The joy of adopting a golden retriever three months ago quickly turned into a nightmare for Diane and Greg Nelson of Olathe.
“We thought he was going to die,” Diane Nelson said recently. “It was such an emotional roller coaster.”
The couple adopted Howie from the Forever Friends Animal League unaware that the Northland no-kill shelter’s operations manager had been cited repeatedly for neglect, cruelty and keeping animals in unsanitary conditions.
Now there are questions about whether that manager should have been running the Clay County facility at all. A year ago, she signed court documents agreeing not to run any kind of shelter for five years in Missouri.
Earlier this month, authorities seized 68 dogs and cats from the shelter in a strip center at 7801 North Oak Trafficway. Police, city animal control workers and staff from the Missouri Department of Agriculture found the animals being kept in dirty kennels. There was a lack of food and clean water, authorities said. The cages contained piles of waste.
Kansas City officials said it was the first time the animal control division confiscated animals from a commercial establishment.
State authorities have since pulled the animal shelter’s operating permit. No new municipal citations have been issued, but local animal control workers are continuing to investigate. Some of the animals, which were sent to the city’s animal shelter, are being treated for upper respiratory infections and other illnesses.
Forever Friends’ operating manager, Debbie Sharts, has six pending Kansas City municipal citations for neglect and operating violations. Sharts, who declined to comment, is also appealing five other citations in Clay County Circuit Court. Her attorney, David Pettyjohn, could not be reached for comment.
Nelson said she and her husband have spent hundreds of dollars to treat Howie for parvovirus, a highly contagious infection of the intestinal tract that can be deadly. Howie contracted the illness from a litter mate at the shelter, she said.
Since local authorities seized the shelter’s animals, The Star has received multiple phone calls and emails from former shelter customers who said they were not aware the pets they adopted were ill until they got the animals home.
Brittany Carter of Kansas City said she spent $250 to adopt a Saint Bernard-boxer mix in September, but the puppy became ill with a severe upper respiratory ailment. Concerned that the dog had a ailment that could infect her children, Carter spent $210 more to have the puppy treated.
“It was absolutely horrible,” said Carter, who returned the dog eight days after the adoption. The next day, Carter said, she saw the same puppy available for adoption on the Forever Friends website.
“I was disgusted. I cannot believe they would do that; clearly the puppies were for a profit,” she said. “Then they failed to mention his illnesses.”
Sharts previously operated Forever Friends out of her home in Holt, Mo., in nearby Clinton County, according to state records. The state shut down her operations and ordered her to get rid of all her animals except 20 cats. She agreed not to acquire any new animals or operate any kind of shelter or pet store for five years.
She was ordered to pay a $19,000 fine. However, payment of $17,000 of that would have been waived had she met conditions of the agreement.
If she failed to comply, the agreement says, she would face fines ranging from $100 to $500 each day she was not in compliance.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture is investigating whether Sharts violated the agreement. The case may be sent to the Missouri attorney general’s office for more action, said Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster.
Kansas City had received numerous complaints about Forever Friends, said Patrick Egberuare, manager of the Animal Health and Public Safety Division, which routinely responds to residential animal neglect and hording cases.
“It was a very bad situation,” Egberuare said. “We impounded the animals based on the cruelty that we witnessed.”
Many animal groups try to place homeless animals, but some find themselves overwhelmed with the task of taking care of them, said Tammy deLisser, president and CEO of the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City.
“You get in over your head, and then you don’t have the resources to take care of the animals,” said deLisser, whose group was not involved with the Forever Friends investigation. “But I think ultimately, it starts with the mentality that you want to save so many animals, and then you get yourself into a situation where it is a little overwhelming.”
Nelson said she and her husband decided to adopt Howie after their 9-year-old golden retriever, Sammie, died from cancer in May. They wanted to give their other dog a new playmate.
After searching online, Nelson found Howie available for adoption from Forever Friends. Nelson said the agency kept Howie in a pen with another puppy that may have been sick. Howie became sick the same day Nelson took him home.
Howie made numerous trips to different veterinarians after his condition worsened. He eventually developed pneumonia. His treatment included antibiotics, being kept in an incubator and receiving intravenous fluids to avoid dehydration.
“Parvo is usually a death sentence,” Nelson said. “It was sad and very scary because we didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
Howie got better after several weeks. Nelson said she doesn’t regret their investment.
“When I signed the papers to adopt him, I was accepting responsibility for him and I fell in love with him,” Nelson said.