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Animal rescue group dogged by complaints

Updated: October 18, 2013 6:04AM



MUNSTER — Isabelle shook violently, tail between her legs, as her foster family rounded up their belongings after a lovely day.

The 2-year-old Treeing Walker Coonhound, who’s been with the Conway family in Chesterton for a week, cautiously enjoyed herself at the Houndsong Rescue Hoot-N-nanny in Munster Saturday afternoon, even if she never wandered too far from the Conways or their other hounds, Zimba and Dottie.

When it was time to leave, Zimba and Dottie pranced out of the park.

Isabelle froze.

“I know she thinks if she gets in the van, we’re going to dump her off,” said Libbi Conway. “We’ve been fostering for about a year, and of the seven or eight dogs we’ve had, she’s the only one that’s made me cry.”

Isabelle is a former rescue of Schererville-based Hearts and Hounds, which this week received national attention. The group left three sick dogs in a Fairmont, N.C. veterinary clinic without paying for boarding or upkeep. That clinic posted an appeal for donations on its Web site for the dogs, whose costs now total hundreds of dollars.

Hearts and Hounds founder Linda Szymoniak posted Isabelle’s picture on the rescue’s Facebook page after rescuing her from a South Carolina shelter in February. Pam Staff, of Hobart, saw the picture and left a comment, saying the dog was cute and that she would like to be a foster home for animals someday.

What happened next surprised Staff — but, because she’d never fostered a pet, it didn’t alarm her right away.

“Linda messaged me if I was serious about fostering, and the next thing I know, here she is in my driveway dropping her off,” Staff said.

Once Isabelle was in her care, Staff said, Szymoniak came by only once, to drop off some heartworm medicine about a month later. And Staff said Szymoniak never followed up to see how she and Isabelle were getting along.

Szymoniak did not respond to several attempts by the Post-Tribune to give her an opportunity to respond to the complaints of Staff and others.

Responsible pet rescue groups always follow-up with foster parents, according to Darin Lee, who cofounded Houndsong Rescue with his wife, Roberta.

“Ninety-eight percent of fosters, after an experience like that, it would be their last,” Lee said. “We try to treat our fosters like they’re gold-plated because they’re the ones who do the real work. Now, she (Szymoniak) has just burned a resource. It’s just irresponsible.”

And the few times Isabelle saw Szymoniak pull up, Staff said she’d run and hide, scared to death of her.

Staff couldn’t keep Isabelle long-term because of impending back surgery. She said that after much back-and-forth, Szymoniak networked the dog on Facebook and other sites.

But Staff had finally had it, so she paid $50 to adopt her, after which she promptly brought her to Houndsong, which first placed her in a home that didn’t work out and then placed her with the Conways until a permanent home can be found.

Staff isn’t the only person with a complaint about Hearts and Hounds.

Many who’ve posted on the Hearts and Hounds Facebook page the past week are outraged, saying Szymoniak has taken money they’ve donated to her rescue and not used it for its intended purpose.

Lisa Decker, an Elkhart woman involved in animal rescue, discovered Szymoniak did pay $750 for a 10-day quarantine of the dogs, but they’ve been in North Carolina since July and the vet had to put them up for adoption to recoup some of the cost.

“When (the notice from the North Carolina vet) hit her page this past week, that is when she finally contacted the vet to try and work something out. She had no contact with the vet from July until this past week,” said Liz Gill, another woman involved in rescue.

Gill has volunteered to pay the vet’s fees, provided the dogs are accepted by a reputable rescue. She said she was told that bill is about $730, “which is not a problem. But if she would have done as she was supposed to, some of that money could have been used to save others.”

By checking what is publicly viewable on Facebook., Gill said she has been able to estimate at least $1,316 in pledges have been made for the three dogs.

“If she paid $750 to the vet, where is the rest of the money?” she said.

Darin Lee of Houndsong said there’s many expenses involved in rescue and that he’s confident Szymoniak isn’t using the money for other things. But how she’s running the rescue isn’t the way it should be done.

“I can tell you she’s not running out and getting a new handbag,” Lee said. “People go into rescue thinking they’re going to save them all and at all costs, when rescue’s about saving them well. I don’t care whether it’s 10 or 100 dogs a year; what matters is how well they rescue each one.”

While Szymoniak did not respond to requests for comment, she did post a message on the Hearts and Hounds Facebook page Sept. 13 about her plan to retrieve the North Carolina dogs.

“Not that it’s going to make any difference to some people, but we are working out details with the vet in NC to get the dogs out of there and to our rescue,” she wrote.

“It saddens me that so many people were so quick to jump in and condemn me and my rescue. We’ve found loving homes for some wonderful dogs, and will be working on finding homes for the NC hounds, too,” the post continued.

“Thank you to those who have stuck with us through this. Those who know me know just how much I love these dogs. I cry every time I take one to their new forever home, but it’s a mixture of sad (going to miss them) and happy (glad they have a loving home) and I want nothing more than to continue my work.”



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