When Niki McConnell saw the Facebook call-out, she thought her family of dog lovers could help. A Toronto charity was urgently seeking volunteers to take in pregnant dogs that needed fostering, and McConnell’s retired parents agreed to step up. “Oh, wouldn’t it be so fun to have puppies,” her mother said.

The black Shar Pei mix that arrived at their door in October 2019 was too terrified to enter the house. Her name was Sophie and the McConnells knew nothing about her past. But judging from the scars all over her body, it was a brutal one.

Sophie’s labour lasted hours. The family stayed up with her until 6 a.m. and when two of the puppies were stillborn, McConnell’s father gave them mouth-to-mouth, shedding tears when they couldn’t be saved.

Four puppies survived the night, and the next morning visitors started trickling in, including McConnell’s nieces, who were daily fixtures at their grandparents’ home.

It was a heartwarming scene — until McConnell heard one of her nieces scream.

“I ran upstairs,” she recalled, “and Sara was standing in the hall with, essentially, a hole in her face.”

Her 15-year-old niece, Sara Asta, was struggling to speak as a flap of flesh hung from her left cheek. The dog had lunged at her face and dragged her to the ground.

Sara was raced to the nearest hospital, where more than 15 stitches were sutured into her face, only to be taken out days later when the wound became infected.

Sophie and her puppies were removed from the home and the family never saw them again. As time passed, McConnell grew angrier. But not at the dog.

Today, McConnell says her family would have never taken Sophie in if they knew what they know now — that she had bitten before and been repeatedly placed in unsafe situations that failed her and the people who care for her.

Sophie was brought to Canada by Redemption Paws, a Toronto charity that rescues dogs “impacted by natural disasters, climate change and the canine overpopulation crisis.”

This feel-good mission has helped turn Redemption Paws into a behemoth in Toronto’s rescue community. The charity describes itself as one of the largest foster-based dog rescues worldwide, pulling more than $1 million in revenue last year, and finding homes for nearly 3,000 dogs rescued from American kill shelters.

“We are pioneers in what we do and the scale we do it, especially in Canada,” CEO Nicole Simone wrote in an email to the Star. “Dogs are not an extension of our ego at Redemption Paws, but our hearts.”

Rescue animals have never been more in demand, and Redemption Paws prides itself on saving more dogs than many other organizations, bringing in 932 last year alone.

But its fixation on volume — and the scrambling to accommodate it — causes collateral damage to people and animals, according to interviews with more than two dozen sources, including a former executive director and 19 ex-volunteers and staff.

Some adopters have paid hundreds of dollars for dogs with painful or life-threatening diseases that were missed, untreated or undisclosed. Multiple former staff and volunteers describe being exploited and silenced by a culture of fear, in some cases threatened with legal action for speaking out.

Dogs have also suffered unnecessarily, according to adopters, ex-volunteers and three former staff. And at least two youths have been maimed by a Redemption Paws dog — one is Sara Asta, McConnell’s niece. The other is a six-year-old boy, whose attack is now the subject of multiple lawsuits.

Foster-based rescue is a largely unregulated space, but best practices have emerged: giving dogs adequate time to decompress, paying for necessary treatments or training, and fully preparing people for the dogs they’re welcoming into their homes.

Redemption Paws says it meets the highest standards. Many ex-volunteers and staffers disagree, including the former executive director, Kyle Hodder, who says he quit the rescue in July because he was tired of sacrificing his morals.

“Everything that Redemption Paws does — their industrialism, their volume — it almost screams rescue mill,” Hodder said. “It is not a reputable, ethical, morally-sound rescue.”

Many adopters have posted glowing online reviews of Redemption Paws. Those who spoke to the Star don’t dispute that people have had wonderful experiences but say these successes largely reflect the extraordinary efforts of individual staff and volunteers, many of whom quickly burn out. For them, it took time to see the charity’s systemic problems — which, they allege, flow from the CEO.

