On Instagram, the rescue dog, with its oversized ears and polka dot eyebrows, was hard to resist. But for Paul Stavropoulos, it was her backstory that spoke to her: Elevado, a 50-pound shepherd mix, had been shot several times in Texas, leaving her partially paralyzed in her hind legs.
“FOSTER NEEDS,” read the post from Redemption Paws, the grassroots dog rescue that brought Elevado to Toronto. “Can you help provide a safe home to stay in while she waits (she) at home forever?”
Stavropoulos, a 30-year-old filmmaker, felt compelled to volunteer. He wanted to help a dog in a wheelchair that others might overlook. But what started as an act of generosity ended four months later with bitter recriminations, emails from lawyers and an ultimatum where Stavropoulos had to sign a muzzle agreement to adopt Elevado.
Elevado is one of Redemption Paws’ most prominent dogs, written about by local media and named in fundraising appeals. She needs a special breed of dog lover – someone willing to express her bladder, change her diapers, and catch her poop before she drags it across the floor.
Her story is also one of many told by former staffers interviewed in a Toronto Star investigation, where more than two dozen sources say the relief group prioritizes volume over to ensure safe and ethical treatment of dogs, adopters and volunteers.
Read the Star’s full Redemption Paws investigation here
Two former staffers said that while CEO Nicole Simone touted Elevado’s public relations potential at internal meetings, Redemption Paws was ill-prepared to support one of its most vulnerable and difficult dogs.
Stavropoulos also alleges Redemption Paws withheld a vet appointment that could have helped Elevado while fulfilling the charity’s stated mission of finding unwanted dogs loving, forever homes.
“(People remember) that Redemption Paws brought this dog in a wheelchair,” said Kyle Hodder, a former executive director who stepped down last July. “But what has Nicole done for that dog since he’s been in Toronto?
Simone said the claims were “baseless” and Redemption Paws has always done the best for Elevado, as they have for the nearly 3,000 other dogs it has rescued over four years. She said her charity operated in a safe, responsible and ethical manner and that Elevado had never been a public relations move.
“I started this operation to help dogs and will continue to do so,” she said in an emailed statement. “I am confident that the leadership and background of the thousands of successfully placed dogs reflects the genuine concern for the dogs we all love so much.”
When Elevado arrived in Toronto last July, she didn’t yet have a foster home to go to, said Christine Bubleit, then head of adoptions for the charity. She took the dog on as a stopgap measure – but only lasted a day.
“I didn’t have enough experience,” she says. “It was horrible for her; it was horrible for me too.
Elevado was moved to a foster family for the first time, but they were quickly overwhelmed, she said. But then, in early August, Stavropoulos stepped in.
When Elevado was dropped off, his wheelchair had stirrups made from socks and elastic cords. Stavropoulos suddenly realized the enormity of his new responsibility.
“Because she drags her legs everywhere…she’s like an inverted mop,” Stavropoulos said. “I was like…I don’t know how I’m going to do this if I have to sit here and wait to grab his poop every 120 minutes.”
The first few days were demoralizing, with Stavropoulos effectively trapped in his apartment by Elevado’s toilet needs. He spent weeks researching techniques and finally found a system that worked.
He also fell in love. “She’s so pure and sweet,” he said. “It’s hard work, but it’s made me a better man.”
Early on, Stavropoulos asked Redemption Paws if Elevado could access rehabilitation, which required an appointment with a specialist that only the charity could make. He realized that she might never walk normally again, but noticed that her strength was improving. He offered to subsidize the fees.
When Stavropoulos spoke to Simone at the end of the summer, she asked if he was interested in adopting Elevado and agreed to the appointment with the specialist, explaining that it could cost up to 750 $.
At the end of October, Stavropoulos had still not heard anything, so he asked again. It was his sixth request in two months. “Bringing Ellie to a specialist is what would help me make an informed adoption decision,” he wrote in an email, explaining that he wanted to fully understand her future.
He was surprised by Redemption Paws’ response.
“We had proposed the appointment with the specialist as a nicety, but if adoption depends on the results of this appointment, it seems that we should actively seek another adopter,” wrote Jing Kao-Beserve, director of operations. .
But months earlier, a vet had already recommended that Elevado see a neurologist or access physical therapy, according to vet notes obtained by the Star. About a week after Redemption Paws brought Elevado to Toronto, a vet observed movement in his hind legs and recommended a neurology appointment to see if surgery could correct the deficits or if physio could help him. regain normal function.
Redemption Paws probably could have gotten a specialist consultation for free, said Hodder, who left the charity at this point, in part because he took issue with the lack of care given to the dogs.
Stavropoulos was upset with Redemption Paws’ responses, with Simone insinuating that he may have committed fraud. (He had posted a PayPal link on Elevado’s Instagram for those interested in donating to his care, which Simone said “could be considered fraud” and would be reported to the charity’s attorney. He said no one ever told him it was not allowed, he deleted the link when asked and provided proof that no funds were received).
Simone eventually agreed to go ahead with the specialist – but said Stavropoulos had to confirm the adoption within 72 hours or the charity would find other adopters. Demoralized, he took to Reddit to let off steam. “I feel bullied,” he wrote.
A few days later, he received an email from Redemption Paws’ attorney. After some back and forth, the attorney said Stavropoulos could adopt Elevado without the $895 adoption fee, but had to agree to a number of conditions, including a non-disparagement clause.
When Stavropoulos refused to sign the clause, Redemption Paws said he was taking over Elevado. The same day, the charity emailed its network of volunteers, seeking a new foster family for Elevado – notifying Stavropoulos that Redemption Paws was taking the dog back without first getting proper care.
Stavropoulos surrenders. After weeks of back and forth — Stavropoulos asking for more time to get legal advice and Redemption Paws’ lawyer imposing a strict deadline — he signed the contract in early December.
Simone disputes Stavropoulos’ version of events and says he wanted to dictate his own terms, which the charity cannot accept as “the organization would not be able to function”.
“We never pressure anyone, but we have to draw a line on whether that person is the right person for the dog,” she said. “Are they attached to the dog or are they just using the dog as a ‘rental dog’ situation so the organization pays for the care and gets a free dog?”
Stavropoulos said he never asked Redemption Paws to let him fully understand the responsibility he was taking on. He feels the charity used their love for Elevado against him, acting in bad faith and then forcing him to sign a non-disparagement clause by threatening to take the dog away from him.
He said he was speaking out because Elevado has been publicly touted as a Redemption Paws success story – and people who donate time and money to the charity deserve to know how his story turned out. is finished.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to talk about it,” Stavropoulos said. “The only thing I can do is share this story and say, this is not right.”