Former staff, volunteers and adopters allege EJ Rescue hoarded dogs, hid info and failed to supply proper care

Allegations from several former volunteers and fosters have surfaced against EJ Rescue Canada — a dog rescue in Airdrie, Alta. — after its name came up in connection to an accidental crash in Idaho this spring that killed two people and 26 dogs destined for the rescue facility.

Airdrie owner declined to comment but her supporters defend the rescue and deny many of the allegations

Left, the back of a vehicle allegedly used by EJ Rescue to transport dogs in August 2019. Centre, Trina Demeria, owner of EJ Rescue, did not want to make public her conversation with CBC News regarding allegations against the rescue. The allegations have surfaced since the rescue's name came up in connection with a fatal crash in Idaho this spring, right. (Submitted by Twyla Johnson, Facebook, Idaho State Police)

An older, small terrier is said to have died while being transported in a cramped, hot van.

A "sweet" husky-malamute foster who turned out to be aggressive to dogs with a history of biting.

Falsified information in documents bringing U.S. rescue puppies into Canada.

These are just a few of the allegations from several former volunteers and fosters that have surfaced against EJ Rescue Canada — a dog rescue in Airdrie, Alta. — after its name came up in connection to a crash in Idaho this spring that killed two people and 26 dogs destined for the rescue facility.

Some critics have taken their concerns to social media with Facebook groups popping up to denounce the owner's practices.

CBC News spoke with dozens of people who have fostered and/or adopted dogs from EJ Rescue Canada, and sat down with a core group of six former EJ volunteers who all left within the past year.

Crates are stacked in the back of a vehicle allegedly used by EJ Rescue to transport dogs. (Submitted)

They say the bottom line is EJ Rescue owner Trina Demeria brings in too many dogs — spurring a whole host of other issues that they say ultimately results in the dogs not receiving proper care both at the rescue and when fostered/adopted.

The ex-volunteers say they struggled to find enough fosters and adopters. They say they also struggled to keep up with feeding, providing bathroom breaks and play time, and cleaning up after the sometimes dozens of dogs that ended up staying at the daycare/rescue facility.

They're calling for regulatory oversight to ensure animal rescues are routinely inspected, rescue animals receive initial checks by Canadian vets and the animals' medical and behavioural histories follow them to the fosters or adopters.

Casey Heidinger and Twyla Johnson at an EJ Rescue adoption event at a Lethbridge pet store. (Colleen Armstrong)

Twyla Johnson, one of the inner circle of former volunteers and their de facto spokeswoman when they spoke with CBC News, sums up their journey from defenders of the rescue to outspoken critics, saying everyone starts out feeling like this.

"You just want to save the dogs, I just want to save all the dogs. It's not fair that they're dying," said Johnson, the former lead volunteer and ex-Dog E Daycare employee.

"And eventually we all came to that conclusion of as much as we want to help these dogs we're not helping them, we're helping her with her dog hoarding problem," said Casey Heidinger, former foster coordinator volunteer.

EJ Rescue Canada owner declines comment

CBC News reached out to Demeria several times. 

Demeria spoke to CBC News once by phone for an hour. However, she refused to allow the CBC to report any of the conversation, saying she didn't think she'd be treated fairly in the story and saying she had been the subject of harassment since the fatal crash in May.

However, Demeria asked CBC News to speak to supporters of her rescue, who could provide positive stories. 

CBC News spoke to several fosters, partner rescue agencies and supporters of EJ Rescue who say they have never had a problem with Demeria or EJ. 

Her supporters deny many of the allegations from critics.

Few rules govern Alberta's dozens of rescue operations

One challenge is that there is no accreditation process and they are unregulated: anyone can call themselves a "rescue."

According to the Alberta SPCA, there are more than 70 rescue organizations that shelter cats and dogs in the province.

The SPCA does not routinely inspect facilities but will investigate complaints of an animal in distress — whether that's a report of lack of food or water, inadequate veterinary care or improper shelter.

There are also no laws that state animals must see a vet when they arrive in Canada or outline a rescue's staff to animal ratio.

EJ Rescue Canada is located in the same building as Dog “E” Daycare in Airdrie, Alta. Both businesses are owned by Trina Demeria. (CBC News)

Some rescues — such as Calgary-based Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society (AARCS) and Pawsitive Match — are registered as non-profit organizations, societies or charities.

