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‘Tragic’ kennel fire claims 31 dogs near West Chicago; 30 rescued

Sherie Gechas of Lisle reunites with her dog, Jackson, at DuPage County Animal Services
Sherie Gechas of Lisle reunites with her dog, Jackson, Monday at DuPage County Animal Services in Wheaton. Jackson was rescued from a fire Monday morning at D & D Kennels near West Chicago.
Daily Herald/Bev Horne

Among dozens of dogs killed in a west suburban fire Monday were Tomo, a spaniel mix, and Alistair, a lab mix.

The dogs’ owner Kristen Gottschalk had rescued the dogs from Chicago Animal Care and Control along with a third dog that survived the fire, Lynda.

“It’s just a tragic situation,” Gottschalk told the Sun-Times. She and others at the non-profit Fetching Tails Foundation she runs were devastated by their deaths.

In all, at least 31 dogs died in the blaze at D & D Kennels, near West Chicago. About 30 other dogs — including Lynda — were saved by a quick-acting sheriff’s deputy and firefighters who braved flames and smoke to rescue the animals. Twenty-three of the dogs were brought to DuPage County Animal Services in Wheaton with a variety of injuries, mostly burns, cuts and bites. Six dogs escaped, but as of Monday evening only one, a shepherd, was on the loose.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare situation, but the staff has been amazing,” said Barbara Hanek, the veterinarian administrator at the Wheaton shelter. “Everybody just pulled together for the sake of the animals and the owners and the rescues. We had a few people kind of break down for a moment, but they didn’t want to stop [helping].”

D & D Kennels in West Chicago after fire
The West Chicago kennel was ruled uninhabitable Monday.
Fetching Tails Foundation

It was a nightmare for the first responders, too, who found some of the dogs tied, caged or loose in the kennel at 2N441 County Farm Road but couldn’t reach those on the top floor of the two-story building because of the fire’s intensity.

“A lot of them were in cages,” said Carol Stream Fire District Chief Bob Hoff. “Some were tied up, and [it was] just a very, very sad scene.”

Roughly half the surviving dogs remain at the shelter. The others have been reunited with the rescue groups that own them.

DuPage County Sheriff’s officials said a patrol deputy spotted the fire around 5:30 a.m. and immediately went into the building to begin bringing the dogs to safety.

The cause of the fire does not appear to be suspicious, but it is being investigated by the DuPage County Fire Investigation Task Force, authorities said.

Firefighters arriving on the scene found heavy fire pouring out of second-floor windows of the building, Hoff said. They spent about five hours battling the blaze.

The building, which had attached kennels on either side, was housing roughly 50 pit-bulls along with other breeds.

Firefighters were able to corral the dogs they rescued on the north side of the property. Three firefighters were treated for dog bites; two suffered puncture wounds to the hands and another was bitten on the lip, Hoff said.

“The dogs were fighting each other trying to bite the firemen. It was pretty crazy for a while.”

The dogs on the second floor couldn’t be saved because of the volume of fire, Hoff said.

The building was deemed uninhabitable and boarded up by Monday afternoon.

“Just a bad day,” he said.

A fire at a West Chicago kennel killed 31 dogs, including Alistair (top right) and Tomo. | Daily Herald; Fetching Tails Foundation
A fire at a West Chicago kennel killed 31 dogs, including Alistair (top right) and Tomo. | Daily Herald; Fetching Tails Foundation

In addition to first responders, one person suffered non-life threatening injuries, officials said.

The kennel’s owner apparently was not in town, but a caretaker was at the scene, Hoff said.

If the owner had been there, “I don’t know how he would have gotten out because of the fire conditions,” Hoff said.

D & D Kennel is owned by Garrett Mercado and is currently licensed under a new name, “The Bully Life Animal Services,” Illinois Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Denise Albert said. It is a licensed kennel operator.

The last routine inspection was done on Sept. 20 and the facility passed, she said.

Gottschalk said Fetching Tails, which is in far northwest suburban Itasca, had sent roughly a dozen dogs to the West Chicago kennel for training before placing them in foster homes. She noted that the home where the kennel was located was “pretty run down,” but said Mercado had been making improvements on it.

“He had a lot of dogs there. I don’t know the exact amount, but he had a lot of dogs there and they were all getting care,” said Gottschalk, who noted that Mercado’s own dogs were killed in the blaze.

On Monday night, Gottschalk was bringing Lynda to a new foster home in Schaumburg after she had her lungs examined by a veterinarian. But the dog is older, prefers not to live with other dogs, and has been challenging to place in the past, the foundation said.

“This dog has endured an abusive and neglected past, was brought to animal control to be euthanized by her owners and we rescued her from there,” according to a post on the Fetching Tails Facebook page. “Now Lynda has survived a deadly fire. … Whether a foster or adoptive home, please help us find a place for Lynda to rest comfortably. She has been through so much in her life.”

Katlyn Smith is a reporter for the Daily Herald. Tom Schuba and Luke Wilusz are digital content producers for the Sun-Times.

Dozens of dogs were killed in a fire at a kennel Monday morning near west suburban West Chicago. | Daily Herald
Dozens of dogs were killed in a fire at a kennel Monday morning near west suburban West Chicago. | Daily Herald