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WATCH NOW: It's been 3 years since Iowa's massive Samoyed rescue. Where are they now?

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Niko will have White Fire scars forever on his soul.

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Niko and Tesla with owner Cary Parker of Indiana 

At 13 months old, the Samoyed had spent his short life huddled and shivering in a filthy kennel with other dogs, starving and scrabbling for food, with little or no water to drink and no human contact.

Just months before the mass rescue of 163 Samoyeds from White Fire Kennel near Manly, Niko was among a smaller group of dogs removed from the kennel and taken to the Humane Society of North Iowa in Mason City.

Cary Parker has spent the last four years of his life showing Niko that humans can give love.

“We drove from Indiana and spent the day with seven pups stained yellow from their own urine and sores from fecal material on their skin,” Parker recalled. “I don’t think anyone had touched Niko until we touched him. He was the worst of the seven. He touched our hearts, and he still does to this day.”

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This month marked three years since the mass seizure when the Worth County Sheriff’s Office and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals carried dog after dog after dog from the kennel.

“It was the coldest day of the year,” recalled Sybil Soukup of Mason City, HSNI executive director, remembering the Nov. 12, 2018, raid.

All told, 302 Samoyeds were seized from the kennel property, including many in the months leading up to that November day. Some didn’t survive. About 16 pregnant dogs were among those removed and gave birth soon after, according to the federal court brief filed against White Fire Kennel.

The Courier and its sister paper, the Mason City Globe-Gazette, tracked down as many of those dogs as possible for a post-adoption look at their lives. We included dogs that were taken in by the Mason City shelter in the months leading up to the massive one-day seizure.

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Authorities seized 154 dogs and cats, nearly all Samoyeds, from a Worth County kennel in November. A new Iowa law makes undercover investigations of such facilities a criminal offense.

Through compassion, kindness and the hard work of HSNI and other shelters in Iowa and breed-specific rescues throughout the U.S., all of the dogs and puppies found forever homes. They are spread across states from coast to coast, including Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, New Jersey, Colorado, Utah, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California and Florida.

Many have suffered health problems and behavioral issues. Their adoptive owners remain dedicated to restoring the physical, mental and emotional health of these rescued Samoyeds, a breed known for smiling faces, fluffy white fur and gentle, loyal and affectionate demeanor.

After hearing about the November 2018 raid, Parker returned to the Mason City shelter and adopted Lotus, who was part of that seizure. “We renamed her Tesla. She has her issues, but she wasn’t nearly as bad as Niko.”

Raid & rescue

“This is the case that never ends,” Worth County Sheriff Dan Fank said of the White Fire Kennel seizures.

About 11 months before the ASPCA’s one-day raid, HSNI and the Worth County Sheriff’s Office became aware of the White Fire situation, where Barbara Kavars, 66, was caring for hundreds of dogs. She told the Globe-Gazette that she had struggled to keep up with the operation since her husband’s death from a brain tumor in 2017.

“There were just so many dogs, and one person was providing care for them, and she was just physically unable to do so,” Soukup said. “She wasn’t abusing them in a way of physically abusing them, but she was abusing them in the form of neglect.”

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Kristi Gardner, Cedar Bend Humane Society co-director, spends a few minutes with one of the 154 Samoyeds seized from a puppy mill in Manly and one of the nine being sheltered, evaluated and acclimated to human contact at the Waterloo shelter.

Iowa laws made it difficult for any national organization to provide assistance. “We reached out to a lot of different national organizations, and they all wanted to help,” Soukup said. “However, when they started digging into Iowa’s laws about animal welfare and puppy mill laws, a lot of them backed away and said they didn’t think they could win, so they didn’t want to be a part of this.”

HSNI was only able to take a few dogs at a time from the kennel, but as dogs were removed, pregnant dogs would give birth. It seemed to be a revolving door. There were always more dogs to rescue.

Before the ASPCA raid, HSNI had already taken 143 Samoyed dogs from the kennel. Soukup estimates the cost exceeded $58,000 for medical care, surgeries and food.

After months of searching for help from outside organizations, she worried about animals at the kennel. “We were starting to feel hopeless. Especially with winter right around the corner.”

The ASPCA came to Iowa for the first time ever to remove the remaining dogs and cats from the property in the one-day raid. Kyle Held, ASCPA director of investigations, worked on the case.

“Most of the dogs, all Samoyeds, were living in dilapidated kennels, many of which were overcrowded and covered in feces. It was snowing, temperatures were below freezing, and the dogs had little to no food and no water to drink, as it had frozen into ice. At least one kennel was damaged by a fallen tree, and all were filthy and smelled strongly of ammonia,” Held explained.

