Vast underground pet network draws controversy

Vast underground pet network draws controversy »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Maura Dawgert can't help herself: she giggles with glee when watching her new companion, Sammy, play with his dog toy.

"Sammy is the best dog in the world!" Dawgert said.

She's also the first to admit, her one-year-old pup is a bit of a mystery.

"Sammy is a Labrador terrier mix - we think," Dawgert said with a laugh.

That's because just a few months ago, Sammy was on death row in a county shelter in southern California. She saw the dog on

"I knew that I wanted to get my dog from a kill shelter," Dawgert said.

She browsed other dogs online but Dawgert said she kept coming back to Sammy's picture, an intake photo taken at the shelter.

She decided to foster Sammy in Portland.

"That makes it all worthwhile," Jody Kurilla said, the woman who organized Sammy's trip north.

Kurilla is the founder of Underdog Railroad Rescue, based in Portland, which saves dogs almost exclusively from high-kill shelters in San Bernardino, California. That's about 1,000 miles away from Portland. Kurilla estimated that she's saved 400 or 500 since founding the rescue in 2012.

"One dog at a time," Kurilla said.

Her mission is simple: "Letting these dogs have a life that they deserve."

It's also her way of making a dent in California's staggering pet overpopulation problem coupled with Portland's shortage of pets, thanks to a successful spay and neuter program in Oregon.

"We keep our rescues small. I would say it's a boutique rescue in that sense," Kurilla said. "I can't keep up!"

On a usual week, about one to two dogs arrive at her home from out of the area. Kurilla said she works with several rescues, including Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals (OFASA), and California-based Angels N Paws, and Wings of Rescue. Kurilla said the So-Cal rescues "pull" the dogs from the shelters, provide the veterinary care and make the roughly 17-hour trip (or short flight) to Portland.

Once the dogs are in Oregon, Kurilla finds them fosters and families like Dawgert.

Kurilla rescued three shelter-dogs of her own from California, including Fifi, Fang and Killer. She said Fifi was the first dog she adopted from down south and became the inspiration for her rescue. Since then, she's been featured for her efforts to save dogs facing death in So-Cal in area newspapers.

"It's a pipeline," Kurilla said. "I think it is a good thing; the dogs are being saved."

On the West Coast, the pipeline stretches far south as Mexico and as far north as Canada.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, "Dog relocation efforts increased exponentially after Hurricane Katrina affected Mississippi and Louisiana in 2004. Suddenly, the number of displaced and homeless dogs in those states far outstripped the resources available to care for them. Shelters in areas as far away as Oregon and New England stepped up to help and received these dogs. Relationships and lines of communication established during these relocation efforts laid the groundwork for ongoing transports."

Last year, 5,175 cats and dogs from out of the area were brought to the greater Portland area for new homes. That's according to data kept by the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland (ASAP), a coalition of six metro-area shelters including the Oregon Humane Society.

Well-managed "humane relocation" programs help to put sterilized pets in homes, cut into pet store sales, and make funding available for pet sterilization in the communities whose shelters provide the animals.

Others, however, argue that the good intentions of those who support humane relocations are often trumped by a plethora of other problems, particularly for dogs.

"I call this dog trafficking," Patti Strand said, national director and primary spokesperson of the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA). "It's just totally an underground economy. It's a black market in dogs."

Strand is the founder of NAIA, based in Portland, and has tracked animal trends all over the country since her organization was founded in 1991. A longtime board member of the American Kennel Club and Dalmatian breeder, Strand insists pet pipelines are often breeding grounds for animal neglect and disease that could threaten public health. She also believes it undermines responsible dog ownership and sustains pet overpopulation.

"If there are no programs put in at the source, are you really saving a life or are you just transferring the problem?" Strand said. "One of my biggest is that we're not solving the problem at the source, creating a dynamic in which we can guarantee that this problem will continue forever."

Then there's the business side of the pet pipeline. For every well-intentioned rescue like Kurilla's, Strand contends there are just as many transport services - essentially, drivers- and pilots-for-hire - who say they're saving pets but really are just cashing in by hauling hundreds of cats or dogs like commodities. The NAIA researched cases where drivers in Connecticut dropped off dogs in parking lots - no paperwork, no questions asked. Strand believes the trend is happening in Oregon too.

