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Defense says Customs real culprit in case of dog cruelty

Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. (AP) -- An attorney for two Alaska residents charged with nearly 200 counts of animal cruelty told a Justice Court jury Wednesday that U.S. Customs Service officials made a difficult situation worse.

Scott Albers said John Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman of Nikiski were victims of unfortunate circumstances but not negligent in any way.

Customs officials held their truckload of mostly collie dogs overnight at the Sweet Grass border crossing, meaning the cargo trailer wasn't getting any of the fresh air that would have circulated had the rig been moving down the highway, Albers said.

He repeatedly said that once the Harmans were pulled over they had no way to adequately provide fresh air to the animals.

''In no way were (the Harmans) negligent,'' Albers said.

The first four witnesses called by the prosecution suggested otherwise. They described in detail what they found when they stopped the Harmans' truck the night of Oct. 31, 2002. In the back of the truck were 179 collies and other animals locked in kennels containing urine and feces, they said. The dogs were shivering in zero-degree weather with frozen particles of waste clinging to their coats, the witnesses said.

Another dog and cat were found in the cab of the truck.

''There's no justification for treating these animals this way,'' Toole County Attorney Merle Raph said.

The Harmans have pleaded innocent to 181 counts of cruelty to animals. If convicted, they face a maximum $500 fine and-or six months in prison on each count. They may also be required to give up their animals and reimburse Toole County for the cost of their care.

The jury of four men and two women were taken to the Marias Fairgrounds to look at the trailer used to transport the dogs and then to what is now known as ''Camp Collie,'' a metal 4-H barn where most of the animals are being kept.

Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland allowed Lethcoe-Harman to go pen by pen describing each collie by name.

In an hour-long opening statement, Albers sought to shift the focus from the condition of the animals when they crossed the border to Lethcoe-Harman's renown for trying to weed out a condition called Collie Eye Anomaly. In a state as isolated as Alaska, Lethcoe-Harman needed a large number of dogs to test her breeding theories, Albers said.

As the trial proceeds, Albers said, jurors will learn about the ''misfortune after misfortune after misfortune'' that befell the Harmans as they set about trying to move their dogs from Alaska to a new home and kennel in Arizona.

Raph said the state would prove there was no excuse for confining their animals as cruelly as the Harmans did or in failing to provide them food, water and adequate shelter. Officials have said the dogs were malnourished, severely dehydrated, sick and stressed when they were unloaded at the fairgrounds the afternoon of Nov. 1. One dog died on the trip.

Customs inspector Steve Hurtig testified that the strong ammonia smell inside the truck suggested several days' worth of feces and urine had built up inside the dogs' kennels. Urine had trickled out of the truck and frozen on the sides, he said.

Customs inspector Russell Hancock said some of the smaller dogs were placed two to a kennel. He and Toole County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Lamey both testified that portable chain-link partitions blocked the aisleways, making it impossible to walk from the rear to the front of the trailer.



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