Makeshift kennels were set up at the Worth County Fairgrounds to hold all of the dogs. While the ASCPA fought legal battles to be able to remove the dogs from the state, the Samoyeds were fed, watered, examined, evaluated and given medical care, behavioral treatment and enrichment like socialization, treats and toys. After more than three weeks, the ASPCA began removing the dogs from the fairgrounds to be adopted out by shelters around the country.

“This must have cost the ASPCA more than $1 million,” Sheriff Fank said. “I had never been involved in anything like this, and I don’t think I ever will be again.”

Held said some dogs suffered from severe fear and under-socialization. “They were transferred to the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in North Carolina to receive specialized treatment.”

Barbara Kavars of Manly was found guilty on 14 counts of animal neglect in October 2019. She was sentenced to two years supervised probation with a suspended jail term of 420 days. She was prohibited from owning and breeding dogs and given a nearly $1,000 fine. She appealed the ruling in November 2019.

Any appeals filed on her behalf have been denied, and she was released from probation one year early on Oct. 15, 2020. “She was not allowed to own any intact animals or become a licensed breeder during her probation period only. As of 10/15/20, she would technically be allowed to get a license and sell dogs again,” Soukup said.

“I have searched the Department of Agriculture database to see if that has happened, and I do not see that she has an active license. However, in Iowa if you have three or less intact animals that you are breeding, a license is not required. I’m not aware if she does or does not have any dogs on her property as this time.”

Finding homes

Each morning Cindy Richardson awakens to Cartier climbing onto the bed, settling on top of her and snuffling her face. “Those eyes — I just have to get up,” said the Ohio adopter, laughing.

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Cartier 

Cartier is lucky to be alive. The Samoyed puppy and his brother were the youngest dogs removed from the kennel, Richardson said. He was desperately ill, suffering from seizures, stunted growth and other symptoms that baffled experts at three different specialty pet clinics and hospitals in two states. At 3 months old, he underwent intricate, life-saving surgery to repair a large liver shunt.

Kevin and Cartier in 2018

This is Kevin and Cartier three years ago when an ASCPA worker removed the  two Samoyed puppies from a puppy mill near Manly. They are now happy, healthy three-year-old dogs. 

Richardson credits Cartier’s survival to the persistence of HSNI staff, as well as Danielle Borrelli and Emma Borrelli of Mason City, who fostered the pup during his recovery and readied him for adoption. Grant funds from Giant Steps Foundation, the ASCPA and individuals who made contributions covered $15,000 in medical, surgical and after-care bills.

Richardson drove from Ohio to Iowa to meet Cartier with her other dog, Lukha, in the back seat. “It was worth the long drive. Cartier was 7 months old when I brought him home. He’s almost 3 now, and he’s doing wonderfully — a happy dog. I call him Monkey. He’s got so much energy and personality.”

They appeared on Hallmark Channel’s “Home & Family” daytime program, and Cartier has taken part in mini-reunions with Juno (Sitka) and Masey Roo (North), also White Fire Kennel rescues now living in Ohio.

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Kevin 

Cartier’s brother Kevin (Cabett), and a second female Meka (Wren) were adopted by Lisa Happ in Iowa. Kevin was in better health than Cartier and has grown into a happy, energetic dog who loves car rides and camping. Meka, who is probably about 6 years old now, had been nearly starved. “She scarfs her food and acts like she’s still starving and may never get another meal. We use a slow food bowl to get her to slow down.”

She was timid and shy and still “skips away from people at first. She’ll come up to them after they’ve been sitting down for a while. She really adapted to me. She’s at my side. I’m her person,” Happ said.

Masey Roo and Juno belong to Christine Martishius of Toledo, Ohio. She adopted 7-month-old Juno in Mason City in July 2018. Juno was among the first Samoyeds to be removed from White Fire Kennel in April 2018. After the ASPCA November raid, Martishius got a call from HSNI to see if she wanted to adopt a second dog. She made the drive a second time and went home with Masey Roo (Masey for Mason City and Roo for Stacy Rooney, HSNI shelter manager, who worked with Martishius.

Juno was shy and timid and cowered at petting, she said. “After a while, he began acting like a normal dog, he walked on a leash and was potty trained very quickly, but it didn’t take long for him to become a holy terror. He shredded his memory foam bed, tore the slipcovers off the couch. He ate his collar — the entire collar was in his gut. At the vet, he was given preoperative pain medication and puked everything up.”