Simone denied allegations that Redemption Paws is a “rescue mill” or brings in more dogs than it can safely and responsibly handle.

Simone said the rescue sector is “rife with competition” and accused detractors of trying “to destroy our charity and the good work it does while guiding to ‘competitor rescues.’”

Simone said she and Redemption Paws are unfairly targeted, pointing to a website that exists solely to publish anonymous criticisms of her rescue. She declined to connect the Star with supporters or team members “because everyone who speaks positively about Redemption Paws ends up with stalkers and anonymous threats.”

“We’ve rescued close to 3,000 dogs, a phenomenal feat and a tremendous amount of hard work by many people,” she said. “But you want to focus on that .01% that are unhappy or have alternative motives.”

Those who spoke to the Star say their goal is to seek accountability for practices they consider unethical and push for better outcomes in dog rescue.

For McConnell, her family agreed to help Redemption Paws because “it’s always been about the dogs.” She now questions if the same is true for the charity.

Texas is a land of unwanted dogs. From Dallas to Odessa, loose dogs often roam the streets, perpetually multiplying in a state where too many owners refuse to fix their pets.

Not so long ago, the animal shelter in Paris, Texas, was so overwhelmed by homeless pets that roughly 90 per cent were being euthanized, according to Stephanie Corley with the Lamar County Humane Association.

Today, euthanizations have plummeted, she said. Her organization now works with rescue groups that pluck dogs from kill shelters, place them in foster homes and find willing adopters. The one that always takes the most, she says, is Redemption Paws.

In the Lone Star State, the fight to save dogs’ lives is like “trying to empty the ocean with a spoon,” said Tara Jones, who runs a rescue group in west Texas. But thanks to Redemption Paws — which takes between 75 and 100 dogs a month from Jones and her network — they now have a much bigger spoon.

“There have been several smaller shelters that have not had to euthanize any healthy dogs since we began working with Redemption Paws,” said Jones, who praises the Toronto rescue’s willingness to take dogs that others pass up. “They (have) gone above and beyond for many of our dogs.”

Since 2017, Redemption Paws has been loading Texan dogs into transport vans, driving them to Canada, and sending them into households across the Greater Toronto Area.

The charity is part of a growing trend. Hard numbers are lacking, but an unpublished analysis by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that nearly 13,000 dogs were imported commercially for breeding or resale, which includes rescue dog adoptions — a fivefold increase compared to 2013.

Pet ownership spiked during the pandemic. Canine lovers are increasingly turning from backyard breeders and toward the #adoptdontshop ethos of the dog rescue world.

Social media has also driven the popularity of dog rescue. In the Instagram era, rescue groups have a potent formula for luring adopters: adorable photo plus sympathetic backstory and you’ve got guaranteed virality among the dog-loving set.

And when it comes to social media, Redemption Paws is best in show. On Instagram, its 44,000 followers are fed a stream of canine content, featuring dogs with their own accounts and names like Matcha or Hans Gruber. Success stories are reposted — a video of excited adopters or a dog who died in a loving home after years of being tied to a tree.

Redemption Paws’ social media savvy is also key to attracting its army of volunteers, who take care of the dogs and co-ordinate the charity’s vast network of adopters and fosters. According to Simone, some 10,000 people have adopted, worked or volunteered with Redemption Paws over the past four years.

Many volunteers are 20-somethings like Courtney Butler. She applied to be a foster in 2019 soon after attending a dog rescue event at Trinity Bellwoods Park. “Three days later, I was in a Sobeys parking lot at four in the morning, picking up a dog.”

At first, she was impressed. Whereas other rescues might bring in just a handful of dogs at a time, Redemption Paws was hauling in around 100 dogs in a single “intake.”

“But then,” she said, “you realize all the bad stuff that happens because of that.”

Four months after starting as a dog foster, Butler signed up for a volunteer role as a foster co-ordinator. Once on the inside, Redemption Paws’ enormous dog intakes suddenly felt nightmarish. Multiple staff and volunteers who worked for the charity between 2019 and 2021 described how dogs would keep arriving by the dozens, forcing them to chronically scramble for qualified fosters — even days or hours before the dogs arrived.