That status means they have to report their financials, have a board and list the members.

EJ Rescue Canada is not registered as a non-profit organization or a charity. It was started in 2014 and was licensed as a business in 2020.

Dogs transported in unsafe conditions, critics say

Some of the ex-volunteers' top concerns revolve around the dogs' transportation into Canada, both in terms of transit conditions and falsified information in documents provided to border officials.

Johnson says she is still bothered by an August 2019 transport where she and Demeria went to Montana to pick up dogs from a rescue in Arizona.

They were supposed to be picking up 32 dogs — but when she woke up in a hotel, she says she found Demeria and the other agency volunteer had packed in an extra 11. 

She remembers the van being so crammed with dogs in kennels that there was no room to walk around. There were no safety straps to hold down the kennels as is required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) while travelling in Canada, and air couldn't circulate properly to cool down the stifling heat, she says.

One older terrier, who had been tucked up in a corner, died before they even reached the border, she said.

"He was too old and there was too much going on to stick an old dog in a top, hot corner," said Johnson. "I felt horrible."

Since the trip in August 2019, Johnson says Demeria has been using a gutted motorhome to transport dogs into Canada. 

Paperwork questioned by border officials

Problems with paperwork also surfaced on this August 2019 trip.

The CFIA regulates the humane transport of animals in Canada and says rescue agencies can't bring puppies under eight months into Canada unless they are already adopted. The rescue staff taking them across the border must produce proof of adoption, vaccinations and certificates of health to border officials.

Rescue dogs eight months and older just need a valid rabies vaccination certificate.

Johnson and the rest of the ex-volunteers say that, shortly after the August 2019 trip, they were contacted by border officials who had questions about some of the dogs' paperwork.

This motorhome is being used by EJ Rescue to transport dogs, according to a former volunteer. This photo was taken in Airdrie, Alta. (Submitted by Barb Lindsay)

Former foster co-ordinators Casey Heidinger and Stephanie MacNeil said they had signed documents stating they were adopting four of the Arizona rescue puppies  —  even though they weren't. 

"According to me, I'm saving lives, so OK, it didn't seem anything random or weird," said MacNeil.

They say Demeria asked them to because the puppies needed that paperwork to enter Canada. CBC News has talked to others who say they were asked to fill out similar paperwork.

But when called by the border services veterinarian, they say they came clean.

CBC News asked Demeria about this allegation but she did not respond.

CFIA says it is aware of EJ Rescue and could not comment on the organization or any investigations at this time.

A spokesperson for the CFIA says if an animal is improperly imported the animal could be removed from Canada, fines may be applied and legal actions may be pursued.

Concerns over paperwork in fatal crash

CBC News has learned there were also concerns over paperwork related to the fatal crash in Idaho involving dogs from Arizona headed to EJ Rescue Canada.

It's alleged EJ Rescue rented the US vehicle under someone else's account — who was not involved in the crash.

Documents show the truck that crashed was rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car under Mountain Girl Rescue, based in the U.S. — but Idaho state police have confirmed that rescue was not involved in the crash.

Both Mountain Girl and EJ Rescue are listed as the renters. But the rescue which was transporting the dogs, Who Saved Who, is not listed on the paperwork.

Two people and 26 dogs were killed after this truck headed for Calgary crashed in Idaho. There were 48 dogs being transported. The dog on the right survived. (Idaho State Police, BlackfooT animal Clinic)

Mountain Girl founder Katie Harris says she stopped doing transports with Demeria in March 2019. 

Harris says she stopped working with EJ Rescue for several reasons, including concerns about the way Demeria did transports. She alleges Demeria never signed an agreement confirming she would follow the American SPCA's transport guidelines.

Harris says she's not sure why her name is on the rental agreement but says it's worrisome because she's since discovered her name is on a total of six Enterprise contracts involving EJ Rescue, between August 2019 and May 2020 for transports she wasn't involved in.

"Here I am a year later and I am wasting hours of every day dealing with this, " said Harris.

"I am going through receipts from 2015 looking for my original contract with Enterprise to show, no, Trina Demeria, was never on it," added Harris.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car says it is still investigating the matter.