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Juno and Masey Roo

Masey Roo was rambunctious from day one, Martishius said, “but peed herself if anyone walked by her and slow to warm up to people. But she’s feisty enough to hang with Juno, and they have become inseparable, sharing bowls of food, sleeping together and sharing a passion for peanut butter.

Megan Riding’s family learned about a 5-month-old Samoyed rescued from an Iowa puppy mill and awaiting adoption at a Southern California shelter. He was the last one left at the shelter. Megan’s dad found him sitting alone, his right ear forlornly bent, and immediately decided this pup was meant to join their family.

They named him Hudson. Navigating through Hudson’s puppy stages and severe separation anxiety has been difficult, said Megan, “but it has also been incredibly rewarding.

“In the same way that we chose Hudson, he chose us too. Since that very first day, we’ve been inseparable. He is protective of his ‘pack.’ He has the most expressive eyes and is the most observant dog we’ve very seen,” Megan explained.

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Hudson 

“We continue to work with him to get over his fears by going on more walks and car rides. He is a work in progress, but aren’t we all? We are so grateful to have been a part of this rescue and Samoyed Rescue,” Megan added.

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Ronan 

Ronan was missing his tail and an ear when he was taken out of White Fire Kennel. His white coat was dirty, and the 2-year-old dog was terrified of everything, said Jillian Elsbury. He’d never been inside a house. “We had to carry him up the stairs to go inside and down the stairs to go outside,” recalled Elsbury, a Mason City native who lives in Rochester, Minnesota. She and her husband, Shawn, adopted Ronan after seeing photos of the Samoyeds posted on Instagram.

“He sat in a corner of the dining room, which is still his spot where he feels comfortable. It took a while before he was comfortable letting us pet him. He’s pretty much out of his shell, the biggest thing was having two other dogs to help him learn to be a dog.”

Ronan will be 6 this spring. “We have no regrets whatsoever. We wished we’d adopted another one. It’s been such a rewarding experience to rescue a dog who came from that kind of circumstance and to see his growth and progression over the years,” Elsbury said.

Gary Wong adopted Arya (Hazel), a 1- to 2-year-old Samoyed, in January 2019 from the Samoyed Rescue of Southern California. “She came to us very scared and intimidated by humans. We own another Samoyed, so felt that we could have our other dog help her get used to her home and other people,” Wong said.

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Arya 

She’d been adopted by another family who returned her because she was an escape artist. “We didn’t fare much better. By the second week of her stay at our home, Arya had escaped her harness while on a walk and went missing for an entire 10 days. Finally, we found her three miles away in an open field. It was sheer luck that I had spotted a round, fuzzy curled-up ball in a field the size of three football fields. It took us nearly until the dark of night to get her leashed up,” he recalled.

Three years later, Arya loves her home and family, but “is still absolutely rattled by any small sound and any attempt by strangers to touch her. She makes steps every day in her interactions with people,” Wong added.

Skyy tried to make herself invisible behind her sister Stella when Kelli Lamberson of Bellevue adopted the pair at the Dubuque Regional Humane Society.

“They were absolutely terrified. Skyy had a horrible wound down to the bone that took a long time to heal. They both had such badly matted fur that it was causing them pain. It took a year and a half for them to come out of their shells, and they’re still timid with people,” she said.

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Stella 

Susan Britton Johnson adopted Juno from the North Texas Samoyed Rescue. He was 11 months old and described as “special needs. Whatever happened to him at that Iowa puppy mill was so bad he was afraid to move forward. Other people had tried to adopt him, but it didn’t work. He peed if anyone approached him. He was the last one at the rescue.

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Juno 

“I can still see his long, sad face. I think he chose me,” she said.

Jesse Gomes is still heartbroken about Lua. He choked up while talking about the sweet senior Samoyed he and his wife, Haley, adopted from the San Francisco Samoyed Rescue. Lua cowered in a corner her first night in their home, he recalled, and he slept on the floor in the same room so she wouldn’t be lonely. With help from their two Australian shepherds who showed her how to be a dog, Lua eventually blossomed.

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Lua 

“Her teeth were worn down to nubs, so they guessed she was about 11.” Gomes said. No one knows how many litters of puppies she gave birth to while at White Fire Kennel.

A year after her adoption, Lua was diagnosed with leukemia. The pain was too much for her advanced years. Jesse and Haley cherish her memory. “It’s rough to think about, even to this day.”