“A lot of times these were people with absolutely zero dog experience, that we were giving them these scared s***less dogs to, and just telling them to go for it,” said Laura Lindner, another ex-foster co-ordinator.

Simone said Redemption Paws sets “an extremely high bar compared to the other rescues in Toronto” and operations are “always being refined.” She said volunteers are given training manuals, seminars and “one-on-one training meetings,” and fosters provided with 24-hour support.

But Butler and Lindner, who were tasked with giving that support, said they often felt overwhelmed by the problems that fosters would reach out about. Butler said the only training she received was about 20 minutes, mostly on how to use Google Sheets.

Lindner recalls a call from one terrified foster: his dog wouldn’t stop growling at him and he didn’t know what to do.

Lindner and her team didn’t know either. “I was not qualified,” she said. “It was just us googling and researching on our own … we were really just hoping for the best.”

Most of the dogs brought up by Redemption Paws are healthy, well behaved and easy to adopt out, said Sasha Szlafarski, a former director of foster operations. But he estimates about a third will have more complex medical or behavioural issues.

These issues can take time to reveal themselves. Experts say dogs under stress often withdraw, only showing their true personalities after a “decompression period” that can last several weeks. Some rescues place a minimum hold period on their dogs for this reason.

At Redemption Paws, staff said they were under intense pressure to adopt out dogs as quickly as possible.

“The business model of Redemption Paws is to get the dogs adopted before anything presents,” Szlafarski said. Simone denies this and asserts the charity only ever advocates for the dog’s best interest.

Hodder, the former executive director, said entreaties to reduce dog intakes to more manageable levels were rebuffed. In her responses to the Star, Simone disagreed that Redemption Paws is overstretched and should slow its pace. “We’d rather scramble last minute than tell a shelter to euthanize a dog because we didn’t have every tiny detail worked out.”

Many adoptions at Redemption Paws do end happily. But when things go wrong, they can go really wrong.

Before Sophie, the pregnant dog, arrived at the McConnell home, her name was Candy. And she was brought from Texas along with more than 100 other dogs.

At her first foster home, Candy bit the family’s deaf and blind dog and drew blood. She was moved two more times before being adopted to a Burlington couple, just weeks after her arrival.

Jesse Nunn and his partner adored Candy, renaming her Sophie. But days later, they learned two crucial details that had been missed.

The dog was unspayed. She was also pregnant. “How do you miss both those things?” Nunn wondered.

According to Nunn, Redemption Paws offered to take Candy back temporarily, placing her with fosters experienced with delivering puppies. He said they also promised a dog birthing expert would attend the delivery.

Neither happened. Instead, Candy was handed off to Doug and Cathy McConnell, first-time fosters who were given just hours notice of her arrival and had never delivered puppies before.

The morning after Candy went into labour, Nunn and his partner went to the McConnell’s to meet the puppies. They were in the room when Candy lunged at Sara, who had been feeding her kibble.

That bite was an “accident waiting to happen,” said Dr. Sagi Denenberg with the North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic. Denenberg is not affiliated with Redemption Paws but weighed in on Candy’s story at the Star’s request.

Denenberg said dogs can resort to biting when feeling cornered or stressed. He pointed to the risk factors in Candy’s case: she was a traumatized dog with maternal hormones, likely on edge from being repeatedly moved. The fosters were not trained to safely oversee a dog birth or recognize Candy’s signs of distress. And Candy had bitten before — Simone said the dog’s bite history was always disclosed but the McConnells said they were never told.

Everyone in the house that day was traumatized. For a long time Sara shut down whenever the bite came up in conversation. Today, a scar remains, a painful reminder etched on her cheek.

Nunn felt he could no longer keep Candy, knowing he would always feel anxious in her presence, so Redemption Paws had to urgently relocate her again. In the middle of the Christmas season, the task fell on a newly-hired volunteer, who said she was never told of the bites.