"There are a lot of people that are making a lot of money in this. They're on Facebook and Craigslist and Petfinder - they're everywhere you look! You find these dogs and they're offered from $200 - $800," Strand said. "I think at a certain point, when you are bringing in dogs by the thousands, you're maintaining inventory. I no longer see the humane connection."

That humane connection is a huge concern for animal activists. The NAIA highlighted examples all over the country but in Oregon, specifically pointed to a neglect case stemming from a raid of the Willamette Animal Rescue near Salem.

In January 2013, Willamette Animal Rescue's warehouse was exposed and raided by local law enforcement. Inside, authorities found 149 dogs living in squalor. There were as many as five kept in kennels meant for one. In some cases, waste ran down and pooled on the floor. Some dogs had open sores on their bodies. Others were emaciated with cages full of feces and urine.

The rescue's president, Alicia Inglish was arrested, along with two other board members, Merissa Noonan and Ashley Oakland. At the time, they faced more than 100 counts of animal neglect.

Strand said she knows of people who adopted dogs from Willamette Animal Rescue prior to the raid but later ended up disappointed because the dog had temperament or health problems. She said adopting an animal whose health conditions have not been disclosed can be devastating for families.

"That's not to say that saving a life isn't a very worthy goal but it's not the only value that has to be considered," Strand said.

The On Your Side Investigators learned pet transport in Oregon is largely unregulated. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is responsible for making sure dogs and cats that come to Oregon pass a vet inspection - called a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection to prevent the spread of disease - but that's it.

While the state does have laws on the travel conditions for pets, there's no one at the state to enforce them. The ODA also told KATU that no one at the state level tracks pet relocations.

Not only that, the ODA relies on local agencies to enforce animal abuse and neglect laws.

In an email, spokesman for the ODA, Bruce Pokarney said, "We do not have the staff to do the enforcement but do rely on local law enforcement agencies and the Oregon Humane Society itself (which has been given some enforcement authority under state law) to take care of it."

So KATU took our questions about health and safety back to Kurilla. She can't be there every step of the way during a transport so how can she - like so many other rescue organizations - ensure the pets are healthy and treated humanely?

"It's 17 hours and I know that the dogs are being fed and watered, and I know that the dogs have blankets and are being well taken care of," Kurilla said.

For her part, Kurilla said she backgrounds each of the handful of Southern California rescues she works with, requires all veterinary documents, as well as an application and contract for anyone taking animals home. Kurilla says, she follows up with the fosters and owners. 
"I trust that I have done my due diligence to make sure that the organizations that I am working with are legitimate," Kurilla said. "We have a responsibility to these animals, to take care of them."

Dawgert said she received all of Sammy's paperwork - including all vet care - and was willing to look past Sammy's minor "unknowns" like his breed. After two months of fostering, Dawgert officially adopted Sammy this week.

"No matter what his temperament was, I probably would have kept him anyways," Dawgert said. "He's my dog, I just feel really bonded to him."


No matter if you're adopting from a rescue, shelter or breeder, Kurilla offered these tips to help ensure your pet comes from a reputable source.


  • Rescue/Breeder should require an application, and should require references and a vet reference with a release of records/information to the rescue of previous and current pets.
  • Rescue/Breeder should require a home inspection.


  • All dogs should have Bordetella and DHLPP (distemper/parvovirus) vaccinations from the shelter, and then a DHLPP booster within 4-6 weeks for dogs over 1 year, or by recommendation of your vet. For puppies there should be a series of 3 vaccinations (check with your vet for schedule).
  • All dogs should be spayed/neutered. If under 4 months, the rescue should have in the contract the dog will be spayed/neutered by 6 months (shelters often require this at 4 months) and proof will be provided to rescue.
  • Rabies for dogs over one year of age.
  • Animal should be micro-chipped, should have a flea treatment and deworming before adoption.


Shelter papers and vet records should be given with the dog/cat at the time of the contract signing.