Paula St. Cloud had owned Samoyeds since childhood, but her life was “irrevocably changed” in May 2019 when she adopted Phoebe (Ruby) and Bodhi (Sapphire), 13-month-olds among the Iowa dogs sent to Southern California for new homes. She went to adopt Bodhi, but found she couldn’t leave Phoebe behind. “You couldn’t get near them. I told my husband it was going to be hard work, and he said ‘that’s OK.’ People at the shelter said Phoebe poops when she was afraid, but would probably grow out of it. I brought them home, and they cringed against the wall. They were terrified. I was getting ready for bed in my room that night and turned on the TV. I thought Phoebe was going to have a heart attack.”

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Bodhi and Phoebe 

They could only be caught outdoors because their long leashes trailed on the ground. It was torture for them to be hugged because they didn’t understand it. “By October, I was in tears. I didn’t think I was ever going to get through to them. By Christmas we made a lurch forward. It’s been 2 ½ years and the greatest moment was last winter when we went to Cambria near the ocean and let them off their leashes to run and they came to us when we called.”

St. Cloud is helping them to “learn the language of love and what touch means. They were like aliens from another planet. They didn’t understand touch or tone of voice.”

Phoebe still has accidents when visitors come to the house. Both dogs are attached to each other and to St. Cloud, and “they’re both so gentle. Phoebe is the smartest dog and a huntress. I never crate them, and I’ve never raised my voice to them. They were so damaged when they came to us,” she said.

“It’s been an amazing journey. I love them and I’m glad they’re in our family. I’m grateful to the people who saved these dogs. I love the Facebook group because no one can really understand what you’re going through with these dogs except other people going through the same thing. You learn to adjust your expectations.”

Ruth Jones started the Facebook group for Iowa Samoyeds as a support group for people who adopted dogs rescued from from White Fire Kennels. She’d adopted Diamond (Denali) from the Samoyed Rescue of Southern California in February 2018. The dog was surrendered to HSNI prior to the ASCPA seizure nine months later. “She and 17 others had a three-day truck ride across the country to various states and rescues,” Ruth said. Diamond’s mental state was worse than the retiree had expected.

“With love and a lot of money for training classes and a private behaviorist, she has made great progress, but she will never be a normal dog. She is now very comfortable in the house, as long as we don’t have any people over.”

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Diamond 

Diamond is still anxious about car rides and loud noises. On walks, she begs shamelessly from those who carry treats for their own dogs. The mailman doles out dog biscuits and lets her carry Jones’ junk mail. She’s also a “talker,” a trait shared by many Samoyeds.

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Valkyrie 

Cindy Mauro, a dog trainer from West Milford, New Jersey, worked with some of the rescued Samoyeds as a part-time behavior consultant for the ASPCA. She adopted Valkyrie, who was terrified and suffered panic attacks. “I like working with the fearful ones — I have lots of patience,” she explained.

Mauro recently took in another of the rescued Samoyeds. Mishka hadn’t adapted well to his suburban surroundings and “was scared of noises and men and everything. I’m more rural and quiet. My training started with a harness, going out the door and sitting on the stoop for a half-hour. I’m building his trust,” she said.

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Mishka 

Both dogs are “jokesters” and Mishka is already making progress, going so far as to greet Mauro’s boyfriend with a wagging tail. “It’s the little things, the big strides they make that are the big deal,” Mauro added.

Dawn Cook braved an Ohio blizzard in January 2019 to adopt her Samoyed, Harper. She’d been watching the Samoyeds of Columbus (Ohio) Facebook page and learned about puppies being received from the Iowa raid. She submitted an application and ventured out into a snowstorm to reach Columbus from her Cleveland home.

There she met and fell in love with Powder, who was born Nov. 14. “She was very little and had a broken tail that had healed incorrectly. Now you don’t notice it because of all her fur. I knew her journey and the whole situation had been traumatic. We were fortunate to get her as a puppy.”

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Harper 

Cook changed her name to Harper. “She is the calmest, most docile dog with such a great personality. She’s very loving and gentle. She can destroy any toy and loves stuffies that squeak. She likes to get a toy and play keep-away. Every morning I chase her around the table.

“She’s very strong, and we love her.”

‘Filthy, terrified’

Nine dogs were brought to the Cedar Bend Humane Society in Waterloo and successfully placed for adoption, as part of its partnership with the ASCPA, said CBHS Director Kristy Gardener. She still recalls what it was like to walk through the rows of temporary kennels at the Worth County Fairgrounds. “There were so many of them. It was hard to believe that underneath all that dirty and matted fur were fluffy white Samoyeds.”

Each shelter chose the dogs they thought they could place. “We tagged all the ones we had space for and thought we could adopt — a couple of older dogs, some adults, a couple of 6- or 7-month-old puppies and one pregnant dog,” Gardner said.

