Tumwater dog rescuers battle criticism over less-than-ideal conditions

Dogs wait in an outside pen as their kennels are cleaned.
Dogs wait in an outside pen as their kennels are cleaned. Staff photographer

If not for a Tumwater mom-and-pop rescue operation, these dogs would be dead.

But despite its good intentions, Furever Homes Dog Rescue has attracted criticism from Thurston County Animal Services and the public over the shelter’s questionable conditions that have so far avoided legal action.

Sharon Gold admits the first impression inside Furever Homes, especially when the doors open midmorning, can be unsettling.

The stench of feces and urine can trigger your gag reflex. After spending the night crowded in cages, dozens of dogs bark in a deafening chorus as they are herded into a small fenced area in the parking lot outside a warehouse on Tumwater’s outskirts.

A blue tarp covers this bedroom-sized pen, which is the dogs’ lone outdoor respite. The dogs swarm Gold in a cacophony of barking and pent-up canine energy. Some of the dogs try to climb a concrete wall back into the warehouse, only to fall short of the goal and return to jumping on an old mattress with a hole chewed in it.

Gold is like the calm eye surrounded by a hurricane of hungry dogs who quiet down once she fills their food and water bowls. Inside the warehouse, her family and a couple of helpers scrub the kennels and prepare the soiled blankets for washing as part of a daily ritual.

Furever Homes rescues dogs from euthanization in California and Mexico, then brings them to Washington for adoption. It’s a seven-day-a-week labor of love for Gold and her husband, Justin Cruz, along with help from their two children.

Gold acknowledges the shelter’s imperfections, but still stands by the state-registered nonprofit organization, which is driven by her family’s passion to find homes for seemingly unadoptable dogs.

“I have adopted thousands of dogs,” Gold said. “Those dogs would all be dead if they weren’t here.”

The dogs under Gold’s care are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, tested for heartworm and quarantined in California until they are cleared for transport to Washington.

The organization keeps documents from the Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control. Furever Homes charges clients a $350 adoption fee, and Gold estimates that between 20 and 40 dogs are adopted each month.

At the moment, Furever Homes is caring for about 85 dogs, including puppies. Some dogs are considered unmanageable because of aggression, for example, and are eventually euthanized.

That said, Gold’s passion for rescuing dogs is evident. With proper socialization and plenty of patience, Gold feels she can make many of these dogs adoptable as they acclimate to a positive human presence.

“They’re happy here,” she said. “They’re great with me and my kids.”

Many of these dogs suffered abuse and neglect before coming to Furever Homes. Gold points to a bowlegged dachshund mix that had spent its first three years of life confined to a small kennel. A 6-month-old Chihuahua had lost the use of its voicebox after someone put a rubber band around the dog’s neck.

Indeed, Furever Homes has served several satisfied families, even ones that brought their dogs back as part of the organization’s one-week trial.

Amber and Nate Harris returned a 4-year-old Shih Tzu named Oreo after only one night because the dog did not get along with the family’s four cats. The Lacey couple had already fallen in love with Oreo, who snuggled in Nate’s arms before the family left. Oreo had been recovered from a hoarder, Gold said, noting that his ears had been chewed off by another dog at that home.

“I really hope he goes to a good home because we adore him,” said Amber Harris, who received a refund on the adoption fee. “I just wish he adored our cats.”

On the contrary, some clients have posted negative online reviews on Yelp or the Better Business Bureau, for example, with the criticisms typically targeting the kennel conditions.

Centralia resident Sharon Lee said she was horrified by the conditions at Furever Homes when she arrived last week after learning about the organization online. She ended up adopting a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix named Poppy, and immediately went to a veterinarian who treated the dog for a common condition called kennel cough.

If her dog was sick, Lee said, then other dogs at Furever Homes must be sick.

“I’ve been to a lot of different shelters. I’ve never seen anything so filthy in my life,” Lee told The Olympian. “Anybody that takes care of animals like that shouldn’t be taking care of any animal.”

Representatives from the Tumwater Police Department and city code enforcement told The Olympian that they know of no legal violations committed by Furever Homes.

The entity charged with responding to potential animal-related violations is Thurston County Animal Services, which showed up last Thursday at Furever Homes over a complaint about the adoption of a sick dog.

Field officer Erika Johnson said Animal Services will investigate the complaint. Johnson was concerned about the hot warehouse and whether the dogs were breeding with one another in overcrowded kennels.

“There are too many dogs,” Johnson said.

Susanne Beauregard, director of Animal Services, said Furever Homes operates in “less than ideal” circumstances that are difficult to challenge legally. She has become familiar with Gold over the past five to six years as the rescue organization has changed locations around the county.

“We have never found anything that I would deem prosecutable in any of the complaints we have ever received,” Beauregard said. “We don’t have any kennel standards in Thurston County, so I don’t have any standards to hold her to in terms of long-term care.”

Despite being the subject of calls about crowding, dirty kennels, barking and the occasional loose dog, Furever Homes still works within the law, even if it walks the line. Beauregard said she is concerned that the out-of-state dogs could bring diseases to Washington or become a liability because of uncertain temperaments.

However, Thurston County Animal Services can intervene only when someone violates state laws for animal cruelty and neglect.

“The industry is sort of self-policing. People don’t hesitate to call attention to any kind of inadequacy,” Beauregard said. “I do think there should be an initial set of standards that people would have to meet before they can open a kennel.”

On the other hand, Gold is finding homes for dogs without one. Complaints about adopted dogs are part of the territory for any rescue organization, said Beauregard, noting that Animal Services also gets complaints from people she places animals with.

“The work that she puts in on those animals is absolutely backbreaking,” said Beauregard, noting that whenever Gold has been warned about a potential violation, “she always corrects it.”