Eventually, an actor and personal trainer named Tiana Leonty agreed to foster Candy. It was only after two weeks that Leonty learned the severity of what had happened, however — and not from Redemption Paws.

“Can someone explain exactly what her bite history is?” Leonty emailed the rescue. “A woman in my building happens to know a previous foster of Candy’s (coincidence!) and she said there were two bites — one to a dog and one to a child? Is this correct?”

Leonty was determined to help Candy find an adopter who would be fully prepared, writing a lengthy bio for her adoption profile.

But when Leonty saw the bio that Redemption Paws posted, she was stunned.

“Meet Candy! All the way from Texas, Candy is aptly named, because she is SWEETNESS ‘dog-sonified.’ Once this girl knows she is safe and can trust you, she will be your sweet, cuddly, BFF!”

Information about Candy’s bites and other challenges were scrubbed out. Leonty asked the charity to fix the “misleading” bio; she said it was revised, but still omitted any mention of the bites.

After nearly three months, Candy still didn’t have an adopter. She had been moved by Redemption Paws seven times in just three months; Leonty worried what would happen if the dog was moved again. So she adopted Candy herself.

“Candy’s story is just a perfect example of it being too many dogs, so things get overlooked,” Leonty said.

In written responses to the Star, Simone defended Redemption Paws’ handling of Candy’s case. She questioned why Nunn and McConnell would go on to adopt other dogs from Redemption Paws if they considered it such a “deceitful organization.”

“There was no conspiracy to adopt out a pregnant dog,” Simone wrote.

“We did everything to correct that situation but nothing is enough for these people.”

Nikki Martin long had a specific dream: To give a big dog a good life. So when the then-27-year-old was approved in September to adopt a red bloodhound from Redemption Paws, she was overjoyed.

His name was Tommy Joe and Martin adored his big dopey face. But when she took Tommy Joe to his first veterinary appointment, she was shocked to learn he had terminal kidney disease. And even though Redemption Paws had told her he was a healthy dog, Tommy Joe’s veterinary records show he tested for serious kidney issues — months before being adopted out.

Martin immediately emailed the charity. Tommy Joe needed urgent care, and she needed answers from someone in charge. After two days, she received a two-sentence email from Simone denying the charity was aware of his kidney failure.

“That’s when I really lost my ability to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Martin said. “There’s no compassion in this; there’s something cancerous here.”

After another two days of emailing back and forth, Simone acknowledged the mistake, which she blamed on a clerical error. She apologized and made a series of offers that Martin found unfair and confusing and their correspondence ended bitterly, with an email from Redemption Paws’ lawyer.

In written responses to the Star, Simone said disclosure mistakes like Tommy Joe are “unfortunate but quite negligible” given Redemption Paws’ scale.

“People have come to treat dog rescues like insurance,” Simone wrote. “The dog is faulty so they make a claim.”

Simone, whose full name is Nicole Simone Dente, is an enigma to many of the people who’ve worked for her. Outside of Redemption Paws, she has been many things: an activist, dog photographer, musician, writer, actress and #Instamodel on Instagram, where she posts daily selfies for nearly 300,000 followers.

Simone told the Star she previously worked in social media but started volunteering with rescue dogs in 2006.

“I have spent almost two decades researching, volunteering and working in foster based rescue,” she said. “I feel through my extensive and unusual experience Redemption Paws has created a high industry standard, far beyond the antiquated shelter models.”

On Redemption Paws’ 2017 incorporation documents, Simone is listed as one of five directors for the not-for-profit, which was initially formed to rescue dogs impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Within months, all but Simone would resign.

In 2019, three former directors were interviewed for an online documentary, in which they questioned Redemption Paws’ ethics and whether it was selling dogs for a profit.

Simone denies this, noting the original directors haven’t had access to internal records since 2017 “so their comments are complete speculation.”

