The seized collies that have lived with their urine-soaked, feces-encrusted coats at the Marias Valley Fairgrounds in Shelby, Mont., for the past several weeks are finally getting groomed.
Professional groomers volunteering their services began arriving about a month ago from around the country to attend to the dogs confiscated from John Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman of Nikiski.
Until recently, the animals remained with their foul-smelling, matted coats. Veterinarians were concerned that the stress of the hygiene procedures could further compromise the dogs' already weakened state of health. Nearly all the dogs were diagnosed with giardia, coccidia, internal parasites and varying degrees of internal and external infections.
"It was just horrific," Nancy Henricksen said in regards to seeing the facilities the dogs were transported in. "The conditions of the trailer were liken to pictures I've seen of concentration camps."
Henricksen, proprietor of Groomingdales pet grooming facility in Kenai, volunteered her services after seeing images on the evening news of the conditions the dogs were forced to live in.
Most -- if not all -- the groomers traveled at their own expense to be there. Henricksen was no exception.
She obtained funding for her travel expenses through donations from area businesses and her family. After supplying her resume, references and submitting to a background check, she was permitted to help those overseeing the dogs' care.
"They still looked rough," she said. "Their personalities were like they were shell-shocked."
She performed many grooming tasks on the canines, including conditioning, shampooing, drying and cleaning out ears and pads. Many of the dogs had coats so poorly kept that hours of brushing were required to remove knots.
Henricksen planned to volunteer her services for 30 days.
"By grooming at a rate of three dogs a day, I could have done 90 dogs in that time," she said.
Her time at "Camp Collie" -- a termed coined by those involved -- was cut short, though.
Allegedly, the accused filed a restraining order and charges of stalking against Henricksen when word spread to Lethcoe-Harman that they were both from the same area.
Henricksen is dumbfounded by the charge since they've never had prior contact.
"I didn't know her and had no prior experiences with her," Henricksen said. "It's not up to me to decide if they were right or wrong, and I've made no judgments against them."
The financial loss of the trip was two-fold for Henricksen, since she had to close shop at Groomingdales to make the trip, and because she opted not to stay for the entire 30 days after the charges were filed, thus losing money on her flight.
She said she believed it was best for the dogs if she returned home, rather than getting tied up in litigation over the matter.
However, she remained optimistic in light of the financial setbacks and even donated the 200 pounds of shampoos, conditioners and ear-cleaning solutions she brought with her.
"I went for the greater service and the emotional crises is more than the money lost," she said. "I'm sad I couldn't do more for (the dogs)."
The events of the ordeal these dogs suffered began in October, when U.S. Customs agents at the border patrol station in Sweetgrass, Mont., arrested the Harmans for allegedly transporting 166 collies, two spaniel mixes, two shelties, a Jack Russell terrier and 11 cats in an inhumane manner and in unacceptable conditions.
The dogs, which were transported in a 40-foot trailer, were reported to be lying in a four-inch thick soup of urine and feces. Further, all the dogs were suffering from severe dehydration and malnutrition. One dog was found dead.
The Harmans' animals were seized, and the couple is being charged with 182 counts of animal cruelty. Each count carries a fine of up to $500 and-or up to six months in jail.
A jury trial is set for Tuesday. If convicted, Lethcoe-Harman also will be fined $2,000 by the American Kennel Club and will lose all AKC privileges for a minimum of 10 years.
Since the arrest, Toole County Search and Rescue workers, sheriff deputies, veterinarians, humane society employees and local volunteers in Shelby banded together to begin triage on the animals.
The dogs currently are being housed in sheep pens at the fairgrounds while they are rehabilitated back to health.
The continuing events are taking their toll on the financial and emotional resources of those involved. Even with the donated equipment and supplies, Toole County officials said it is still costing $35,000 a month to care for the animals.
Currently, the Harmans are out on bond. The dogs being nursed back to health in Montana still belong to them unless they're proven guilty in court -- a concept that has many animal advocates scared and appalled.
"I hope they don't get their dogs back," said Leslie Batchelder, owner of Tarma Grooming and a member of the Kenai Kennel Club. "What they did with those dogs was insane."
The writing was on the wall for Batchelder. She was well aware of several complaints against the Harmans that were reported to Alaska State Troopers, and they had been banned from attending training classes and shows due to the poor condition of their dogs, she said.
"We knew this was coming," Batchelder said. "It's impossible for two people to care for that many dogs."
The Harmans have pleaded innocent to the charges of animal cruelty. In a recent story in The Great Falls Tribune, a Montana newspaper, the couple said they provided food and water, cleaned and allowed the dogs to exercise during the drive.
However, diagnostic examinations by veterinarians revealed the deteriorated health of the dogs appeared long-term. Some of the more unusual observations they've made included raw noses and nails bent backward, suggesting the dogs were trying to claw their way out of their enclosures.
Also, identification tattoos were located on the penis sheath of some male dogs, as opposed to the inner thigh, which is more typical for this procedure.
A prospective dog buyer from Holland created a Web site at www.gironet.nl/home/collie2/valiant and has posted images of the Harmans property from 1999 that display dilapidated and overcrowded pens. Reports of "hot-wired" pens used to shock the dogs away from fences also have surfaced, but little evidence of the previous housing conditions for the dogs remains on their property.
The Harmans have been unavailable for comment, but Scott Albers, the couple's attorney in Great Falls, has stated if the Harmans lose in the courtroom in January, he will appeal their case. An appeal would further the existence and expense of Camp Collie.
Donations are being accepted to maintain the facilities. Checks can be made out to Toole County Communities Collie Rescue Fund, First State Bank, 260 Main St., Shelby, MT 59474. The bank's telephone number is (406) 434-5567.
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