Caitlyn Wegner, CBHS administration and intake supervisor, remembered the condition of the dogs when they arrived. “Filthy, terrified, scared of everything and everyone, very leery of human contact,” she said.

Gus, Rose, Duchess, Tippy, Luna, Maddy, Snow, Blizzard and Indy were underweight and scared. They were vaccinated, spayed and neutered, de-wormed and groomed to remove matted fur. Gus needed hernia repair surgery. Indy, 3 months old, was quickly placed in foster care to begin early socialization.

Wegner fostered Luna and her eight puppies, born Dec. 12, 2018, until they were ready for adoption. She adopted Finley, the runt of the litter, who soon turns 3.

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Caitlyn Wegner, Cedar Bend Humane Society administration and intake supervisor, sits with her Samoyed, Finley, at the humane society.

“Finley can be very anxious, and he loves his mom so he’s always by my side. He’s also the goofiest dog ever. He loves to play and loves tiny, little cat toys,” Wegner said.

Cedar Rapids adopters Lynn and Sheila Williams, who are experienced Samoyed owners, saw news about the White Fire Kennel raid on TV. Lynn wanted to get their Samoyed Olivia “a buddy” and adopted 5-month-old Gus from Cedar Bend.

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Gus

“He was scared to death. We were in the garage for 45 minutes or an hour coaxing him out of the kennel. We brought Olivia in and it was heartwarming, as if a switch flipped. He came out, wagging his tail and excited to meet her.”

After losing Olivia, the Williams adopted another Samoyed — “a brother for Gus. They play all day long, then come indoors and crash,” Lynn said.

Lynn describes Gus as a “love bug” who gets along with the family’s three rescue cats, enjoys cuddling, belly scratches and playing with toys. Lynn cared so deeply about the White Fire dogs that he donated his Christmas money to Cartier’s liver shunt surgery.

“I believe it was meant to be. They’re both daddy’s boys, but Gus will keep his head against my thigh when I walk out in the yard. We have a connection,” Lynn said.

Wegner from CBHS has kept in touch with Julie Hundt from Omaha, who adopted Thor, one of Luna’s puppies. “I went bananas over him. He was like a tiny little polar bear. He’s super sweet and happy,” said Hundt.

Thor had an eye surgically removed because of an infection, but is doing just fine. He’s now 3 and tips the scales at 80 pounds. “His nickname is little bear. He loves to play, loves water and definitely is a mama’s boy,” Hundt said.

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Thor 

Susan Proctor drove 900 miles from her Colorado home with her 12-year-old Aussie to Mason City and adopted Buddy (Onyx). He was nearly 2 and “basically feral. I was terrified he would get loose, so had a collar and a harness with two leashes as we made our way back.”

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Buddy 

She took him to a trainer for 10 days. “Although I had had three Sammies (including two rescues) before, I was in waaay over my head this time,” she said.

Reading the tales of other adopters in the Facebook group “tells a painful story. These dogs are very much like each other in the challenges that they face. And very different from the characteristics of the breed. The story of older dogs, like Buddy, are especially poignant. It was almost nine months before I could see any bond developing between us,” Proctor explained.

It isn’t a “happily ever after” story, she said, but “he’s a happy dog. Loves other dogs. Loves being boarded upon occasion at a great vet’s kennel (dogs!). But, still has a long way to go with people.”

Carly Schaffer-Niemand is one of two HSNI employees who adopted a Samoyed after the raid. Umka was one of seven puppies born to Melody, a Samoyed in ASPCA care. She dubbed him “shy boy” because he’s timid and frightened of things like TVs and ceiling fans. He has come a long way, Schaffer said. He often helps out around the humane society, socializing other shy dogs in their care.

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Umka 

Inara was the last of the HSNI rescues to find her forever home in Minnesota. She was pregnant when she arrived at the Mason City shelter and gave birth to a litter of seven puppies. She remained at the shelter for nearly 1 ½ years because of legal proceedings.

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Inara

Lori Sorenson adopted Inara just before Christmas 2019. Inara was “apprehensive of everything and everyone” in her first few months in her new home, Sorensen said. Six months later she was “living her best life,” although still protective of her food and with a fondness for digging holes in the backyard.

“There was not a dry eye at the shelter as Inara left with her new family,” Soukup told the Courier in December 2019. “These Samoyeds had become a part of each of us and saying goodbye to the last one was a moment of pure joy, but also nostalgic of all the tears of sadness, anger and hope we had shed for these dogs.”

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