Questions are being raised about the practices of a B.C. animal rescue that takes in dogs from shelters  — in some cases, at no cost —  then adopts them out for fees that run as high as $700.

Over the past month, eight people have contacted CBC News to flag concerns about Vancouver-based Big and Small Rescue Society, including a former co-ordinator with the society. They say the group does not conduct behavioural assessments on the dogs before putting them up for adoption, does not vet potential adopters or fosterers and charges inconsistent fees for adoption. Many of the dogs come from shelters in places such as California and Mexico.

'Big and Small Rescue always and without exception puts the needs of the animals first.' - Big and Small Rescue Society

Big and Small is also named in court documents from 2016 that allege it has not paid bills to three veterinary clinics. One vet told CBC News he offered his services at a "significantly" discounted fee but is now owed more than $20,000. The company, in its statement of response, denies all those allegations.

Big and Small

A screengrab from a promotional video for Big and Small Rescue Society. (YouTube)

In a statement to CBC News, Big and Small said in part that it "always and without exception puts the needs of the animals first." 

While several people have flagged concerns about Big and Small's practices, the society is not breaking any rules. That's because there are no regulations around rescue organizations and how they operate in B.C. Animal welfare experts have long called for a set of standards that rescue societies must follow to ensure the safety of families who are adopting or fostering them, and the health and safety of the animals

'I was at my wits' end'

In July 2016, Kristine Wickner from Salmon Arm adopted a four-year-old Chihuahua-heeler mix named Sophie from Big and Small, as a companion for her dog Aubrey, a Chihuahua-terrier. 

In an online ad, Sophie was described as "the perfect package" who got along with other dogs.

Sophie The Perfect Package

The original ad that Wickner saw described Sophie as 'The Perfect Package' and said 'she loves to cuddle and gets along with babies, young kids and all of our other dogs.' (Submitted by Kristine Wickner)

At first, the dog seemed fine, according to Wickner, but then started behaving aggressively towards Aubrey and attacked her on three separate occasions. Vet records show Aubrey suffered a serious laceration on her neck. 

Email messages show Wickner reached out to Big and Small to tell them about the problem, but the society told her, as per the contract she signed, she had to keep the dog until another home was found.

When she wrote back to tell them she could not keep the dog, she was told she had to "explore other options on her own."

Email records show she requested vet records for the dog, but the society said it no longer had them.

"I was kind of at my wits' end because I didn't know what to do," said Wickner. "I'd never been in that situation before."

Wickner said she had no choice but to take the dog to the SPCA in Shuswap.

Kristine Wickner and family

Wickner and her husband Jason with Aubrey and Sophie. (Submitted by Kristine Wickner)

The SPCA conducted a behavioural assessment and said, based on the results, it would not have placed Sophie in a home with another dog.

Lack of proper vetting

Families or individuals, typically volunteers, will sometimes foster a dog for a period of time until it gets adopted to a "forever home."   

Big and Small requires all potential volunteers to fill out a questionnaire and sign an agreement that includes the responsibilities and requirements.

Two people who fostered dogs for Big and Small contacted CBC News to say that aside from that contract, they were not vetted by the society before being given animals.

Trina Johnson answered a Facebook ad to foster. She said she was told to meet a van with up to eight dogs inside that had just driven to Vancouver from California.

She said the 110-pound dog she took home was stressed when it arrived but got worse after it was neutered. Johnson was then told to hand it over to a potential adopter for an overnight visit, and the man returned the dog to her.  

The dog started urinating all over her house, she said, and after two days she told Big and Small she couldn't take care of the dog anymore, and they picked him up. 

Johnson said she never fostered for Big and Small again after that and signed up with another animal rescue agency that did vet her and do checks. 

A lack of proper vetting was also a concern for Melissa Lloynd, who adopted a six-week-old American Staffordshire puppy three years ago from Big and Small.

Remington

A screengrab of the original Instagram post by Big and Small Rescue Society advertising the dog Melissa Lloynd adopted. (Instagram)

Lloynd and her husband initially visited the puppy at a foster home she described as "disgusting."

"There was a mattress in the middle of the living room ... there was pee and poo and dirty newspapers all over the floor, and he was very sick [with] a respiratory infection," she said. 

Despite that, Lloynd said she and her husband fell for the puppy and moved forward with adoption, but says aside from filling out a questionnaire, they were not thoroughly vetted either during a home visit by the society.

"They basically just walked in the front door and looked around, that was it," she said. 

She said in hindsight she should have asked more questions.

Remington

Lloynd adopted Remington three years ago from Big and Small. She said the foster home where the puppy had been staying was 'disgusting' with 'pee and poo ... all over the floor.' (Don Marce/CBC )

"You see the dog, you feel like you are doing a good thing, get the dog, everything else doesn't matter… It's kind of  unfortunate because a lot of [rescue organizations] are kinda banking on that," said Lloynd.

Lloynd paid an adoption fee of $500, while Wickner paid $400. Of the people who spoke to CBC News about their adoptions from Big and Small, the fees ranged from $400 to $700.

One of the shelters in California where Big and Small gets its dogs does not charge at all for some dogs.

'Wild west' 

Big And Small, a registered not-for-profit society in B.C., isn't breaking any rules, because there aren't any.

"It's the wild west out there," said Rebecca Ledger, a Vancouver-based animal welfare and behaviour specialist. "There is no formal requirement for rescue organizations to do assessments on dogs."

Ledger works with dogs with behavioural issues. She said she's noticed a significant increase in imported dogs that are brought to her —  most commonly to receive training for fearfulness and aggression. 
Rebecca Ledger

Rebecca Ledger is an animal animal welfare and behaviour specialist who says she is seeing a significant increase in imported dogs that are brought to her — most commonly to receive training for fearfulness and aggression. (Christer Waara/CBC)

"I find that the shelters that are bringing in dogs from places outside of Canada, many aren't doing the vigorous vetting of dogs, both physically and behaviourally," said Ledger. 

Ledger said there's nothing wrong with importing dogs, but believes there must be better assessments of animals — something more like the SPCA's rigorous testing to determine suitability for adoption — as well as better disclosure to potential adopters so they know what they are signing up for. 

The animal welfare group Paws for Hope is also pushing for more standardized rules for rescue societies.

Kathy Powelson, with the group, said most rescue societies have good practices, but a few don't.

"There is a small number — a very, very small number — but they create a lot of problems," she said. "They are doing it arguably for profit. We call it puppy flipping."

'We wish we could do more'

CBC News contacted Larissa Thomas and Dalibor Drinovac, the principals of Big and Small Rescue Society, asking them to respond to the allegations made to CBC News. 

The pair did not respond specifically to the allegations, but sent an email response signed by the society's board of directors

"The suffering of many of the dogs and cats entering our society is heart-wrenching. Without our support, hundreds of animals a year would likely suffer, perish or be euthanized. We just wish we could do more."

With files from Tara Carman