CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — Whiskers' journey to Tennessee spanned more than 10,000 miles, cost thousands of dollars and required the work of dozens of volunteers eager to save the dog from the horror of war in Afghanistan.
But now, owner Amy Konstantelos is worried his journey might have ended in the barn where 37 bags filled with animal remains were found after an investigation that started with the discovery of four dead puppies in Clarksville. RRR Service Dogs founder Nicole Hulbig was charged with four counts of aggravated animal cruelty to animals last week in Montgomery County and eight counts of animal cruelty in Sumner County.
Her arrest has left dozens of frantic dog owners wondering where the pets she took in are now. After 37 bags of dead dogs were found at her mother's Cottonwood home, where Hulbig recently moved after leaving Clarksville, 39 live dogs were seized and taken to the Sumner County Animal Shelter.
A few have been reunited with their owners, but most remain unclaimed. And many pet owners and rescuers who put dogs in Hulbig's care have been horrified to learn theirs aren't at the shelter, leaving them to wonder if their dogs are dead or alive.
'I think they're in one of those bags'
Konstantelos fell in love with Whiskers the first time she saw his photo online. It didn't matter that he was in a war zone more than 7,000 miles away. The Lancaster, California, woman was willing to go to great lengths to bring him to the United States. An organization that helps get dogs loved by U.S. soldiers out of Afghanistan was eager to help, and more than $3,000 was raised online to pay for his trip. Whiskers flew to Pakistan, then to New York and finally to Konstantelos in California in May 2011.
At first, everything was fine.
"He never had aggression issues with me or my husband," she said. "We bonded immediately but he had problems with other people, sights and sounds. He was suffering from PTSD."
When frightened, Whiskers could be more aggressive than she liked around her children. She knew he needed a good trainer but couldn't find anyone in California with the credentials to handle the job. Then she heard about Nicole Hulbig and RRR Service Dogs in Tennessee.
Hulbig claimed she could help both dogs and soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Konstantelos said. Hulbig told her she could train Whiskers to be less aggressive at her "ranch" in Cottonwood. Konstantelos and fans of the somewhat famous Whiskers raised another $1,500 for his training and hoped a calmer Whiskers would be reunited with her after a few weeks or months.
But as months turned into a year, Hulbig told Konstantelos that Whiskers would always be aggressive and should be paired with a single person – preferably a disabled soldier.
Hulbig said she would keep him at the ranch in the meantime, and Konstantelos sadly agreed.
She was cheered by the photos of Whiskers that Hulbig would post to her Facebook page and the idea that he would be paired with a soldier who needs him.
"It's a beautiful picture," Konstantelos said. "I thought it would be selfish of me to bring him back here because he was at a place he loves."
For a year-and-a-half, Konstantelos asked for and received photos of Whiskers and even watched little snippets of video of him being trained on Hulbig's website – which was deactivated this week, along with her Facebook account.
"I stopped hearing about him six months ago," she said. "She stopped sending pictures. Then she started sending old pictures ... That's when I thought there is something really wrong."
Now she thinks Whiskers and two other dogs rescued from Afghanistan and placed in Hulbig's care must be dead. A woman who volunteered with Hulbig recently told Konstantelos the canine trio nicknamed "the sleeper cell" all died months ago, although Hulbig told Konstantelos that Whiskers was fine Friday. When asked for a photo, Hulbig stopped all contact.
"I think they're dead," Konstantelos said of the three Afghanistan rescues. "I think they're in one of those bags, and we'll never know which one."
A $500 reward has been offered for "credible information" about the fate of the three dogs and $4,500 for their safe return.
Konstantelos' daughter, Helena, also seems to know Whiskers is gone for good.
"I wish Whiskers could just come back to life and come back here, and we can train him to be a good dog," the 11-year-old said.
'I couldn't believe it was him'
Leah Patterson's story had a happier ending, although it started with tears Friday.
The Clarksville woman had rescued a German shepherd named Max from the Montgomery County Animal Control shelter two years ago. She runs a rescue too and had adopted Max out a couple of times before, but he was always returned because he's too energetic for most people to handle.
In February, Hulbig told her she wanted to adopt Max as her personal dog. At that time, Hulbig was still living with her husband on North Henderson Way. Patterson required her to visit with Max a few times to make sure he'd be a good fit with her family.
"I thought she was to going to take good care of him," Patterson said.
But a friend who lived near Hulbig told Patterson that she never saw the dog outside or being walked. Then last week, Hulbig stopped by Patterson's store in Clarksville, saying she was in the process of moving to her mother's home in Cottonwood. (Hulbig told The Leaf-Chronicle on Friday that she had not been to Clarksville in more than a month and had no idea how four decomposing puppies came to be at her home, but Patterson insists she was in town three days before the puppies were discovered.)
Patterson had hoped for a last visit with Max, but Hulbig told her she'd moved Max to her mom's house that morning.
When Patterson heard about Eric Hulbig's arrest Thursday on four counts of aggravated animal cruelty, she called Nicole, looking for answers. After Nicole Hulbig's arrest on the same charges, she was told on Thursday that Max was fine and staying with a friend.
That same day, the dead dogs were found in her mother's barn, along with Max and 36 other living dogs. Two more were found alive inside the house.
Hulbig found out Max was at the Sumner County Animal Shelter and rushed to claim him.
"They bring him out, and I literally hit my knees crying," she said. "I didn't believe it was him. He was 89.6 pounds (in February), and now he's 55 pounds. Another week or two and the vet said he would have been dead."
Max is recovering, scarfing down about 12 cups of food a day. Before he went to Hulbig, he would eat four cups a day. He was so skinny that a veterinarian rated his body mass as a 1 on a scale of 1 to 9, with 5 being healthy.
Max isn't up for adoption. He'll live out his days with Patterson.
"I will never let him go through something like that again," she said.
'Where are they?'
Dagmar Merrill of Lexington, South Carolina, isn't as sure as Patterson or Konstantelos about the fate of four dogs she delivered to Nicole Hulbig in July.
The volunteer helps save dogs who wind up at the Lee County Animal Shelter in South Carolina by finding them homes or driving them to rescue organizations so they won't be euthanized.
She found out about RRR Service Dogs online and liked the look of its website and Facebook page. She contacted Nicole Hulbig and checked her references.
"I met her and she seemed like a wonderful lady," Merrill said Tuesday.
Merrill drove four dogs to Nicole Hulbig in July but didn't visit her home. She said Nicole Hulbig told her foster homes had already been arranged and met her outside Nashville. In September, the shelter's director took 10 more to her, Merrill said.
Now they are reeling and desperate to find out what happened to the 14 dogs. They hope all have been adopted or fostered but don't know where to look. They hope none of the 14 are in the 37 bags. Those remains were far too decomposed to identify.
"I knew them all; they were wonderful, fully-vetted dogs," she said.
And then she began to weep.
"I'd like to know if they are still alive. Where are they? I'm the one who took them, and now I want to stop helping animals because I can't trust anyone anymore."