One hour after Keith and Kayla McGlothlin brought a rescue dog into their Tacoma apartment last summer, it attacked and killed their 2-year-old cat.
A few days later, the pit bull named Sadie Mae broke out of her cage, busted through two doors and killed again — this time, the couple’s 10-week-old kitten.
Keith McGlothlin has worked with rescued pit bulls before and knows they can be a handful. Still, even he was surprised by Sadie Mae’s aggressiveness.
“She was by far the most uncontrollable dog I’ve ever encountered,” he said.
A rescuer named Diana Van Dusen brought the dog to Pierce County from a shelter in Southern California. Van Dusen is the sole operator of P.U.R.R.R. Rescue, a local nonprofit formed in 1998 to rescue cats. Today it focuses on saving abandoned or stray dogs and placing with people who will give them a second chance.
Now, after being pushed out of Lakewood and Tacoma, Van Dusen is looking for another chance herself.
She’s a lightning rod in the animal rescue community — viewed as a big-hearted soul by some, a reckless dog trafficker by others.
She’s a link in a chain of West Coast volunteers determined to save unwanted dogs from California — a largely unregulated interstate rescue network.
She continues to adopt out dogs of all sizes and breeds — including some pit bulls — at the PetSmart store in Lacey.
South Sound animal control officers have had several run-ins with Van Dusen, culminating with a series of deadly pet maulings last summer committed by dogs she had adopted out.
They fear those attacks might not be the end of it.
“There are aggressive animals out there that she has adopted out that I don’t know where they are,” Lakewood Animal Control officer Bill Mathies said. “Their time is coming.”
The McGlothlins met Van Dusen at the Lakewood PetSmart, where she was distributing rescue dogs last spring. When they volunteered to foster Sadie Mae, they were never told she was aggressive, Keith McGlothlin said.
Two other Pierce County families say the same thing. They also adopted Van Dusen’s rescue dogs and watched them kill a pair of dogs in two incidents over a 15-day span last summer.
Van Dusen disputes the claims against her. She maintains she told the families the rescue dogs shouldn’t be kept around other animals.
She says she no longer puts dogs up for adoption in Pierce County and has stopped accepting pit bulls except puppies. Most of her bigger dogs are pit bulls and are hard to place because they could be “trigger” dogs — animals that could have aggression issues.
She says she still is taking in smaller, more easily adoptable dogs from shelters in California. She also continues to adopt out dogs of all sizes and breeds — including some pit bulls — at the PetSmart store in Lacey.
Van Dusen moved her animals last summer from her Lakewood home and scattered boarding facilities to a temporary location on Tacoma Avenue South.
Tacoma Animal Control visited the property twice and sent her a letter in October saying she needed to license the animals. Her lease was later revoked after neighbors complained to the landlord and Animal Control.
This month, she moved 35 dogs to a leased rural location in south Pierce County where she hopes to establish a sanctuary, a place where her less-adoptable animals can live out their years.
Since the summer of 2013, she’s accepted dogs from high-kill California shelters and distributed them in Pierce County. She estimates she adopted out more than 500 in 2013.
What she says she didn’t count on was some of them being dangerous.
Van Dusen knows what’s being said about her on social media: Dog flipper. Dog hoarder. Dog scammer.
She acknowledges she’s taken in more dogs than she can place. But she doesn’t apologize for believing every one deserves to live.
“I can’t walk away,” she said. “I am stuck.
“How do you quit? You’re in so deep, and you have so many eyes on you,” she said, wiping away tears. “I can’t just walk away.”
FROM CATS TO DOGS
P.U.R.R.R. Rescue was formed in March 1998. The small nonprofit was focused on rescuing felines in the South Sound, including the spay and neuter of feral cats.
At first it took in animals only on an emergency basis, and it didn’t work with dogs.
None of its five founding members are still involved. One of them, Jeune Gibson, died; another declined to comment for this story; and others couldn’t be reached.
After Gibson died, Van Dusen took over in 2004.
She continued with the cat rescue, but the balance slowly tipped toward dogs.
Over the years, Van Dusen has run afoul of government-run animal welfare organizations in Pierce County.
The Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County and Metro Animal Services in Puyallup won’t release animals to her, according to shelter officials.
“She’s had a long history,” Humane Society executive director Kathleen Olson said. “She has a good heart. She’s trying to do what’s right, but she just gets in over her head.”
Van Dusen claims she didn’t get in too deep until she entered the California rescue scene in the summer of 2013. She learned through Facebook of a dog in a shelter with medical needs that would be killed if someone didn’t rescue it.
It wasn’t long before all the dogs in her rescue were from California, many of them pit bulls.
“I couldn’t say no,” she said. “They’d send me a picture and say ‘Diana save this dog, it’s going to die.’ ”
Some out-of-state people who sent her dogs didn’t disclose they were aggressive, she said.
Lakewood Animal Control got involved this summer after three of Van Dusen’s dogs from California killed other pets, including the McGlothlins’ cats.
