MISSION, Kan. — Gillian Gollehon, a Lenexa resident, sat in her car outside Unleashed Pet Rescue in Mission, gagging.
She had just picked up a dog named Dexter to take home and foster. She said she couldn’t even close her car door due to a terrible stench lingering on the animal.
“They brought out Dexter and as soon as that door opened, I was like, ‘Pew,’” she said.
Her concerns about the smell were soon overshadowed by what she saw once she took off Dexter’s vest to give him a bath.
The vest he was wearing, known as a Thundershirt, is typically worn by dogs struggling with anxiety. Gollehon said it was so tight, she couldn’t get it off without cutting it with a pair of scissors.
“As I was cutting, the smell just kept getting worse and worse, and we had to stop a few times,” she said. “Her (Gollehon’s daughter) and I were just gagging cause we’re like, ‘Oh my god, what is this?’”
Gollehon said the vest was gooey and wet. After peeling the vest off Dexter, what she found shocked her and her daughter to their cores.
“It’s like red and wet and skin,” she said. “It’s just like irritated skin and no hair.”
When Gollehon reached the shelter a few hours later, she had gone from upset to angry.
“’How many of you walked past his kennel and ignored that smell? Or does the shelter stink so bad that you guys couldn’t recognize that something was wrong?'” she recalled asking.
Gollehon is one of eight people who spoke to FOX4 Problem Solvers concerned about Unleashed Pet Rescue, many of them providing photos and videos showing dog bowls full of cockroaches, injured or sick animals and a behind-the-scenes look at the employee-only sections of the building, one of those areas being where they house the dogs.
Gollehon, who has fostered over 20 dogs from Unleashed Pet Rescue, said even she has never been allowed to walk through areas of the shelter where dogs reside. But those who have are now sharing their stories.
“There were too many dogs to adequately take the best care of them and get them out of their small spaces for more than, I mean, some of them only got out 15 minutes total of the day,” Karen Swanson, former manager at Unleashed Pet Rescue, said.
Swanson said she quit the job last year, citing overcrowding and poor management as key factors in her decision to leave.
“If anyone talked about there being too many dogs, she (the owner) would show us pictures of dogs that she refused to take and tell us how now those dogs are dead because we didn’t take them, so she wasn’t very open to hearing about the actual reality of our situation,” Swanson said.
Another former employee said while she was working there, two dogs escaped and were hit by cars. She blamed broken shelter doors that she says staff struggled to keep repaired.
“I just don’t see the love or the passion there anymore, or dogs wouldn’t be getting hit by cars because of reasons that could have been, should have been, prevented and still is a problem,” said Terra Merys, a former employee.
Danielle Reno, owner of Unleashed Pet Rescue, said she doesn’t recall any situation where dogs were hit by cars.
“Every once in a while, dogs have gotten loose just like they would anywhere else, and if they do get loose, we find them and bring them home,” Reno said.
Reno acknowledged that there are problems, including what happened to Dexter.
“One of our employees placed a ThunderShirt on him to help with his anxiety, but because he drools, it was wet right here (chest) and rubbed his skin raw,” she said.
She said the shirt should have been changed daily. The employee was disciplined and new procedures have been adopted, she said.
Reno invited Problem Solvers on a tour of the facility to prove how clean it is. At the time, there were 37 adult dogs in the shelter.
That’s not including the number of kittens, puppies and adult cats housed in the shelter. It also doesn’t include animals currently located in foster care.
But a six-year review of state inspection reports from the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Animal Health reveals that for Unleashed Pet Rescue, 37 dogs is remarkably low.
In 2022 alone, Unleashed Pet Rescue was inspected at least five times. During each inspection, data shows the number of adult dogs housed in the shelter never stayed below 65.
In March, the facility had 91 adult dogs. In September, it had 89, state inspections showed.
Swanson said she worked there between January and April of 2022. She said there were anywhere from 80 to 100 dogs housed in the facility at a time during her employment.
Merys, another former employee, said she was employed between November 2021 and April 2022.
“On the board of all the adult dogs in the kennels, upwards of 120 dogs at a time, and that’s not including what was going on with puppies and things like that,” she said. “That was just adult dogs, and I think the biggest number I walked into and opened by myself was 118.”
But Reno denied the numbers regularly getting that high.
“There have been times where it’s been hard and we’ve been extremely full but we work to keep this number (37 dogs) at where it is,” she said.
The shelter was deemed unsatisfactory in October by a state inspector after surfaces, drainage, spacing, ventilation and waste disposal were not in compliance with state code.
There were numerous employees cleaning and caring for the animals when Problem Solvers visited the facility, but our visit was not a surprise. Reno knew we were coming.
“Every dog that you see here would be dead if we didn’t take them here, every single one,” Reno said.
Reno said the facility is working with numerous contractors to get the building up to code. During our visit, a tarp covered the roof, something Reno said she’s trying to raise enough money to pay for.
Despite the efforts Reno says she’s making to improve shelter conditions, long-time supporters, like Gollehon, say they won’t be back.
“I think, ultimately, they need to be held accountable,” Gollehon said. “I feel that there’s no regulation that really is checking on them consistently and I think that they just patch things up when they know somebody’s coming to check them.”
This isn’t the first time Unleashed Pet Rescue has been in the news.
In 2019, one of more than 20 dogs Reno imported from Egypt tested positive for rabies while living with a family that was fostering the dog for Unleashed Pet Rescue. Authorities tested and quarantined all the dogs and found no other cases.
In 2018, Reno was charged with criminal deprivation of property after she refused to return a lost dog back to its owner.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Mission Police Department’s Pet Control Division are currently investigating the shelter. Reno said she and her attorney are fully cooperating.