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SunLit

“Heartbreak Kennel” tells a grim tale of abuse, but also the complex story of a breeder who fooled everyone

Through dozens of interviews and stacks of documents, author Cary Unkelbach weaves the story of deception and mistreatment. Somehow, her own dog Max defied the odds.

I

Chapter 1: Heartbreak

She heard human voices for the first time in more than two days. Her rail-thin body crowded nine infant chocolate puppies, all soaking wet from a sea of excrement inside an airline crate positioned within a horse trailer. Other dogs barked nearby. The unfamiliar voices drew closer to the Labrador mother.          

Fifty miles to the south, Vikki Weeks picked up the telephone in the Denver home that she shared with her husband. 

“Hi, it’s me. I’m in Missouri,” came the familiar voice of her sister-in-law Dodie Cariaso.

“Why are you in Missouri?”  

Colorado Book Awards finalist for Biography

“I couldn’t take it anymore so I left. I fed and watered them and left. I left a note for Carl [Cushatt] to call the Humane Society. I can’t deal with it. The dogs are tying me down. I’m Jesse McClure now. I’m gone,” Dodie said.

“Well—”

“Just wanted to call and let you know that I was fine,” the cheerful voice said. “Goodbye.”

Vikki relayed the conversation to her husband James Wilson. The couple realized Dodie intended to stay in Missouri. They knew that James’s son had helped move her Labrador retrievers to a new location but didn’t know where or how many dogs she had. The canines would be in crates. Meteorologists predicted temperatures in the high eighties for that Saturday.

 They needed to find the Labradors to feed and water them. After that, they weren’t sure what they’d do.

James called his son to learn the dogs’ whereabouts and arranged to meet him. They’d drive together to the canines’ location in northern Colorado.

Cary Unkelbach grew up in a family that bred, raised, trained, and showed their Walden Labrador retrievers for more than 40 years. She has trained and shown Labradors at AKC competitions since age 8. Cary was a reporter for the Hartford Times and the Hartford Courant newspapers and has also written for Dog World, Labrador Quarterly and Police Chief magazines. She also has worked as a prosecutor and a civil litigator. She lives with her husband and two spoiled Labradors in the   Colorado mountains. Read her monthly blog and contact her at www.caryunkelbach.com.

Rigo Neira looked forward to watching a movie inside an air-conditioned theater to find relief from the heat on that Saturday, July 3, 2004. His cell phone rang at about 12:30 p.m. 

He listened to a coworker from the Larimer County Humane Society explain that a man called around 8:50 a.m. to report his new tenant had “skipped” and left behind about twenty Labradors. The man said he’d try to find homes for the dogs and bring the remainder to the Humane Society in Fort Collins. After checking on the animals again, he called back with a revised estimate of the number of dogs: sixty to eighty. 

As the Humane Society’s director of animal protection and field services, Neira knew about the sad fact of abandoned dogs. And no wonder: each year about 3.3 million dogs land in shelters. A fifth of these are strays that reunite with their owners. But for the remainder—more than 2.6 million dogs—it’s either adoption or, for many, death.

Neira recognized that the Labradors’ location needed to be preserved as a crime scene because they’d probably been abandoned. That meant the dogs couldn’t be removed from the property until his staff documented their health and living conditions.

He instructed his coworker Dave Janny to call back the man and tell him that Humane Society workers would come to his property to coordinate the animals’ treatment and care, and to instruct him not to give away any more canines. He’d meet Janny at the shelter where other employees would assemble to form a response team.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Less than two and a half hours later, Neira, accompanied by Janny and shelter behaviorist Tim Kloer, pulled into Carl Cushatt’s driveway. Carl’s ranch home stretched behind tall evergreen trees that lined the north side of the county road in rural southern Larimer County. A few other houses on the north side of the paved road sat amid mostly treeless, flat grassland.

The trio met Carl, an over-the-road truck driver in his early sixties. As they walked around the west side of the house, they spotted a light-yellow Labrador male and three small Labrador puppies running around the fenced-in backyard. Carl identified the Labradors as some of the abandoned canines. 

The men strode north toward fields and barnlike structures. A stench of feces permeated the air. They stared at rows of medium-sized airline dog crates adjacent to a semitrailer. Three temporary chain-link-fenced runs, each about twelve feet by four feet, and a three-sided fenced area lay behind the rows of crates. Inside the runs, a few crates housed adults and puppies. Other crates had doors open so canines could walk in and out of them. 

