving in Newfoundland.

He lasted less than a week with his first foster. Mayo had clamped onto her adult stepdaughter’s sleeve and refused to let go.

Hodder said he spoke to the foster over the phone as Redemption Paws scrambled to find somewhere for Mayo to go. “She was crying, she said, ‘I’m driving around right now with Mayo in the back seat because my husband told me not to come home with that dog,’” he recalls. “It’s a horrible position to be put in.”

Mayo lived in the kennel for nearly a month. At one point, he was picked up by a new foster but returned within 24 hours. Pellowe was told the foster struggled with Mayo’s “tendency to suddenly attack” and at one point the dog bit the front of his jacket and tried to drag him down with “violent little shakes,” refusing to let go.

Feeling badly for Mayo, Pellowe took him out of his kennel as much as possible and fell in love with the sweet, smart dog. One of his major issues was “the fact that he was pumped around so much,” she said, adding that he never had a chance to fully decompress and learn in a stable environment.

She said Mayo needed consistent training — and possibly medication — as well as an experienced foster or adopter with the capacity to take him on. “Some dogs can be owned by anybody,” Pellowe said. “And Mayo definitely wasn’t that kind of a dog.”

Sarita Pellowe, a professional dog trainer in St. John's, Nfld., with Mayo, one of the rescue dogs Redemption Paws sent to the province through its Dogs From Away pilot project.

Billy Clarke said he was told very little about Mayo’s behavioural history when he and his partner, Alexandrea Hynes, paid $678 to adopt him in June.

(Their adoption contract mentioned a “noted bite history” but the couple said they received and signed this document on a phone while picking Mayo up at a park, and don’t recall seeing it. Later that day, they received an email confirming the adoption, which included veterinary notes from the contract but contained a blank under the section “Mayo’s behavioural notes.”)

The couple drove seven hours to pick Mayo up from his third foster in St. John’s and bring him home to Corner Brook, a city on the west coast of Newfoundland — Mayo’s eighth relocation since coming to Canada.

Everything was fine until one day, Mayo suddenly latched onto Hyne’s mother’s sweater. He clamped and clamped, eventually getting to her stomach and leaving behind some “pretty bad bruising,” Hynes said.

“I had to take my hands to try and pry his jaw open and it was not happening,” she said. “It was very scary.”

The couple was shocked by the incident but said they remained committed to Mayo, even after he lunged at another relative and bit holes in a veterinary technician’s sleeve. But two months after the adoption, Clarke was offered a job in Saskatchewan and suddenly had to move.

Adopters with Redemption Paws sign a contract promising to notify the rescue when they move. The contract also insists that adopters return their dog if they can no longer care for it.

So Clarke emailed Redemption Paws, explaining that his new job would require full-time hours seven days a week. “The life (he’s) going to have there won’t be much and always cooped up in the house,” he wrote. “I am torn on what to do. I love him dearly but it’s almost a sin to keep him in that state for so long.”

He said Simone wouldn’t take Mayo back into Redemption Paws’ care, however, and made a recommendation that deeply upset him: putting Mayo down.

In a follow-up email, Simone added that Clarke would have to pay for Mayo’s euthanization. “We were transparent with you about the bite history and as explained on our phone conversation, we have the right of refusal to not take the dog back into our care should we feel it has become a public safety concern.”

Liu, who was in touch with Clarke at this point, was appalled by Simone’s response. She felt Redemption Paws never invested in training Mayo after his most serious bites, which took place in Toronto — before he was shipped off to Newfoundland, where many more people welcomed him into their homes and lives. “If he’s a liability, then why did you send him there in the first place?” she said.

Karen Liu and Dennis Kam-Thong with Mayo, a "puppy in a 70-pound body" they fostered for Redemption Paws, a dog rescue and charity in Toronto.

After a final bitter email exchange, Clarke said he stopped hearing from Simone. He and Hynes were left scrambling to find Mayo a new home before they had to move across the country in a matter of weeks.

One of Mayo’s former fosters had a co-worker who agreed to take him in. The woman drove the 14-hour round trip to bring Mayo back to St. John’s, where she tried to find him a new home. After a few weeks, she surrendered Mayo to a local rescue.

It was Mayo’s 10th and final move since he was loaded into a van and brought to Canada by Redemption Paws. In late September, after learning of his extensive bite history, the St. John’s rescue decided to put Mayo down.

In Toronto, Liu and Kam-Thong were left still wondering about the dog. Three months after his death, Liu messaged Simone to ask what happened to Mayo. “Someone locally adopted him,” Simone replied.

In an email response for this story, Simone said she didn’t know Mayo had been euthanized until she was notified by the Star.

“No one told us that he went to another rescue or that he had been euthanized,” she said. “It is deeply disturbing to me the lack of transparency of the information I was told regarding Mayo’s adoption, likely intentionally withheld to suit someone else’s personal agenda.”

Pellowe said she’s angry and heartbroken with what Mayo endured. She wonders how things might have turned out differently if the dog had been given the training and stability he needed back in Toronto. Experts say that being constantly uprooted can exacerbate a dog’s behavioural issues, making them harder to train — and more difficult to adopt out.

“In our industry, we talk a lot about the fact that every time a dog is rehomed, their chances of survival lower significantly,” said Caryn Liles, a professional dog trainer in Toronto with the Centre for Canine Education. “(It) creates chronic stress and abandonment issues. It’s really hard to bounce back from that.”

When Liu learned from the Star that Mayo had actually been euthanized, she broke down in tears. She now believes that Dogs From Away was just a way to “get rid of” dogs like Mayo.

“We all saw he had potential, he just needed to be in the right hands,” she said. “If no one’s setting him up for that success, then really you’re setting him up for failure.”

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