Conditions at Airdrie facility concern ex-volunteers

The core group of ex-volunteers also expressed concerns about conditions at the facility in Airdrie that housed the rescues and daycare client dogs.

In Canada, there is no standard ratio for volunteers or staff to a rescue. But AARCS, for example, says its minimum ratio is six people to 35 dogs.

The ex-volunteers say usually only one daycare staff member was on duty at a time to care for all the rescue and client dogs at EJ's Airdrie facility.

Left, Volunteers say they would often build kennels when more dogs arrived at the daycare/rescue in Airdrie. Right, a bank of kennels where some dogs were kept at the back of the rescue. (Submitted)

Johnson says she recalls having to potty, feed, play with and clean up after nearly 60 dogs by herself. 

"I said, 'Trina, enough is enough.' That was when I had a big fight … 'I have had it, there [are] way too many dogs. Nobody can do this, I'm lost,'" said Johnson.

As a result, the daycare would be filthy and cluttered, with some dogs living at the daycare for months because volunteers couldn't find them homes, usually because the dogs were too aggressive,  Johnson says.

The ex-volunteers also say dogs would not always get medical care when they thought it was warranted — from initial checks to follow-up visits if dogs got injured or became ill.

Johnson and the others say sick puppies would sometimes be cared for by volunteers rather than a vet, even when there were suspected cases of parvo — a highly contagious virus that is often deadly for puppies and young dogs — especially those that haven't received vaccinations.

There is no specific treatment for the virus but supportive treatment for infected dogs includes IV fluids and electrolytes, according to the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

"My heart is still sick at the fact that I enabled and stuck with her choice of care as opposed to going to the vet," said Johnson in a followup email.

Adopters don't have timely access to dogs' histories, critics say

Johnson says a more common problem that she and the ex-volunteers experienced around the dogs' health revolves whether and when medical paperwork is provided to adopters.

Adopters commonly had to wait months to receive their dog's vaccination and vet records from EJ Rescue — and some people never got them, the group says.

These documents would provide a dog's underlying health conditions and age.

Typically, rescue agencies provide a dog's paperwork at the time of adoption.

Ken Shiel says he was told his dog was younger than the dog’s vet records show but says EJ Rescue didn’t respond to his concerns. (Submitted)

CBC News spoke to one adopter who says they were left with a hefty vet bill because they say they were never told about pre-existing conditions.

Others say they were told a dog was younger than it really was, which allowed EJ to collect a higher fee. The adopters say they found out after they took their dogs to their own vet or when they finally got their dog's paperwork from EJ.

Ken Shiel adopted what he was told was a one-year-old bully mix only to find out a few months later that, based on the dog's records, it was a shar-pei and nearly four.

"I'm pissed off that they are doing this to people. I don't feel like they are in it for the animals," Shiel said.

Some fosters say they weren't told about a dog's behavioural or medical issues until after the problem surfaced.

Richard Gottardo says he was told his foster dog, Sabrina, was a sweet husky-malamute mix but when he took her home, she was aggressive toward his own dog. 

He says when he started to ask questions he was told to return the dog because the original owner wanted her back.

One foster says he was told this dog was a sweet husky-malamute cross but later learned she was an aggressive with a bite history. (Submitted)

Johnson confirms Sabrina did not go back to her original owner — rather she was taken to the daycare.

Other fosters told CBC News that they couldn't contact EJ or convince staff that their dog needed medical attention — whether it be for trouble walking, diarrhea or a wound suffered in a fight.

EJ Rescue's foster contract states EJ is responsible for making all medical decisions for the dogs and it will not reimburse fosters for any treatment that wasn't pre authorized by EJ.

Others defend EJ Rescue, denying allegations

CBC News spoke to several current volunteers, fosters and partner rescue agencies of EJ Rescue who say they have never had a problem with Demeria or EJ.

A current volunteer, Kara D'Costa, who says she took on a larger role around the time the other volunteers left, acknowledges EJ has organizational problems and says there are delays in getting medical records out to adopters. But she denies many of the allegations being made by critics.

"There's no one in the organization who will say that there's not things that need to be worked on but what we're saying here is like that's a far cry from dogs not getting vetted, dogs laying in their filth, thousands of dogs in a daycare piled on top of each other," said D'Costa.

D'Costa says EJ doesn't give medical records to adopters when they pay their fee and take the dog home because the first week is considered a trial period  — adopters can return their dog if things don't work out and receive a refund.

Once the week is up, adopters tell CBC News, they're told EJ Rescue has two weeks to issue these documents.

EJ's policy also states adopters can get their paperwork sooner if they forgo that trial period allowing for a refund, according to information shared with adopters.

D'Costa says EJ is working on changing its policy to provide the medical and vet records after the one-week trial period is up.

D'Costa also denies that dogs at the Airdrie facility are crammed together too tightly.

Volunteers say sometimes larger dogs, like this pitbull named Smiles, were being kept in crates that were too small. (Submitted by Twyla Johnson)

She says dogs are often in big pens — not cages — with plenty of room at the daycare if needed.

"It's never overcrowded…. Right now, she could probably have the capacity of, like, 75 dogs in there, like, comfortably. I think right now there are 12," said DaCosta.

Demeria's supporters also say dogs are not denied vet care when warranted.

'We'll have one who thinks that the dog should go to the vet because it's itchy. Well, no, there's five things you do before a rescue, [that] doesn't have corporate or government funding, will pay for that vet," said D'Costa.

If the alternative remedies don't work within a few days, then D'Costa says dogs will go to a vet.

D'Costa also says there is no money to be made in rescue and certainly not by Demeria, she says.

"If she was a puppy mill, or like what are they calling her, a rescue for profit, first of all she wouldn't be driving a rusted 1978 Jimmy," said DaCosta.

Ex-volunteers say SPCA repeatedly called to no avail

The six former volunteers say many people have complained to the SPCA about EJ Rescue — including them after they left — but say nothing changes based on what they still hear from adopters and fosters.

They say the SPCA sometimes notified Demeria before they came to inspect; other times, Johnson and another staff member say they would have to stall the SPCA and to give Demeria and the volunteers enough time to clean up, hide dogs, or move them into foster homes.

"Every time there's a big call out for fosters … the SPCA is either on their way or she's on her way to Arizona," said Johnson.

The Alberta SPCA wouldn't confirm whether officials have received complaints against EJ or if the SPCA has conducted any investigations at the rescue.

It did say its inspectors can either show up unannounced or provide notification of a visit.

Ex-volunteers call for regulation of animal rescues

The ex-volunteers say that, even though months have stretched on, they are still sharing information about EJ with the CFIA and the SPCA.

Regardless of what happens there, they're urging better regulation of animal rescues and say rules should include the need to:

  • Face regular inspections with followup to ensure any problems are fixed or penalties implemented.

  • Ensure animals are spayed or neutered, or have a voucher system for adopters to do so.

  • Have animals inspected by Canadian vets upon arrival and annual checkups for those still in rescue's care.

  • Give dogs at least a week to decompress/quarantine after arrival before being fostered/adopted.

  • Conduct behavioral assessments on dogs over six months.

  • Provide all paperwork upon time of adoption, fostering.

  • Make reporting of a dog's history mandatory.

  • Impose a fire code on the maximum number of animals allowed inside a rescue.

  • Implement rules for proper transport.

They're not the only ones calling for changes.

Humane Canada says there needs to be a comprehensive animal welfare law and regulation that governs animals in Canada — rather than the existing patchwork of laws governing the care and transport of animals at the municipal, provincial and federal level.

It is working on an accreditation program for the 115 humane societies and SPCAs across the country. It's voluntary and it will set out standards in 19 areas including governance, animal care and management, fundraising and foster systems.

The group of ex-volunteers hopes that the accreditation program will filter down to rescues, too.

In the meantime, the ex-volunteers urge people looking to adopt to do their homework.

They say to look up their Better Business Bureau profile and online reviews, ask to tour their facility, compare their policies with other agencies and check to see whether they are a business, non-profit or a charity.

Some adopters say looking back they didn't do any research — and urge others not to do the same when choosing a rescue.

"Because I guess for me, psychologically, there is just an assumed altruism with anyone or any organization that's rescuing dogs. There's like an implied trust, like, 'oh, these people are amazing, oh, what great people these must be, making sure these dogs didn't get put down,'" said Colette Hamon, whose adopted dog Bentley wasn't neutered. 

She says she ended up paying for the operation out of her own pocket because EJ ignored her complaints.