Several adult male Labradors barked aggressively and curled back their lips. Kloer watched as they jumped on the fencing and stared “hard” at the workers. Other dogs panted, appearing friendly but thirsty. A skeletal-thin chocolate female and her tiny puppies wandered around one of the runs. 

Unattached fence panels rested against one end of the semitrailer. Towels, scissors, baling wire, and a few dog bowls lay on an upright, white folding table near the semitrailer’s other end. Two bags of dog food sat nearby; only one was opened. 

Neira took charge… 

II

(From the final pages of Chapter 1)

My husband Dave and I listened to a story about dozens of abandoned dogs on that night’s television news. I recognized the name of the suspect — Dodie Cariaso.

Horrified, I knelt down and hugged our three Labradors: Molly, daughter Brew, and granddaughter Taz. We all still missed Max, our beloved adopted Labrador that had passed over the Rainbow Bridge the year prior. His breeder’s name?

 Dodie Cariaso. 

How could this woman, who committed these atrocities, have bred such a terrific dog as Max? I’d grown up in a family who raised and showed Labradors and couldn’t fathom the horrific abuse inflicted on this gentle breed. As a dog lover, I wanted to know so much more than what the media reported. Who was this woman?

Several years later, those nagging questions and Max’s memory led me on my years-long odyssey to find answers. I expected to uncover an uneducated woman who sold puppies from her backwoods home. Instead, I discovered a witty, successful businesswoman who bred dogs and sold puppies to the public. This college-educated woman instilled trust and loyalty in many puppy buyers, portraying herself as a reputable dog breeder while outwitting the authorities for years. How could her loyal friends and family have no clue about her deception? 

Chameleons like Dodie may be why an estimated 825,000 purebred dogs, many bought from breeders for hundreds if not thousands of dollars, land in shelters each year.5 Unexpected behavioral or health issues caused by these disreputable breeders undoubtedly prompt many owners to discard their canines.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

How and why do some breeders abuse canines? Media stories don’t focus on that question, only on the atrocities. Now I had the chance to try to find an answer. I’d use my investigative skills as a former prosecutor and reporter to call on contacts in Colorado’s legal and Labrador retriever communities to piece together the puzzle of Dodie, a woman whom I could have easily met but never did. 

My years-long investigation reveals what led Dodie, whose own life ended tragically and bizarrely, to transition from dog lover to abuser. Her story imparts a warning—pet buyers beware—and represents a microcosm of the larger world of animal abuse and disreputable breeders who may come across as an upstanding neighbor, friend, or even relative. It teaches how to recognize the often-overlooked signs of animal neglect and ways to intervene to avoid heartbreak and tragedy for man’s best friend. 

Max was very fortunate that his first owner whisked him away from Dodie’s kennel at just five-plus weeks. Otherwise, he might have suffered years of neglect at his breeder’s hands. Instead, his often comical, upbeat journey contrasted sharply with those of many of Dodie’s dogs and millions of other canines—mixed breeds and purebreds alike—that land in shelters through no fault of their own. Like many responsible dog owners, we’d given Max what canines need: jobs that he mostly loved, such as hiking companion or puppy sitter, because they gave him a purpose. He, in turn, gave us unconditional love and affection. 

The total number of dogs that are neglected and/or abandoned each year in this country is unknown. Most animal abuse probably goes unreported. Until 2016, a national database of crimes against animals didn’t even exist. That’s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) first listed animal cruelty in its own serious crime category. More than a third of law enforcement agencies across the country now submit incident reports, containing specific details of crimes against animals and information about the accused perpetrators, to the FBI for inclusion in this category.6

Fortunately, most of the 50 percent of American households that own at least one of the estimated 90 million dogs in this country don’t abuse their canines.7 Instead, they spend mightily on their pets, an estimated $75 billion a year.8 But those are the lucky animals. 

For the unlucky ones, lessons gleaned from the inextricably intertwined stories of Max and Dodie may save some from abusers and uncaring owners. Reputable breeders and responsible owners are crucial to any effort to decrease this nation’s canine shelter population of 3.3 million.

Published by Walden Resources Press, 2020.


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