01/02/2014 05:14 EST | Updated 03/04/2014 05:59 EST

St-Lazare kennel owner devastated after fire kills 18 dogs

The owner of dog boarding service Family K9 in St-Lazare, Que., says he hasn’t slept much this week after his kennel burned down Saturday, killing 18 dogs.

Nick Zevgolis spoke at length with CBC Montreal reporter Thomas Daigle Thursday morning, nearly breaking down into tears when describing the fallout from the fire and the outpouring of support from the people he least expected it from — the dogs’ owners.

“These people … they’re extraordinary people. They have reached out to me and my family in their time of suffering and they ask how we’re doing, which to me is remarkable. I can’t even comprehend that level of compassion,” Zevgolis said from his home in St-Lazare, a suburb of Montreal.

He said he and his daughter were out visiting an elder relative who had just finished chemotherapy treatments when the fire broke out. Neighbours called the fire department, but by the time they arrived back on their property, it was too late.

“By the time we got here the fire had been primarily put out and the dogs had all perished,” Zevgolis said.

He said the dogs died of smoke inhalation and not exposure to the fire.

Kennel not illegal

Not all of the dog owners who placed their dogs in Zevgolis's care have been supportive.

Earlier this week, CBC News spoke to Michel Cohen, who was on vacation with his family in the Dominican Republic when they got word that their four-year-old goldendoodle, Dexter, had died.

"My first response was, 'How could you leave them unattended?'" Cohen said. "And his response was that he frequently left them unattended." 

Zevgolis said that after 20 years of training dogs and running Family K9 as a one-man operation seven days a week, his clients knew what to expect when they trusted their dogs to him.

He said he never promised anyone that there would be round-the-clock monitoring of animals.

“I am a one-man operation.… Everyone who dealt with me knew that I worked by myself. It’s certainly impossible for someone to be there if they’re one person, 24 hours a day,” Zevgolis said.

Questions of legality have also surfaced regarding Zevgolis’s right to operate the kennel in the first place.

Zevgolis did not possess a permit to operate a kennel. However, Sophie Gaillard, a lawyer and campaign manager of the Montreal SPCA’s animal advocacy department, said that’s not technically illegal.

Gaillard said that a new law that came into effect in November requiring anyone who owns or boards 15 or more dogs or cats at any given time to have a permit. But a grace period extended to March 7, 2014, to obtain the licence means that Family K9 was not breaking the law by not having a permit at this point.

She added that all someone needs to do to obtain the permit is apply and pay a fee, no inspection required.

Dog owner Cohen said he's retained a lawyer in the matter.

Another dog owner, Ariel Mashall, said in a Facebook message to CBC News that his seven-month old Boston terrier also died in the fire.

Mashall said that no money or further explanations would bring his puppy, Mila, back, but he was still trying to find answers. 

"Nick was her trainer two months prior and he had done an amazing job training her, albeit it wasn't cheap by any means," Mashall said.

"I never doubted his love for the dogs or his competence, hence the reason I felt compelled to have her board at his kennel. Yet, a huge part of me feels as though this could have been prevented, whether it could have been a case of more smoke detectors or supervision," he continued.

Connecting with clients

In the days since the fire, Zevgolis said he has been trying to figure out how to make it up to his clients.

“I’ve been in their homes, I’ve trained their dogs, I’ve, in some cases, trained more than one dog over the years, and seen their families grow and their kids grow up,” Zevgolis said.

“They’re not my dogs. It’s not the same and I understand that I’m not trying to compare in any way their suffering, my suffering, but I feel their pain and I stand with them in their pain.”

He said he’s offering the affected families free dog-training services if ever any of them should want to take him up on it with future pets. He also said he and his wife have already visited with a customer who had their dog at his kennel, and that a number of current and former clients have been supportive since the fire.

“[A client] said to me, ‘Well I go to work and I leave my dog home alone, and it could have just as soon happened to my dog in my own home. How could I blame [you] for something we all do with our dogs?’” Zevgolis said.

The kennel owner said he hopes to hold a benefit event in the future and donate the proceeds to a local dog rescue.