“I could do many more profitable things with my life but this work is not about the money,” Simone said, describing her annual income as in the “mid $60,000 range.” “It is about making a difference in the world of dogs, which the organization truly has.”

Former staff and volunteers allege dogs have been denied medical care or behavioural training at Redemption Paws, so they question how spending decisions are made.

Redemption Paws’ $895 adoption fees are higher than many other local rescues and in 2021, the charity declared more than $1 million in revenue.

Meanwhile, the dogs are free and the Texas rescues cover basic vaccinations and veterinary costs before sending them off. Former staff say food and supplies are largely donated. While veterinary expenses are significant — Redemption Paws declared $422,728 in vet expenditures last year — clinics in Toronto provide discounted rates to rescues, sometimes even waiving fees. And all of the labour, aside from seven paid staff, is volunteered.

Hodder said he was constantly chasing down Simone to approve necessary medical tests or treatments. He worked as Redemption Paws’ director of vetting before being named executive director in March 2021, a role he held for four months before quitting.

He said he’s speaking out now to push for changes at Redemption Paws, not to shut it down. “I had issues with the lack of care being provided to dogs,” he said. “Anytime that I tried to vocalize those concerns, I was dismissed and told basically to stay in my lane.”

One dog, an Australian cattle dog mix named Emmy, arrived from Texas unable to fully open her mouth. Her Xrays showed bone lesions and she was given a presumptive diagnosis of valley fever — a rare disease that is potentially fatal, sometimes eating away at the bones.

A veterinarian recommended a plan to confirm and address the treatable disease. But Simone dismissed the recommendation, Hodder said.

(Simone said the charity spent thousands on Emmy’s care, including for tests to investigate other diseases, and alleged Hodder had final authorization for medical decisions. Hodder said the opposite was true, providing screenshots showing he regularly had to seek Simone’s approval for veterinary expenses.)

When Emmy was adopted nearly seven weeks later, her adopter was never told about the suspected valley fever. The adopter said that when she took Emmy to the vet, the Xrays showed lesions so advanced that her bones resembled a doily. Emmy’s outlook was so grim — and her suffering so severe — her distraught adopters decided to euthanize. They only had her for nine days.

Losing a dog can be devastating, even for adopters who’ve only had their pet a short time. When Martin learned of Tommy Joe’s terminal illness, she felt trapped; she already loved him fiercely but would have never knowingly adopted a dog she couldn’t afford to care for.

She was upset by the options Simone offered: Return Tommy Joe and get her adoption fee back, or keep Tommy Joe and have the charity cover his ultrasound and blood work — tests that Martin’s vet already told her would be done for free.

Martin started a GoFundMe and sold her car to afford Tommy Joe’s care. But two months after his adoption, he collapsed on the ground and a mobile veterinarian recommended he be euthanized.

Martin laid on the floor with Tommy Joe as he died. She then had to carry his 76-pound body down the stairs of her apartment. “It is a day that is burned into the back of my eyelids,” she said. “I don’t know if it will ever not haunt me.”

Martin said Redemption Paws’ handling of the situation compounded her pain. After she described her experience on Reddit, urging people not to adopt from Redemption Paws, the charity accused her of cyberbullying on its Instagram account.

Martin also received an email from the charity’s lawyer, offering $1,000 in compensation, which would include her $738 adoption fee — conditional on her signing a non-disparagement clause. She refused.

It is not unusual for people to hear from a lawyer or receive legal threats after publicly criticizing Redemption Paws.

In 2020, after a spate of critical social media posts, Simone tasked a number of staff with scouring the internet to find negative commentary, according to ex-staffer Szlafarski.

He recalled Simone suggesting that these people — a list of about 20 ex-volunteers — would all receive libel notices. One of those volunteers, who posted critically on Instagram, said she had to drain her savings to hire lawyers.

These legal threats have fostered a culture of fear around speaking out against Redemption Paws, where staff and volunteers have to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Simone said her charity has a right to defend itself from “harmful public behaviour.” She said Redemption Paws has never sued anyone over defamation but has “served a few notices of slander politely asking people to stop.”

