Pittsburgh Cremation Mistake: Dog Thrown in Dump

PITTSBURGH — A terrible mistake at the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh (HARP) is shedding light on what happens to deceased pets if they are surrendered, unclaimed, or an owner doesn’t take their remains after they’re euthanized.

“He was my best friend,” Ilena said, choking up as she struggled to find words. “No matter what, he always stood by my side. Always.”

Ilena Adkins of McKees Rocks made the difficult decision to put her dog Niko to sleep, but never did she imagine her faithful companion of 15 years would end up in the city dump as his final place of rest.

“He was by my side for 15-years, and now I can’t do anything to help him,” Ilena said, her eyes filling with tears. “He’s laying in a dump. Just laying in a dump.”

Difficult Decision

Niko would have been 15 years old on Sept. 30th, but time was taking its toll on her bright-eyed best friend. He was nearing the end and beginning to suffer.

“He was ready. He was ready,” she said.

Ilena made the painful decision to put Niko to sleep and wanted to make sure she picked the right place.

On a tight budget, she couldn’t afford the $700 one clinic quoted her to have Niko put to sleep at home, so she and her daughters did research looking for other options.

They decided on HARP to euthanize Niko. One of the largest animal shelters in Pennsylvania, HARP is known for good work throughout the community—sheltering and adopting out pets, spaying and neutering, and end of life services.

They talked to the HARP vet clinic about all the options—from just surrendering Niko to the clinic for them to take care of it, to being there when he was euthanized and getting his ashes back after a private cremation.

It was important to her to be there with Niko for his final moments and to get his ashes back to bring home.

“I wanted my dog to come home. He was my life,” she said.

So, the family paid extra to be there for euthanization and for a private cremation, where his ashes would be returned to them. It came to a total of $268.

“I said, ‘Is this enough money? Am I going to get my dog back? Am I going to get my dog back? I just want him back,’” she recalled telling the staff at HARP.

She says the staff reassured her and she left her best friend to be taken care of by the clinic.

At home, she set up a shelf in her curio cabinet with his leash and paw prints.

“He was going to be here. I had it set up. “I wanted him with me,” she said, showing 11 Investigates the spot where she hoped to bring him home as she began to cry.

PHOTOS: Dog sent to Pittsburgh-area dump after cremation mistake

A mistake was made

A week later, she got a phone message from the medical director at the HARP vet clinic with devastating news.

“She said, ‘There was a mistake made and Niko’s remains were disposed of.’ They didn’t tell me where they were disposed of,” Ilena remembered.

HARP told Ilena the day Niko was euthanized, they didn’t tag him properly and he was picked up as an unclaimed deceased animal by Pittsburgh Animal Care and Control for a mass burial, but didn’t say where. She says they were told they’d have to call Animal Control for more information.

At that point, she was so distraught, she could barely talk and just kept asking for her dog back.

“I said ‘I asked yinz to give me my dog back! I paid to have my dog back. I want my dog back!’” Ilena told them.

Her daughter Ambrosia called Animal Control, and that’s when a supervisor there told her Niko was disposed of at the Imperial Landfill.

“I was like devastated. They just dumped them with garbage. That’s so inhumane,” Ambrosia said.

Ambrosia tried calling the landfill to retrieve Niko’s body, but she was told it was too late, because several days had passed by the time they found out what happened.

“They said multiple trucks had already been dumped on top of his body. There was just absolutely no way of retrieving it, because there’s too much piled-on top of him,” she said.

HARP CEO Dan Rossi told 11 Investigates that what happened to Niko was human error, with a vet technician mislabeling him after he was euthanized. He said they’re “all animal lovers and hate to see this happen,” and released this statement:

Our goal is to care for animals in need and serve our local community—not add to a pet owner’s heartbreak. Please know that we immediately addressed the issue with our team, apologized to the pet owner and reviewed our protocols and procedures to ensure that we are taking the right steps at every turn. While this was an honest and isolated mistake, we are committed to preventing it from happening ever again. We have no further comments at this time. -- Dan Rossi, CEO, HARP

Rossi declined to do an on-camera interview, but told 11 Investigates he was unsure where deceased animals were taken by Animal Control.

He followed up with an email saying he “confirmed that the City of Pittsburgh takes deceased animals to a site in Imperial, PA, and are placed is a separate section from the general refuse items.”

11 Investigates, however, learned the deceased animals are not placed in a separate section, but end up with the regular garbage.

“Dead Animal Truck”

Pittsburgh Animal Care and Control has a contract with HARP to shelter stray animals picked up in the city. As part of that, Animal Control disposes of deceased, unclaimed animals at HARP, picking them up six days a week.

The deceased pets are taken in a municipal waste vehicle, which they call the “dead animal truck.” Most people don’t realize family pets are transported along with dead deer and other road kill and taken to the city dump and disposed of with regular garbage.

“There’s no private burial, there’s no crematory. It’s going to a landfill,” explained Pittsburgh public safety director Wendell Hissrich.

An animal lover himself, Hissrich said it is an unfortunate reality due to the cost and environmental issues that would be associated with having a crematory in the city.

In addition to picking up animals at HARP, Animal Control also provides the deceased animal disposal service free of charge to pet owners in the city of Pittsburgh.

He said when citizens call them, they are very straightforward in explaining what will happen to deceased pets if they are picked up.

When asked why it’s important to explain to people that animals are taken to the city landfill, Hissrich told 11 Investigates, “So we’re not in the situation we’re in right now.”

When Niko's family made the difficult decision to put him to sleep, never did they imagine his body would be thrown in...

Posted by Angie Moreschi WPXI on Wednesday, November 3, 2021

More transparency

The whole ordeal has been heartbreaking and frustrating for Ilena’s family—especially they say, because they had no idea HARP allowed pets to be disposed of this way.

When they were considering HARP’s options for putting a pet to sleep, they say no one told them an animal would be taken to the landfill if their remains were not retrieved.

“Anybody who loves animals would not throw them in a dump,” Ilena said.

Her daughters, Amber Pearson and Ambrosia Steele, say they are angry more information was not provided.

“For us to have him put down, that was already hard enough, then for this to happen, I’m at a loss for words,” Amber said.

Now, they are calling for more transparency, so pet owners can make informed decisions about what’s best for their family, and not end up devastated if they find out later.

“It’s difficult to think that this is even what they’re doing and this is how they’re going about disposing of all dogs, not just our dog,” Ambrosia said.

They say they contacted 11 Investigates because they want other pet owners to know what can happen, so they can make informed decisions about how their pet is laid to rest.

HARP apologized to Ilena, refunded the money for Niko’s cremation, and gave her an engraved picture frame with his name on it.

The rescue says it has reviewed procedures for properly labeling deceased animals with staff, but at this point, there is no indication HARP plans to change the process of how it disposes of unclaimed deceased animals.

If you’ve got a consumer issue that you’d like Angie to investigate, contact her at amoreschi@wpxi.com.

Finding Comfort

For Ilena, it’s still painful to think about Niko’s final place of rest, but as she continues to grieve she’s finding comfort in another old dog.

While she was at HARP trying to find out what happened to Niko, she saw an 8-year-old pit bull terrier limping in one of the cages.

“Something drew me to him. I didn’t want him to be thrown in the dump, in a landfill,” she said, choking up again. “I did not want him to be throwed in there.”

Ilena says nothing will replace Niko, but she decided to go back and adopt the dog. She named him Rocco.

“As much as he needs me, I needed him. I think Niko sent him to me. I don’t know why, but I think Niko sent him to me. And he’s gonna get love. He’s gonna get love.”