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Dog Rescue Linked To Man Accused of Killing Dog Should Be Closed: Critics

By Ed Komenda | May 13, 2016 6:39am
 Fabian Perez, 30, is charged with aggravated cruelty to animals and animal cruelty. Perez claimed Tyler, the rescue dog pictured here, was stolen by two armed men in March.
Fabian Perez, 30, is charged with aggravated cruelty to animals and animal cruelty. Perez claimed Tyler, the rescue dog pictured here, was stolen by two armed men in March.
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Chicago Police Department / Natalie Sopart

WICKER PARK — An animal care professional has called for a Chicago-based dog rescue to be shut down in light of the suspicious deaths of two animals linked to a man romantically involved with the rescue's owner.

Furever Rescue came under fire this week after prosecutors charged 30-year-old Fabian Perez — the boyfriend of Furever Rescue co-founder Natalie Sopart — with animal cruelty, claiming he killed her dog and left the corpse for her to find.

Just a month earlier, Perez told police he was robbed of a rescue pit bull named Tyler while transporting the dog between an adoption family’s home and Sopart's home. A day later, Tyler was found dead.


The incidents sickened the dog rescue community.

"I don't want them to be able to touch another animal," said Deena Traina, Animal Rescue Coordinator for the city of Aurora, where Furever Rescue had gained a poor reputation more than a year ago. 

Sopart said at the time the men who stole Tyler said, "Welcome to Chicago, bitch," before taking the pup and fleeing.

But the sad tale of Tyler's demise didn't add up to many people familiar with Furever Rescue.

"It doesn't make sense," said Christina Weissmann, a 28-year-old broadcasting professional who started the Facebook group #JusticeForTyler, an online campaign dedicated to shutting down Furever Rescue.

“Animals don’t have a voice,” Weissmann said. “They need someone who can be the voice for them.”

With almost 200 members, the Facebook group includes some pet owners who fostered dogs through Furever Rescue. Others are animal lovers, including Weissmann, who want to see Perez held responsible for Tyler's death.

Sopart and Furever Rescue co-founder Shannon Smith declined to comment Thursday.

Established in 2014, Furever Rescue is a volunteer-run organization that operates on private donations and its own fundraising campaigns.

The non-profit arranges adoptions for rescue dogs, charging a $350 fee for animals age 3 and younger and $300 for dogs 4 and older.

According to the group's website, the mission of Furever Rescue — which is located at 1321 N. Wood St. in Wicker Park — is to "Help animals in need find their second chance at life, love and happiness!"

The group has published many success stories on its online blog. But Furever Rescue has been accused of agreeing to accept dogs in need — and the expenses associated with medical treatment — and then failing to keep up communication with foster families looking for guidance and reimbursement, essentially abandoning the dogs.

On April 5, 2015, Furever Rescue posted on Facebook asking the public to help fund medical expenses for a pit bull mix named Ebony. The pup had serious bladder issues and needed surgery, the post said.

"Our Girl Ebony has a medical emergency and needs our immediate help," the post said. "Ebony came to us from Aurora Animal Control as an urgent pup," the post said, asking for help to "simply fund her medical expenses."

The post included a link to a Give Forward campaign, where concerned animal lovers could donate money. Furever Rescue set the campaign's goal at $6,000.

With a foster parent lined up — a woman named Kristy Toplak — Furever Rescue agreed to take the ailing dog from Aurora Animal Control, meaning the organization would become responsible for paying for the dog's food, veterinarian bills and lodging. 

But after she took the dog, Toplak would try to get a hold of Furever Rescue to talk about the dog's medical issues but the non-profit hardly returned calls, Traina said. Toplak ended up paying many of bills.

"Poor Kristy was left a lot of times in the lurch," Deena Traina, Dog Coordinator for the Humane Society of Aurora, said at the time.

Toplak considered taking Ebony to another veterinarian for a second opinion, but she first needed permission of the rescue organization.

Ebony's health deteriorated even more. She needed surgery to reattach her urethra to her bladder.

"Because Furever dragged their feet so long, the situation got worse," Traina said. "There was nothing that could be done, and she had to be euthanized so she wouldn’t suffer anymore."

On April 26, 2015, doctors euthanized Ebony.

Traina, an animal care professional with almost two decades of experience, said Furever Rescue should be held accountable for Ebony's death.

"How can you call yourself a rescue if you abandon dogs left and right?" Traina said.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture, which regulates animal care agencies across the state, received one complaint about Furever Rescue's treatment of animals, but an investigation revealed the organization was in compliance with the state's Animal Welfare Act.

"The department's investigation is complete," said Rebecca Clark, spokeswoman for the department.

In July 2014, Rhonda Heddinger agreed to foster Major, a pit bull mix logged with Joliet Animal Control.

Furever Rescue authorized the shelter to release Major to Heddinger, who scheduled to have the dog neutered at a nearby veterinarian. Furever Rescue agreed to meet with Heddinger to fill out paperwork, she said, but no one from the organization showed up.

Heddinger paid for all the dog's treatments out of her own pocket.

"I've never met them face-to-face," Heddinger said. "They have no idea where the dog is at. They've never seen my home."

After trying to get a hold of Furever Rescue for more than eight months, Heddinger decided to adopt Major.

In March 2015, Heddinger submitted adoption paperwork to Furever Rescue through email.

"I would not advise anyone to foster or volunteer with them," Heddinger said.

Rescue organizations typically evaluate all dogs taken from shelters, Traina said, but Furever Rescue never met with Major.

Before Ebony's death, Aurora Animal Control had no reason to worry about Furever Rescue.

There were no red flags on their record, Traina said. Furever rescue had many "glowing reviews."

"But as soon as Ebony started having problems, we couldn’t get a hold of them," Traina said. "We had to manage the best we could. It was unfortunate for Ebony."

After doctors euthanized Ebony, Aurora Animal Control put Furever Rescue on a restriction — a probation of sorts. They would not be allowed to take out another dog for foster care.

"They never did try to pull a dog from us," Traina said. "If they tried, they would have been told 'No.'"

After hearing the news that Fabian Perez — one of the last people to see Tyler the pit bull alive — landed in jail on charges he killed Sopart's dog, Gia, Traina said Furever Rescue should be investigated by the authorities and shut down.

"I would never put a dog in jeopardy like that, knowing [Perez's] history," she said. "If a person from your personal life comes into your rescue life, it's no longer personal."

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