By CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd

(CBS4) – Some Colorado pet rescue organizations have become multi-million dollar puppy importers. A CBS4 investigation found protections, for pets and people, haven’t kept up.

Shelby Elliot among thousands of Coloradans who’ve adopted a rescue dog. She says it was love at first site.

“We went to a couple different shelters, and we saw (him) and all three of us in my household decided he was the one.”

(credit: Shelby Eliot)

When she spotted the black and white puppy at New Hope Rescue in Colorado Springs, she knew it was meant to be. What she didn’t know is the puppy, who she would name Billy, was already dying.

By the time the seizures began, Elliot says, it was too late.

“They were happening back to back to back to back.”

She says he was diagnosed with distemper despite paperwork from the rescue showing he’d been vaccinated.

“I had to explain to my 4 year old, who had the dog for three weeks, that we had to put him to sleep and that he was not coming back home.”

Billy is one of five dogs from New Hope Rescue that would be euthanized. Owner Joann Roof, who had no comment, was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. Investigators say she knowingly imported and sold sick dogs from a New Mexico Shelter. The state suspended the facility’s license.

“Those kinds of things scare us,” said Nick Fisher. He’s in charge of enforcing Colorado’s Pet Animal Care Facilities Act or PACFA. It’s one of the first laws in the country to regulate rescues and has rules for everything from kennel sizes to cleaning and sanitation.

It also requires rescues to report how many dogs they take in each year and where they get them from.

Fisher says, last year, rescues and shelters imported 37,000 dogs, most of them puppies that are in high demand. CBS4 went undercover and found people lining up for them at adoption events. Fisher says some even buy the dogs right off transport vans. We got video of dogs being unloaded in parking lots.

“If an animal is being taken right off the truck, that rescue has no idea what’s going on with that animal,” said Fisher.

Most rescues, he says, are responsible, but some of the biggest rescues, he says, import dogs with little – if any – knowledge of the health risks they pose.

“A veterinarian does a visual inspection prior to the animal being transported, and often times, it’s five minutes before the animal gets on the truck and they’re like, ‘yep, looks good’ and off it goes.”

Fisher says interstate trafficking of dogs has led to new diseases and parasites in Colorado.

“From a traceability standpoint, from a disease control standpoint, that’s what worries us the most.”

He says rescues are required to tell a buyer if they know an animal is sick, but they’re not required to test them or vaccinate them. Fisher has just eight inspectors and investigators for 2,300 pet care facilities, and he says, they get 700 complaints a year.

Through an open records request, CBS4 found reports of delayed treatment, overcrowded foster homes, disease outbreaks and poor sanitation. In one case, a rescue dog exposed as many as 25 people to rabies. The same rescue is accused of providing fosters with expired, mislabeled and unlabeled medications that an investigator said could have had “catastrophic results for fostered puppies.”

The rescue disputed the allegation. While state lawmakers have demanded more accountability from pet stores, they’ve set a lower bar for rescues. Pet stores are required to tell you not only where your pet came from, but how it got to Colorado, and if the breeder or transporter has any violations. Rescues are not.

Fisher says he sees little difference between the two, and he says, lawmakers should hold them to the same standard.

Shelby Elliot said, if Colorado is truly a pet-loving state, it’ll do more to protect all pets, regardless of who sells them.

“If there was testing from the get-go, and making sure these dogs are healthy, this never would have happened.”

While most rescues are nonprofits, that doesn’t mean they don’t make money. In part two of our series, CBS4 will tell you how much money they make and how far some rescues will go to get puppies.

Shaun Boyd