“If what people are saying is true then under Canadian law they are protected,” she said. “We are therefore not clear as to where their fear is coming from other than to create a false narrative to serve the dog charities they are affiliated with or for their own financial gain.”

On Aug. 17, 2020, a Toronto Animal Services officer filed a report after interviewing Simone for an ongoing investigation.

“I asked if their policy allows volunteers to have strangers pet the dogs or to put controls on the dogs. Nicole was already annoyed at my questions,” the officer wrote in his notes, which were obtained through a freedom of information request. “I advised Nicole I was only doing my due diligence because a child was seriously injured. I also mentioned it was a life-altering injury.

“I then said that it appears that I am frustrating her with this call and that we could talk again. Nicole said she was sorry.”

Nine months after Sara Asta was bitten by Candy, the dog who had puppies, an even younger child was attacked by a Redemption Paws dog.

Michelle Poblete and her six-year-old son were walking in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood on Aug. 11, 2020 when they passed a woman with a blue-eyed Catahoula Leopard mix.

According to a lawsuit filed by Poblete, she asked the woman, Jennifer Colicchia, if the dog was friendly. When she responded yes, Poblete “went to pet the dog” and “it violently attacked (her son’s) face.” In her statement of defence, Colicchia denied this and said any injuries were caused by the family’s own negligence and actions.

Poblete fended off the 50-pound dog and when she saw her son’s face, “his whole left cheek from the nose, his skin, was hanging,” she would later tell Toronto Animal Services in a statement.

The dog, named Pomroy, was euthanized shortly after the attack. He had only been in Toronto for two weeks, after being picked up as a stray and shipped from Paris, Texas.

The bite sparked a flurry of charges and lawsuits. Poblete’s family is suing Simone, Redemption Paws and Colicchia, the dog’s volunteer foster. The three defendants have denied the allegations and are filing cross-claims against each other.

All three were also charged under provincial regulations for failing to take reasonable precautions to prevent an animal attack. Colicchia was convicted and the court said Redemption Paws could no longer let her foster for them.

Charges against Simone and Redemption Paws were withdrawn after the rescue agreed to a number of court-ordered safety measures. Simone has since sued the City of Toronto, an animal control officer and legal clerk for “malicious prosecution,” seeking at least $250,000 in damages. The city denies her allegations.

In an email to the Star, Simone said she was very sorry about what happened to the boy and blamed her volunteer foster.

“We put all of the necessary policies and procedures in place to avoid such tragedies,” Simone wrote. “However, we have no ability to prevent those who foster from failing to adhere to their very clear obligations, which Ms. Colicchia very much did.”

Colicchia declined to comment to the Star through her lawyers. In her statement of defence, she accused Simone and Redemption Paws of “unsafe practices,” alleging the charity didn’t adequately train its personnel or inform her of the dog’s risks.

“They failed to meet the relevant standard of care of a reasonable dog rescue agency,” her claim states.

After the bite, Poblete’s son was rushed to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. When he woke up from surgery — the first of many — he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. “He said he looked like a monster,” Poblete said.

He was discharged after a week and when he got home, he threw out all of his dog plushies and had nightmares of being chased by dogs. Today, his mask — a pandemic accessory most kids detest — has become a security blanket.

“People would stare,” Poblete said. “He always puts his mask on when any other little kids are passing by.”

Poblete said Redemption Paws never apologized to her family and they’re now suing because they want accountability. “The family wants answers,” said her lawyer, Kevin Wolf, with the firm Wolf Kimelman. “So it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Days after the attack, Redemption Paws made a “special announcement”: it planned on bringing in another 100 dogs. Weeks later, the rescue posted a video of three cargo vans, stacked floor to ceiling with crates, each containing a dog, sometimes two.

As the video silently panned across their faces, some peered into the camera, while others pawed at their crate. They were on their way to “become Canadian citizens,” the caption read, bound for new fates across the GTA.

Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar