Michigan family says their 2 dogs died during transport company's cross-country trip

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

An Oakland County family is warning others after their two dogs died last week when a transport company helped them relocate to the West Coast.

“I think we’re still in shock,” Bill Ervin told The Detroit News on Tuesday. “We’ve just been mourning them. I want to make sure no one else has to go through this experience.”

He and his family had spent months planning to move from Bloomfield Hills to Northern California in early June. To help with logistics, they opted to send their cat, Nelly, and two 6-year-old Great Danes, Penny and Cookie, separately.

After failing to find a suitable flight, Ervin said his wife, Kristin, reached out to Kansas-based VIP Pet Delivery through another website listing firms that specialize in transporting animals.

The Ervins' Great Danes Penny, left, and Cookie.

The manager, Rachel Cottrell, assured the couple the business was family-run and that her husband typically escorted pets with their daughter, Ervin said. “It just sounded like an ideal situation.”

They signed a contract in April and paid the first of two $1,350 payments. The couple also had their pets evaluated by a veterinarian as the agreement required before the trek, Ervin said.

According to the contract obtained by The News, VIP asked that the owners "let us know if your pet has recently had or will have any medical conditions or surgery prior to pick up up. This helps us know how to care for your pet in the best possible manner, or if we need to provide extra care!" 

The VIP Pet Delivery website and Facebook page appeared to be disabled and inaccessible this week. 

Neither Cottrell nor the company immediately responded to repeated requests for comment this week.

Less than two weeks before the scheduled departure, Ervin said the company alerted them about her family having been exposed to COVID-19 and promised another driver would fill in.

A man who identified himself as Shawn picked up the cat and dogs early on June 7 in a van and agreed to let the family track his cell phone to watch the cross-country journey. He turned off the Apple Find Me Friend app once he left Michigan, Ervin said. 

The driver's father told The News his son, Jack Nakamoto Jr., had been tapped to transport the dogs through another company he worked for. Text messages provided to The News showed Cottrell told a staffer of that company that another driver named Shawn "bailed on us." 

Soon after the driver left Michigan, Ervin and his wife learned  he and the pets were in Texas. The couple later was told the driver had been “making great time” and by June 9 headed to Phoenix, Er

Nakamoto said his son was not in direct contact with the customers per shipping protocol, to avoid distractions, and the couple couldn't dictate the route he traveled.

It wasn't until Friday that they received a call from Nakamoto Sr. The California resident said his son was “really broken up” over Penny and Cookie having died during the trip and he stepped in to have them cremated, Ervin said. 

Nakamoto said his son, who was unavailable for an interview, had expressed concerns about Cookie's health and shared a video with himduring a stop in Texas. The News reviewed the footage, which showed the black-and-white canine lying on the grass.

"Dude, she won't get up," Nakamoto Jr. is heard saying. "She can't walk no more it. That's it. ... She literally can't get on her two feet."

By the time Nakamoto's son reached California late on June 9, he noticed the dogs had died but the cat was alive, he said. "Right then, I'm calling everybody that I have contact with."

Nakamoto didn't have the Ervin's contact number, and after an online search, settled on Gateway Pet Cemetery & Crematory in San Bernardino.

A copy of a receipt The News reviewed showed he brought both dogs in on Thursday.

Crematory representatives did not respond to a request for comment this week.

"Now I'm looking back, I should have probably just called animal control," he said. "... I didn’t know where to properly dispose of a dog."

Nakamoto said the company had stopped responding and he had to go through the original website to find the number for the Ervins. "I literally almost broke down crying" telling them about the Danes, he said.

He added that his son's van was properly air-conditioned and Nakamoto Jr. told him he checked the dogs routinely.

Ervin told The News the dogs were healthy and he wonders if they overheated in the van. What's worse, no one has reported how the dogs died, he said.

“I don’t know what they were waiting for,” Ervin said.

Ervin said his wife frequently reached out to Cottrell but she didn't respond until Sunday.

Meanwhile, since the crematory workers told Ervin they had not yet cremated the pets, the family is seeking necropsies to determine what caused their deaths.

“I just want to know what happened, and no one is willing to step up and tell us the truth,” he said.

His family’s path forward may be unclear.

Bee Friedlander, board president at the nonprofit Attorneys for Animals, said legal remedies would depend on where the dogs died and what laws apply in that state. Many states have consumer protection laws and consider animals property, she added.

However, the Ervins could choose to focus on proving whether the company violated the transport contract.

“If in fact the terms of the contract just weren’t abided by in a fraudulent or egregious way, then there might be some possibility of recovery of above and beyond what the contract provides for,” she said.

For now, Ervin is urging pet owners to research more before trusting their companions with someone else and “ask a lot of questions. ... I don’t want other people to suffer the way we have."