Questions arise when puppies die days after adoption from Norwich nonprofit

  • Duke, left, and Piper, are Labrador-retriever mix puppies rescued from Puerto Rico that died days after their adoption from an Upper Valley animal-rescue program. (Courtney Hardy photographs) Courtney Hardy photographs

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2019 11:12:49 PM
Modified: 11/22/2019 3:04:31 PM

STRAFFORD — Three disappointed dog owners are questioning the health protocols of a Norwich-based nonprofit after two rescue puppies died within days of being adopted.

In addition to mourning their new pets, Strafford residents Danielle Robinson and Jeremy Kawalec and former Enfield resident Natalie Perrault incurred hundreds of dollars in veterinarian bills having the dogs — Labrador-retriever-mix siblings named Duke and Piper — treated and euthanized.

“You need to make sure they’re healthy, or at least cleared or declared healthy,” Perrault, who lives in the Northeast Kingdom, said in interview on Thursday. “This puppy was sick before I even got her.”

Both dogs were adopted from Student Rescue Project, which relies on young volunteers to rescue dogs in Puerto Rico and relocate them to the Upper Valley for adoption.

While the rescue project has not decided whether to refund the families’ adoption fees and reimburse some of the veterinary expenses pending an investigation, founder and executive director Aimee Goodwin is defending the nonprofit’s medical-screening procedures.

“It’s a horrible, painful and sort of strange coincidence,” Goodwin said earlier this week. “I think that our policies and procedures work. I trust our vet, and the information we’ve been given about the puppies.”

Before taking home the puppies in late October, the two families signed Student Rescue Project’s standard “adoption health contract.”

The waiver alerts prospective dog owners of the likelihood that their rescue dog “has … been exposed to numerous transmissible parasites” and other conditions on Puerto Rico prior to being rescued.

The contract also states that while the puppies underwent standard treatments during at least 30 days in isolation, “health issues can arise … (that) will become your responsibility to treat after the adoption is complete.”

Goodwin estimated that the program has evacuated 500 dogs from Puerto Rico, including close to 100 in 2019.

Volunteers also are preparing to rescue dogs that survived the hurricane that flattened much of the Bahamas over the summer.

Robinson, Kawalec and Perrault described watching the puppies’ conditions rapidly deteriorate in the days — nine for Piper, 13 for Duke — following adoption.

In an email on Thursday, Robinson said she believed that “Duke was sick for weeks and in hindsight had lower-lying symptoms from the day we adopted him, but none of us knew these small symptoms were that of a much bigger, underlying problem. We believe this could have been prevented.”

The scenario sounds all too familiar to Lisa Dennison, longtime executive director of the Seacoast-based New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Dennison said on Friday that she’s seen many unhappy endings to adoptions of animals from dire backgrounds.

“Mistakes or medical circumstances happen,” Dennison said. “Transferring puppies is always higher-risk than older dogs. They’re much more vulnerable. They’re handled by multiple people and they come from high-stress environments. Animals are living, breathing creatures, just like people. There are no guarantees. If we didn’t take the risk, nobody would be saved.”

Duke and Piper were among a group of dogs rescued in late summer.

The animals were first shipped to New Jersey, where they spent several days in quarantine.

Goodwin acknowledges that both Duke and Piper were suffering respiratory problems when they arrived in the Upper Valley.

For the next 2½ weeks, the dogs lived with Kawalec’s stepmother, Courtney Hardy, of South Strafford, who volunteers to provide foster care for the rescue dogs prior to adoption.

Goodwin said the project’s veterinarian, Dr. Abigail Fisher, oversaw treatment. Fisher declined to comment when contacted this week.

While Goodwin and Hardy both said that treatment with antibiotics seemed to help the puppies for a while, they disagreed on whether the dogs were ready to advance from foster care to their forever homes.

Piper in particular, Hardy said on Wednesday, “had another low-grade fever” on Oct. 27, the day Perrault drove down from the Northeast Kingdom to meet the dog and fill out an adoption application.

Perrault said she was aware that Piper had been ailing, but she was shocked a week later when her own veterinarian diagnosed the dog with pneumonia and a stomach full of gravel. She rushed Piper across the state to the Burlington Emergency & Veterinary Specialists clinic.

“When we got there, (Piper) was just screaming,” Perrault said. “She urinated on the floor and there was blood all over the place. The vet there said, ‘This is the sickest dog I’ve seen in 16 years.’ ”

Faced with the prospect of spending upward of $7,000 for a full rescue effort, Perrault euthanized Piper, despite the bond she and her teenage daughters formed with the puppy during her week with them.

Robinson said that Duke seemed frisky at first.

“Within the first week of our adopting Duke, he knew how to sit, paw and lay down,” she said. “He was a great puppy.”

Then at 4 a.m. on Nov. 7, Duke’s new owners brought him to the Small Animal Veterinary Emergency and Specialty clinic in Lebanon, which diagnosed the puppy with liver failure and prepared him for the trip to the same Burlington clinic.

There, Robinson said, they started discussing end-of-life options.

“He wasn’t looking good, so we said our goodbyes. Jeremy held him while they put him to sleep,” Robinson said.

This isn’t the first time health concerns have been raised about the dogs Student Rescue Project brings to the Upper Valley.

In 2017, Goodwin’s group, then known as Surfin’ Satos, suspended imports of rescue dogs from Puerto Rico after a relocated puppy was diagnosed with leptospirosis, a zoonotic disease that can result from drinking contaminated water. Two dogs had to be euthanized.

It was that incident that led Student Rescue Project to develop its current protocol.

“Since then,” Goodwin said, “we haven’t had a problem with anything communicable.”

As a precaution, humans and animals, including Hardy’s own five dogs, who came in contact with Piper and Duke have been tested for any possible contagions. She said two of her dogs developed diarrhea and other symptoms before being put on antibiotics.

“Knock on wood,” Hardy said, “everybody seems to be better.”

David Corriveau can be reached at


An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the  Student Rescue Project has agreed to refund adoption fees and reimburse veterinary expenses related to two puppies that had to be euthanized shortly after being adopted. The nonprofit organization says a decision on the matter will be made after both an internal investigation and an investigation by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, which received complaints from the families that adopted the dogs.

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