Because the attacking animals were all distributed through the Lakewood PetSmart, the city investigated and learned Van Dusen didn’t have a business license. When she applied for one, the city denied the application.
The city cited concerns that allowing Van Dusen to keep adopting out dogs could be “injurious to the public health, safety and welfare.”
3 ATTACKS IN 40 DAYS
The first attack happened June 22 when the pit bull Sadie Mae killed the McGlothlins’ cat in Tacoma. Two days later she killed the kitten.
Mathies, the Lakewood Animal Control officer, learned about the incidents from Tacoma Animal Control officers. They asked Mathies to go with them to issue a potentially dangerous dog declaration to Van Dusen at her Lakewood home.
A miscommunication allowed Van Dusen to pick up Sadie Mae from the Tacoma Humane Society shelter before she was scheduled to be declared potentially dangerous. She was being held at the shelter on a 10-day bite quarantine.
Sadie Mae is now kept as a foster dog at a boarding facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Handlers there say she has shown no signs of aggression toward people or other animals in the five months they have cared for her.
A little more than a month after Sadie Mae’s attack, two other dog attacks were reported in Lakewood. Mathies investigated both and found a common denominator: P.U.R.R.R. Rescue and Van Dusen.
Animal Control reports, obtained through a public records request, tell the story of those attacks:
• On Aug. 2, in a common area of the Echelon apartment complex, an American Staffordshire terrier named Chico caught sight of a Pomeranian and pulled away from his leash.
Chico ripped the small dog apart, killing it instantly.
In a statement to animal control after the attack, Chico’s adopter detailed prior incidents involving the dog. She told police Chico had bitten her 6-year-old sister above her eye and attacked her brother’s dog.
She tried to persuade her boyfriend to have the dog euthanized, but he said no, according to the statement.
Chico was surrendered to Lakewood Animal Control and euthanized.
Animal control reports say the couple said they were never warned of Chico’s aggressive past.
When asked if she knew Chico was aggressive, Van Dusen points the finger at the California rescue that sent her the dog; she says she was never told of his violent history.
After Chico arrived in Lakewood, Van Dusen says she was told by a veterinarian who treated and boarded the dog that he shouldn’t be around other animals based on his behavior. Van Dusen says she relayed that information to the couple who adopted him.
But Mathies said Van Dusen told him during his investigation that she’d had Chico assessed by a dog trainer who determined the dog was adoptable.
The trainer disputes that.
“I never saw this dog,” said Jim Elder, owner and trainer at Scatter Creek Kennel and Training Services in Tenino.
Van Dusen maintains Elder saw Chico in his parking lot and determined he didn’t need training for aggression issues.
“That’s not how I work,” Elder said in an interview.
Elder keeps records of every dog he sees. Seven dogs from Van Dusen’s rescue have come to him either for training or to be boarded while Van Dusen found them homes. The dogs that killed animals this summer are not on that list.
Elder says he no longer works with Van Dusen.
“She’s into me for a lot of money,” he said. “I’m done. I wrote it off to experience.”
• On Aug. 17, a pit bull named Mamas killed a shih tzu mix.
Mamas was in a fenced yard near Lakewood Towne Center with one of her owners when the small dog walked by. Mamas broke through the chain link fence to reach the smaller dog.
Mamas couldn’t be stopped, despite her owner trying to pull her back, Mathies said.
“The switch just flipped. It was going to go after that dog no matter what,” he said.
The shih tzu had to be euthanized because of its injuries.
The woman whose family adopted Mamas told Mathies they were never told the dog was aggressive. Van Dusen says Mamas tested well on a temperament test, showing no signs of aggression.
Mamas was ultimately euthanized, but not before people who said they were from P.U.R.R.R. Rescue persuaded the woman to give them the dog. They said Mamas would be returned to California for training.
Text message exchanges included in the Lakewood investigation show the women told Mamas’ owner not to involve animal control and not to mention P.U.R.R.R.
Van Dusen adamantly denies any involvement in trying to get Mamas back.
And she is steadfast that she “always discloses if there are any (prior) incidents” with her dogs.
Regardless, Van Dusen said she shouldn’t be held responsible for the attacks. Once the dogs are adopted, they become the owner’s responsibility, she said.
Lakewood acknowledges it never checked into whether Van Dusen had a business license until this summer. But after the first two dog attacks, officials began their investigation and told her she had to have a license.
Van Dusen applied for it Aug. 6. She listed her Lakewood home as the mailing address and the Lakewood PetSmart as her business location.
As part of the application review, the city requested information from Van Dusen about the number of dogs she’d adopted into the community since January, including where they were housed while awaiting adoption.
Van Dusen’s attorney, Adam Karp of Bellingham, responded to the city’s request saying it was “calculated to harass” and “irrelevant” to the license application.
On Sept. 11, Lakewood sent a letter to Van Dusen denying her a business license. She could no longer operate her rescue in the city.
Van Dusen says she didn’t appeal because animal control officers have harassed her in the past and don’t want her in the community.
The city justified its license denial in part by citing past incidents involving Van Dusen’s rescue.
The city first learned of P.U.R.R.R. Rescue in 2008 when it discovered Van Dusen had converted the back of her house to accommodate 22 cats, more than the city’s allowed five licensed animals in a residential area. The city gave her time to find homes for the animals.
Over the years, Lakewood animal control returned to her home for barking complaints, reports of aggressive dogs and dogs breaking through a fence. She’s been cited for having too many animals on her property and for failure to license animals, according to animal control reports.
As Van Dusen’s problems were mounting in Lakewood, her attempts to house dogs at other locations grew complicated — and expensive. Eventually, her financial struggles caught up with her, as an Aug. 29 lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court suggests.
Owners of the Peninsula Pet Lodge filed a complaint to get more than $7,900 they say Van Dusen owes them. She previously kept 14 dogs at their facility in Olalla.
The suit alleges Van Dusen transferred dogs from boarding facilities in Tacoma and Graham, as well as her home, to the Peninsula location.
Van Dusen moved 13 pit bulls and a German shepherd mix to the Olalla facility in May. By June, she’d fallen behind on payments.
When the dogs arrived they were in poor health, the suit alleges. Nine dogs came from other boarding facilities, five from Van Dusen’s home.
All showed signs of neglect: Emaciation, malnourishment and the need for flea and worm medication, according to the lawsuit. The dogs smelled from not being bathed, and the German shepherd mix was later treated for a skin fungus, according to the suit.
Van Dusen disputes the health complaints, but acknowledges the dogs needed baths. She said she moved the dogs to the Pet Lodge after learning they were no longer being properly cared for at another boarding facility.
‘IF YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT, YOU’RE BROKE’
Van Dusen says donations to P.U.R.R.R. Rescue have dried up this year, and volunteers have left. She blames a “guilty until proved innocent” mentality among vocal animal rescue volunteers on social media sites, along with visits from Lakewood Animal Control.
Vet bills and boarding facility fees have stacked up. She has nine dogs still at a facility in California that she assumes she’ll never see.
Before this summer, Van Dusen estimates she was adopting out 30 to 40 animals a month. Now she says she’s lucky if she does five.
She relies heavily on donations to fund her rescue, which she says costs more than $30,000 a month to operate.
Tax records over five years show P.U.R.R.R. Rescue saw a steady increase in public donations from 2008 to 2012, the most recent year available. Van Dusen collected $184,596 during the five-year period.
But even in 2012, when she received her highest amount of donations at $90,805, she spent $106,177, according to tax records.
Donations were strong again in 2013, but have fallen significantly in 2014, she said.
Van Dusen says she has sold belongings, including furniture and jewelry, a tanning salon, and a house-cleaning business, to help pay for rescue operations.
“If you’re making a profit, you’re not doing it right,” she said. “If you’re doing it right, you’re broke, and you’re living on a wing and a prayer.”
Her most reliable source of revenue comes from adoption fees — $450 for an adult dog, $800 for a puppy — she receives when she places dogs in permanent homes. She also accepts donations from crowdsource-funding websites.
Van Dusen wants to build a sanctuary for her animals and thinks she’s found a location on 7 acres she’s leasing in McKenna, in unincorporated south Pierce County. She’s scrambling to come up with money to convert the property.
Pierce County animal control officials say they were notified by Tacoma and Lakewood animal control that Van Dusen was moving into the county’s jurisdiction, but they don’t know where.
Animal Control supervisor Brian Boman said they want to find Van Dusen to make sure she doesn’t have animals that have been declared dangerous and that she’s in compliance with county code.
Anyone with six or more animals in unincorporated Pierce County must have a kennel license, Boman said. The license requires yearly inspections and approval by the Health Department, county code enforcement and fire officials.
Some of Van Dusen’s associates say her intentions as a dog rescuer are honorable. “Her heart is probably as big as the moon,” said Lisa Cowan of San Diego.
“Has Diana maybe made a couple of errors? Sure,” said Cowan, a fellow dog rescuer who wants to help restore Van Dusen’s reputation. “Do I think it should define her for the rest of her life or ruin her chance of being a good rescue or ever getting help? Definitely not.”
Cowan sent dogs from California shelters to Van Dusen and said she feels partly responsible for her current difficulties. Cowan has created a plan to get P.U.R.R.R. Rescue on solid footing, which includes trying to raise funds and establish a safe environment on the McKenna property. She also plans to hire a dog behaviorist to assess the animals in Van Dusen’s care.
Van Dusen won’t release her dogs to another shelter or the humane society because she worries they’ll be killed.
“A friend told me maybe it’s time to walk away. But I can’t. How can I walk away?” she said. “How do I kill these dogs when I spent the last year protecting them?”
Van Dusen feels bad about the animals that were killed last summer, but her main loyalty lies with the two dogs she rescued that were euthanized.
“That’s not what my goal is here, to adopt out animals and see them killed,” she said. “Do I feel remorse? You bet. I’m devastated.”